Once belonging to Coco Chanel and the Duke of Westminster, an iconic mansion in the Scottish Highlands sits abandoned. But behind closed doors, the magnificent estate gives an inside look into Chanel's mysterious life.
Inside The Rosehall Estate
Back in the 1920s, Coco Chanel and Hugh Grosvenor, the second Duke of Westminster, began a romantic relationship. The fashionista and the Duke spent much of their time in their magnificent home, Rosehall Estate.
At the time, the Duke was one of the richest men in the world, and Coco was out to build her empire. Coco had decorated the elaborate mansion herself. However, it had been abandoned for over 50 years. Despite the villa being deserted, many traces of their lavish lifestyle remain today, begging the question: who was Coco Chanel?
Born in 1883 in Saumur, France, as Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, the fashion mogul didn’t always lead the life of luxury. She grew up impoverished to hard-working parents in a one-room apartment with her parents and siblings. But she knew that she was destined for success from a young age.
The young girl realized at age 12, “Without money, you are nothing, that with money you can do anything… I would say to myself over and over, ‘Money is the key to freedom.’” The family led a simple and humble lifestyle. But unfortunately, more hardships were on their way.
Sent to an Orphanage
At the young age of 11, Coco’s mother had passed away from bronchitis, leaving her and her siblings with their father. Shortly after their mothers’ death, her father, Albert, sent all his children off. The young boys went to work on a farm, while the girls were sent to live in an orphanage.
Hard to see at the time, Coco learned skills at the orphanage that would later help contribute to the success of her fashion house. The girls learned a thing or two about sewing from the nuns at the orphanage, and the black and white garb would also later inspire her renowned worldly aesthetic.
At 18 years old, the young girl left the orphanage and worked as a seamstress in a tailor’s shop. Chanel would sing at a cabaret, Moulins, with her aunt Adrienne during the evenings. Only a year apart in age, the duo would perform side by side for extra money, but this is where she made her debut as Coco.
Coco would often be asked to perform encores by the crowd yelling, "Coco! Coco!" "Coco" is a French term for a child or kept woman. While it wasn't made clear which meaning the audience meant for her exactly, "Coco" eventually stuck. But soon, one specific member in the audience would change Coco's life forever.
Introduced to a Life of Luxury
Coco met many men at Moulins by working cabaret nights, but soon one, in particular, stood out: the handsome Etienne Balsan, a French ex-cavalry officer and textile heir. Late, he would become the key to Chanel’s millinery business and help launch her business dreams.
The young 23-year-old started dating Balsan as she started designing and selling women’s hats. Through his influential connections, Coco’s fashion career started taking off, and she was able to relish in the life of luxury she always craved. But just three years later, their relationship began experiencing some problems.
The First of Many Great Loves
Chanel was introduced to Captain Arthur Edward 'Boy' Capel in 1908, and the charismatic English man quickly took to the young designer. "He was one of the most important people in her life, if not the key person," writer and biographer Lisa Chaney explained.
Capel helped Chanel get her business growing financially, but his influence over her went far beyond the money as she was fascinated by his fashion techniques. Capel’s out-of-the-ordinary design technique incorporated atypical fabrics and tied together comfort and fashion.
Soon after, Coco's designs were nationally known, and she opened three Parisian boutiques, one of which landed a spot of the iconic Rue Cambon. Chanel was in "two worlds that are... mutually exclusive: the world of society... and... of the artist," said Chaney.
As her success grew, Chanel found herself around artists and aristocrats, getting tied into all things glitz and glam. Her lunches had "the most glittering, famous and interesting wits," recalled film director Luchino Visconti. Little did she know, things were soon to change.
“He Was... My Entire Family”
An unbreakable bond, Chanel and Capel shared a deep relationship; “He was my father, my brother, my entire family.” In 1918, Arthur married Diana Wyndham, but the duo remained good friends. However, in December of 1919, Arthur passed away in a tragic car accident, devastating Coco.
“I lost everything when I lost Capel. He left a void in me that years have not filled,” Coco confessed. “His death was a terrible blow to me.” She used her mourning time to bury herself in work and create what would later be known as the emblematic Chanel label.
The Idea Behind the Chanel Logo
The young fashionista met Russian-French perfumer Ernest Beaux shortly after Capel’s death. And despite the loss she was still struggling with, he assisted her in creating the one and only Chanel No. 5. The iconic interlocking “Cs” logo first appeared around 1924 on the fragrance bottle.
Many theories exist around where the interlocking “Cs” came from, but the most common represents the bond between Capel and Chanel. But she herself never confirmed this theory. And as the famed symbol came to life and was put on necklaces, earrings, and handbags, Coco met her next great suitor.
