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There is no doubt that Coco Chanel is an icon, her fashion house is the most famous label in the world and her Chanel No.5, the best-selling perfume ever, and who doesn’t know of Karl Lagerfeld, the head of Chanel for more than three decades and an icon on his own?
The name Chanel is well-known all over the world, but have you ever heard of the Wertheimers, the family who owns Chanel and who’s had the majority stake in Les Perfumes Chanel since its beginning in 1924? Don’t feel bad if you haven’t; almost nobody has.
Who are they and why haven’t we heard about them?
The two brothers, Alain and Gérard Wertheimer, own the French iconic label among other privately-owned companies like Bourjois Cosmetics, Holland & Holland and Isaac Mizrahi Company, to name a few. Alain lives in New York with his wife and three children and is the chairman of the board of Chanel. Gérard, the chairman of Chanel S.A. Geneva, which runs Chanel in Europe, lives with his wife and two children in Geneva. Both brothers live very discreet lives in quiet luxury and avoid glitzy events. When they attend Chanel catwalk shows, they arrive in unpretentious cars and sit quietly in the third or fourth row so that nobody notices them. They explain that “It’s about Coco Chanel. It’s about Karl. It’s about everyone who works and creates Chanel. It’s not about the Wertheimers.” Quite refreshing in a world of fashion moguls whose names are almost as famous as the fashion houses they control, isn’t it?
How did it all begin?
The Wertheimer brothers are the grandchildren of Pierre Wertheimer, whose father left Germany to France, where he invested in the 1870s, in a small theatrical makeup company, Bourjois. Pierre’s two sons took over Bourjois and by 1920, Bourjois had already become the biggest French cosmetics and fragrance company. It is at this point that the Wertheimer family would join forces with Coco Chanel.
Pierre Wertheimer’s passion was racing horses and he began what became an impressive racing dynasty, which is run today by Gérard, with 120 horses in Chantilly, some in the haras in Normandy, others in California and Kentucky. But back to Pierre. It was through the racing horses that he met Coco Chanel, who at that time was a milliner in Paris and had created with the perfumer Ernest Beaux, a scent she called No.5, which was produced by Beaux in small amounts in his laboratory in Grasse.
The founder of the Galeries Lafayette, Théophile Bader, took Chanel to the races and introduced her to his friend, Pierre. Bader wanted to sell No.5 at the Galleries so the three made a deal that the famous perfume would be produced by Pierre’s Bourjois factory and he would earn 70% of the profits, Bader, who had introduced both, would earn 20%, and Chanel would get 10%. She later would feel the deal wasn’t fair and she fought during years with several legal suits to receive a bigger share of the profits. After the war, when the two brothers had to escape to the USA, they finally made a better deal for Chanel and in the mid-‘50s, the Wertheimers offered to Coco Chanel to pay all her expenses, including Chanel’s headquarters in Rue Cambon in exchange for the control of Chanel’s name for fashion and perfumes. After her death, they also bought the 20% that Bader still had, becoming the sole owners of the most iconic French brand, that has since, been a family-owned company.