Becoming Part of Europe’s Elite
Chanel had become a well-respected designer and quickly became a part of Europe’s high class. From social encounters with icons such as Picasso and Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, the grandson of Tsar Alexander II, Chanel said, “Society people amuse me more than others." She added, “They have a wit, tact, a charming disloyalty.”
“They know how to arrive at the right time and to leave when necessary,” she added. As her career progressed, in the mid-1920s, the designer achieved British societal success; however, the young aristocrat would soon be spending time away from the luxurious party life and in the Scottish countryside with a great love.
The Start of a Great Love Story
The girl who grew up in a life of poverty is now a woman of high class and British royalty, mingling with the likes of Winston Churchill and the Prince of Wales. In 1923, on a trip to Monte Carlo, Coco met one of the richest men in the world, Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor, the Duke of Westminster.
The Duke was instantly smitten by the designer, and shortly after, a grand love affair commenced. From luxurious jewelry pieces to exquisite art, the Duke lavished Coco with a life of luxury. However, the most outstanding was the elaborate homes Grosvenor gifted her.
Coco & Duke's Lavish Life
Being the richest man in Britain, the aristocrat had been previously married and had two daughters. The couple lived a lavish lifestyle, continuously hosting gatherings and attending A-list parties. Holding such high stature, the connections helped Coco create relationships that supported her business.
Of the many properties throughout Europe, the couple had a particular affinity towards the magical mansion in the Highlands. Among the Highlands homes, Grosvenor also owned a country house in Chesire, Eaton Hall, and a retreat in London, Bourdon House.
Their Private Love Nest
The grand 700-acre Scottish property belonging to the Duke, Rosehall Estate, was originally built in 1820 and later became an extraordinary place for the couple to reside. The loved-up duo spent ample time on the property and even hosted family and friends.
The Duke and Coco had more than enough room for the two of them to enjoy the 700 acres of land, five outbuildings, and beautiful views over the Scottish Highlands. Nonetheless, the Duke wanted to gift Coco her own home to decorate to add that special touch.
Creating La Pausa
In 1927, the Duke purchased a large plot of land for Coco on the French Riviera, where she eventually built her villa, La Pausa. La Pausa has since been described as “the most comfortable, relaxing place…” by Bettina Ballard, 1940s US Vogue editor. What made it so alluring?
Chanel worked alongside architect Robert Streitz to turn her dream home into a La Pausa reality. She used elements from her days at the orphanage to inspire the patio and staircase design. The designer took her talents to the Scottish Highlands, where she redesigned the extravagant mansion, deeply loved by her and the Duke.
Adding Her Chanel Touch
The massive Scottish estate was set in luscious nature. The couples’ mansion held 22 rooms, which Coco redecorated with her Parisian touch. The fabulous getaway home was set in neutral color tones and displayed her unique aesthetic and eye for detail.
“The striking simplicity, with shades of beige and basic… chimney pieces in painted timber, would have been significantly radical for its time,” gushed the Historic Environment Scotland, further explaining Coco's impeccable taste and style. One can only imagine the style and taste draped around the house.
Ties To Winston Churchill
The dynamic duo often hosted "who's who" of the time, including Winston Churchill. The couple became good friends of Churchill and were often caught fishing together. "This is a very agreeable house in a Highland valley," Churchill said about the famous property. "The air is most exhilarating, keen and yet caressing," he added.
The more Churchill knew about Coco, the more he grew an affinity towards her. “[Chanel] fishes from morn till night…” he said. “She is… a really gt [great] and strong fit to a rule a man or an Empire. Bennie [the Duke] very well, and I think extremely happy to be mated with an equal,” he wrote to his wife in 1927.
Her Extravagant Parties
Coco was known for planning the most extravagant parties in Paris. The designer only threw the most beautifully styled and highly ostentatious gatherings, resembling her fashion taste. A guest recalled a “multitude of peonies” that covered the tables and parties, which “made several people envious.” One can only imagine.
“As always, she flirted with the men… Pretending she was completely captivated, when suddenly pfft! Nobody there!... She disappeared around two in the morning so as not to miss her beauty sleep,” another guest revealed. Regardless, men were mesmerized by Coco.
"A Virtual Tour de Force"
Coco had met the Prince of Wales, Edward VIII, through her friend Vera Bate Lombardi, a highly well-known British socialite. Despite her romantic relationship with the Duke, the Prince of Wales was immediately smitten by the fashionista and had his eyes set on her.
However, it was exposed, “The passionate, focused and fiercely independent Chanel, a virtual tour de force,” and the Prince of Wales “Had a great romantic moment together,” according to Vogue editor Diana Vreeland. In spite of her relationship with the Duke, it appeared there had been some difficulties in Chanel’s paradise.
Coco and the Duke Part Ways
Ten years into Grosvenor and Coco’s romantic relationship, their passion started to fade. Sure enough, the two called things off. The couple spent less time in their beautiful Scottish mansion, and eventually, the Duke married Loelia Mary Ponsonby in 1930.
Ponsonby was a magazine editor and apparently was not his first choice. The Duke had previously proposed to Chanel, but she declined. When asked why, her direct answer was, “There have been several Duchesses of Westminster-there is only one Chanel.” She continued building her empire, but little did she know what awaited her.
Coming To Hollywood
The fashion mogul visited Monte Carlo in 1931 with Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, where she was introduced to film producer Samuel Goldwyn. He later offered the designer a million dollars (about $75 million today) to design costumes for MGM in Hollywood twice a year.
Coco was interviewed by Colliers magazine regarding her newest fashion venture. In 1932, traveling from New York to California via a personalized train carriage, the designer told the magazine she was going to Hollywood to “see what the pictures have to offer me and what I have to offer the pictures.”
Coco Faced Ridicule by Many
However, her Hollywood dream did not go as planned. Coco’s previously praised European design went against Hollywood’s bold wardrobe. “[She] made a lady look like a lady. Hollywood wants a lady to look like two ladies,” The New Yorker wrote regarding her neutral color palette and tweeds.
Chanel felt threatened by her rival, Elsa Schiaparelli, but she continued by creating the wardrobe for a Jean Cocteau theatre piece. However, she faced ridicule over the looks, with critics saying, "The actors looked like… mummies or victims of some terrible accident." But soon, another obstacle was hurled her way.
Fashion During a War
When Great Britain announced the war in September 1939, Chanel was working with artist Salvador Dali to produce a Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. However, the designer decided to head back to Paris and ended up closing her shops as the war continued to unravel.
The designer experienced endless criticism upon her store closings when 4,000 employees lost their jobs. Chanel remained in Paris during the Nazi occupation of France, and during this time, she found herself intertwined with a high-level German officer - raising many questions.
Relationships With German Diplomats
Throughout the German occupation, the designer stayed at the Hotel Ritz. This hotel was the desired place for all prestigious German military staff. It was later unveiled that her time at the Hotel Ritz was arranged by Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a German officer.
Since 1920, the high-ranking German diplomat, former Prussian army officer, and Attorney General had been involved with military intelligence. The relationship was called into question, leaving people to wonder how Coco went from living the lavish British socialite life to living in the Ritz.
The Truth About Her Relationships
During the war, Chanel’s relationship with the German diplomat highly benefited her. Coco had been given a comfortable lifestyle at the Ritz without fully feeling the financial downfall of the war. By dating Dincklage, she could also withstand her elite status in French society. Very crucial.
The relationship further benefited Chanel when Coco’s nephew, Andrew Palasse was imprisoned. Palasse was in a German Stalag, or prisoner of war camp, and Chanel's lover was able to help get him freed. She additionally was able to use these connections to her advantage when it came to business.
Fighting for Justice
After a business deal went wrong in 1924, it was time to use Dincklage and other German officials to her advantage. In a previous deal to sell the highly sought out Chanel No. 5 perfume in department stores, the fashionista's name was plastered on the bottle - but received only 10% of the profits. Something didn't add up.
The perfume bottle was mass-produced by businessman Pierre Wertheimer, who received 70% of the perfume’s profits. So, where did the other 30% go? Well, 20% went to Galeries Lafayette founder Theophile Bader, who brokered the deal, leaving Chanel with only 10%. The entrepreneur fought the arrangement for four years in court.
Battling the Wertheimers
Coco Chanel was furious, perhaps rightfully so. The family hired a lawyer to handle all of Chanel’s matters, as the designer went after the Wertheimer family to get the justice she craved. Coco continued to use her relationships with the German occupation to assist in her revenge plot.
Thinking ahead, the Wertheimer family sold their position to a third party in order to not lose everything to Chanel. Coco could not take down the Wertheimer family, and her connections with the high-profile German occupation would soon be called into question.
She Was Called a Spy
In 1945 when the war ended, Chanel was questioned about her ties to von Dincklage and the entire German occupation. It was later exposed the French police kept a file on Chanel describing her as “Couturier and perfumer. Pseudonym: Westminster. Agent reference: F7124.”
Assigning Coco an official spy number, the police continued their investigation, but no official charges were ever pressed, allegedly due to intervention by Churchill. Soon after, she left for Switzerland but had no idea what she would later find at her precious Rosehall Estate.
Tragedy at the Estate
After leaving for Switzerland, Chanel later found out that the Duke of Westminster, her old lover, was fighting massive health battles. Unfortunately, Grosvenor passed away in 1953 at the beautiful Scottish estate he and Coco had built a life in together all those years ago.
Shortly after his tragic death, the mansion was abandoned, with future documentation showing how the house was left. The estate was untouched for years, revealing damaged walls and unkempt floors. Remnants from Chanel’s past remained untouched, only to be discovered years later.
Revival of Coco Chanel
After living in Switzerland for nine years, Coco Chanel finally returned to Paris! In 1954, she returned to France to open her beloved couture house. Fifteen whole years after closing her stores in the early ‘30s, Chanel was ready to re-enter the fashion world as the icon she truly is - but it wasn’t going to be easy.
Regarding her 1954 revival collection, the French press was not taking such a liking to the designer. They were not quick to forgive and forget about her collaboration with their enemy during the war, and she became more isolated over time. Chanel passed away on January 10, 1971, at the ripe age of 87.
Finally Revisiting the Estate
For over five decades, the once magnificent mansion was abandoned entirely. Eventually, well after Chanel’s death, urban explorer Matt Nadin entered the property in complete awe. “Some of the rooms were absolutely massive,” he said. “Some of the windows must have been 15 feet tall….” The height of luxury.
However, being vacant for so long, “it was riddled with damp, and the walls were full of cracks.” After continuously exploring, Nadin found untouched treasures belonging to the couple from ever so long ago. “It was fascinating wondering which room Coco Chanel would have slept in and the wild parties that would have gone on.”
Upon his explorations, Nadin uncovered luxurious treasures that once belonged to Chanel herself. He found a dusty old chaise lounge, which he envisioned Coco lounging in, a horse-drawn fire-engine cart, an ancient range cooker, and a pair of skis. But that wasn't all.
The more Nadin searched, the more he found. The mansion contained a variety of fireplaces elaborate furniture pieces from beds to wardrobes to dressers. The once very alive estate was looking for its’ next adventure, and soon it would have people roam the halls yet again.
The property was well protected and belonged to various estate agencies before RE/MAX marketed it for about $3.9 million. The once vibrant and beautiful home belonging to the couple went unsold for over four years - but finally, it was bought for an unknown amount years later.
Initially, the plan was to turn the famous mansion into a luxury boutique hotel, so visitors from all over could spend a few nights lounging under the same quarters Coco Chanel once did. However, many were turned off due to the designer's accusations of being a German spy.
Was Chanel Really a Spy?
After endless years, Chanel's integrity was still questioned. But in 2014, the French intelligence released post-World War II documents, and Chanel's story unfolded. Upon their release, the papers clarified her involvement with the German intelligence and her role in assisting Germany to take control of Madrid.
Madame Gabrielle Labrunie, Chanel’s grand-niece, came out with a statement saying, “You know… these were very difficult times, and people had to do very terrible things to get along.” Despite her appearance in the public eye to some, the Chanel brand continued to thrive.
Agent F-7124's Missions
It was later discovered that Chanel was working for the Germans to release her nephew from imprisonment. Her ex-German lover, Gunther von Dincklage, created many valuable relationships for Coco, one being Baron Louis de Vaufreland. As for what that called for?
Vaufreland later was a big help for Chanel. In exchange for her services to Berlin, the high-ranking German official would help free Coco’s nephew. Chanel, officially known as Agent F-7124, traveled to Madrid on a “business trip” to move towards her goal of getting her nephew released.
Hiding Her Identity
The fashion mogul turned spy used her awe-inspiring networking skills to her benefit. On the “business trip,” she aimed to attain information from high-level authority officials in the Spanish capital and keep a low profile - so that no one was to suspect a thing!
During her time in Madrid, Chanel hid her identity well. In Hal Vaughan's book, Sleeping with the Enemy, he details her time in Madrid, discussing her personal life in Paris to gain information that eventually led to her nephews' freedom. Next up: Operation Model Hat.
As the war continued, in 1943, Germany was losing its power - and that’s when Chanel was tapped in for her next mission. General Walter Schellenberg of the SS gave Coco her next assignment. Schellenberg assigned Coco “Operation Modellhut,” German for “model hat.” Perhaps very fitting for a fashion designer.
Operation Model Hat was Coco’s next big mission. Chanel was ordered to use her personal relationship with the new prime minister, Winston Churchill, to her advantage to provide him with Intel regarding the status of the SS senior officials. Many SS senior officials were looking to end the war.
Coco’s Identity Was Nearly Exposed
Things got complicated when Chanel used her connections to get a mutual friend of hers and Churchill out of Italian Prison. Apparently, their mutual friend Vera Lombardi was released thanks to their help. She then accompanied Coco and von Dincklage to Madrid.
Vera was handed the responsibility to hand over the message from the Germans to Prime Minister of England, Winston Churchill. However, Lombardi revealed Chanel’s true identity as a German spy. Chanel was able to return to Paris using her various connections, and Lombardi was put back into jail.
Sleeping with the Enemy
The fashion designer was able to keep her identity a secret well after the war ended. According to Hal Vaughan’s Sleeping with the Enemy, Chanel went to great extremes in order to keep her involvement with the Germans a secret. Specifically, her involvement with Operation Model Hat, as it involved Churchill.
Schellenberg, the German officer who assigned Chanel with Operation Model Hat, planned on writing a post-war memoir - and Chanel panicked he would include details about her involvement. Schellenberg was ill at the time, and Coco covered his medical expenses in order to leave her story out of the memoir.
Leaving Her Mark
Luckily, the memoir did not include a Coco chapter, and the fashion icon turned spy passed away without facing any consequences for her betrayal. The iconic designer left her mark well after her death - and can still be seen on the streets of Europe today!
Throughout the Westminster area of London, Chanel had made her presence known. Look no further than the iconic Chanel logo, displayed on black lampposts throughout the neighborhood. The tale says the Duke of Westminster had her initials placed on the lampposts to leave a permanent Coco mark.
Her Fashion Influence
From European lampposts to the runway, traces of Chanel and the Duke of Westminster’s great love affair are still very prominent in fashion. The loving Duke helped give Chanel everything - from her beautiful mansion to his influence over her style and fashion.
Chanel's iconic tweed suits were heavily influenced by the Duke of Westminster's love for fishing and hunting clothes. These tweed suits became a staple in Coco's collections, specifically her fair isle sweaters in her 2019 collection. It seems the designer's pieces will never go out of style.
Coining the Little Black Dress
Well after her death, Coco Chanel’s passions and interests continued to influence her multi-million-dollar brand. Without a doubt, her designs completely revolutionized fashion as we know it today- with pieces like the iconic “little black dress” or LBD.
Initially coined by Vogue in 1926, they printed a Chanel dress and gave it the name “the little black dress” by defining it as “the frock that all the world will wear.” And the name kept. The groundbreaking design took over, as black was formerly seen as a mourning color, not for style.
The 2.55 Chanel Shoulder Bag Was Born
What other household pieces do we have to thank Chanel for? The 2.55 Chanel Shoulder Bag. Despite all the criticism she faced, the fashionista made her come back after World War II and proved she was revolutionizing fashion. In the 1950s, a lady would carry a purse in her hands, and Chanel changed that idea.
The 2.55 Chanel Shoulder Bag was released in February 1955. The beautifully crafted quilted leather purse had a gold chain strap and her signature logo in the middle. The design attracted women far and wide, as women were ready to wear the shoulder bag. But how did her empire continue without Coco herself?
Karl Lagerfeld Stepped In
The iconic brand suffered upon the fashion moguls’ death on January 10, 1971. Her assistants did all in their power to continue the brand’s legacy, but it wasn’t until 12 years later that Karl Lagerfeld became Chanel’s creative director. With his powerful eye, the legendary fashion house continued strongly.
Lagerfeld organized extravagant fashion shows, including massive carousels and spaceship launchings. The creative director also kept the traditional Chanel aesthetic alive through its continued use of muted colors, quilt-stitched leathers, and gold chains.
The Wertheimer Legacy Remains
Despite being under the direction of Lagerfeld, Chanel is still owned by the Wertheimer family. The Wertheimer family had reclaimed full ownership over their investment in the brand, despite Chanel’s attempts to take them down after the war for all that previously happened.
In the name of fashion, the family even helped Coco's fashion revival in the '50s. The company is now owned by Pierre Wertheimer's grandchildren, Gerad and Alain. Not only does Chanel's legacy live on through her worldwide stores and beautiful runway shows, but it is also reflected by modern women's fashion today.
Leaving an Everlasting Influence
Chanel's iconic aesthetic has left a stamp on the fashion industry. Despite her work as a double agent, she dominated the fashion world as the Coco Chanel. Her glamorous lifestyle, elaborate get-togethers, foreign lovers, and intricate designs captured the eyes of many.
Since the designer's death, there have been multiple films about her life. Coco Before Chanel (2008) and Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (2009) gave the inside scoop into how she built her fashion empire and intimate personal relationships. However, few movies can fully capture her whirlwind romances with fashion escapades.