Chanel fashions are a classic; maybe because the haute couture house has been doing it right since its founding in 1909. To this day, the double C’s are coveted amongst mostly any woman and the brand’s fashion shows are packed with it-girls and models of the moment, all there for a slice of Chanel luxury. Although many of us see Chanel through the tinted-lenses of Karl Lagerfeld, who took over the House in 1983, he wasn’t always the creative behind the classic tweeds and quilted handbags. Long before Karl there was Coco.
Gabrielle Chanel was born in Saumur, France in 1883 and sent to an orphanage at the age of 12, where she learned to sew, a skill that would prove to be invaluable to her. But how did Gabrielle turn into to Coco? Before she became the Chanel we know today, Gabrielle worked as a singer, performing in clubs around Vichy and Moulins where she was dubbed “Coco,” a nickname that would clearly stand the test of time. At just 20 years old, Coco Chanel met Etienne Balsan, who helped her open her first millinery shop, where ladies flocked to get her chic hats. Shortly after, she became romantically involved with Arthur “Boy” Capel, who financed her famed shop on Rue Cambon in 1910, where she established Chanel Modes, a millinery salon. It’s here where her career truly takes off, as the young designer makes waves by breaking fashion rules and by designing timeless staples that would come to stand the test of time. Click through to take a look at the top six most iconic designs from the one and only, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel.
Male influences in her designs
In the early 1920’s, the silhouette of a woman was artificially created through the use of crinolines and corsets. The bust, waist and hips were cinched and tightened in order to achieve the sought-after and much exaggerated hourglass effect. But that’s not what Chanel was about. Rather than conform to popular fashion, Chanel broke the rules and introduced women to practical designs that were as comfortable as they were chic. And she borrowed a couple of things from the boys. Her greatest muse was the love of her life, Arthur “Boy” Capel. As a driving force in her career, he inspired her designs in many ways through his own style. Chanel was often seen in his clothing, donning a pullover sweater of his, for example, or borrowing his sportswear to incorporate into her own outfits. Her looser fitting, borrowed-from-the-boys clothing, was not constricting or stuffy and women wanted it. They soon got it, as Chanel began designing for the Parisian who’s who and women flocked to her for her fresh fashions. We even have Chanel to thank for trousers, as it was her who introduced them into womenswear; before then it was a garment strictly reserved for men. Her designs were boxy and loose, not fitted, and Chanel raised hemlines and dropped waists. Her fashions were practical and uncluttered thanks to her keen eye of design, her intuition and for taking a few cues from her male counterparts.
As women began embracing Chanel’s new wave of design and dressing themselves in a new silhouette, it was time they had a fragrance to match. Before Chanel’s famed No. 5, scents were heavily laced with floral notes, such as lilac, rose and jasmine. In true Chanel fashion, she changed all of that with Chanel No. 5, which was composed of 80 different ingredients, making her perfume much more complex and layered than any other on the market. Chanel was one of the first fashion designers to put her name to a fragrance and she quickly replaced typical perfume packaging for a sleek, simple, clear glass vessel. As for its name, it’s said that Chanel had an affinity for the number five. It was a recurring number in her life and when she was presented with test samples of her fragrance, from numbers one to five and then 10 to 24, she chose the fifth as her signature scent. Its official launch date was May 5, 1921 in her Parisian boutique and the name No. 5 was also used so as to not define the perfume by a single descriptive note. This way, the fragrance remained classic, modern and timeless all at once. It’s been worn by Marilyn Monroe, endorsed by Nicole Kidman and to this day, Chanel No. 5 is still one of the best selling fragrances in the world.
Little Black Dress
While Chanel might not have invented the little black dress, she certainly did popularize it. In the early 1920’s, black was a color strictly reserved for mourning, considered indecent if worn anytime else. But it was in a 1926 edition of American Vogue that Chanel published a sketch of a simple, short all-black dress. Vogue deemed it “Chanel’s Ford” because, like the car company’s Model T, this little black dress was effortless and women spanning any social class could easily wear one, and look good in it. Vogue also stated that the little black dress would become a “sort of uniform for all women of taste.” And alas, the little black dress as we know it today was born.
We can thank Coco Chanel for the statement necklaces and fun fake baubles seen today in retailers worldwide. It was as early as the 1930’s that she began making jewelry, which until then was rarely worn unless real. As she was quickly shaping the modern woman with new fashions, a new fragrance and armed them with a new silhouette, Chanel realized the missing piece was accessories to wear alongside and compliment her casual sportswear designs. Chanel didn’t just want to dress women, she wanted to style them, and by offering women a more affordable option than real gemstones, they could properly accessorize every outfit they had. So she began designing accessories with chains, beads and glass, and Chanel herself was seldom seen without a string of fake pearls around her neck or a bejeweled cuff. She made fake jewelry fashionable, mixing them in with real gemstones, showing women that accessorizing can be easy and fun, and proving that it never hurts to wear a few things that sparkle, even if that sparkle is artificial.
There is nothing more ‘Chanel’ than a tweed jacket. Yet again inspired by menswear, Chanel took a fabric meant to be traditionally worn by men and reinvented it for women, realizing it’s sophistication and suppleness would work well with her designs. It was in 1924 that Chanel began working with the Scottish fabric, but it was only in 1954 when she designed the iconic Chanel tweed jacket. At the age of 71, and after briefly closing the house, her Maison de Couture was re-opened, reinvigorated and ready to go. In a time where the fashions were flamboyant and the market was craving modernity, it was Chanel that reinvented the fashion wheel. She gave women minimalism, straight cuts and functionality, all in one piece: the tweed jacket. Four real pockets, buttons stamped with interlocking C’s and a delicate chain sewn into the silk lining, assuring the jacket was to fall perfectly, were just some of the signature elements of the piece. Its international success was major and the tweed jacket was seen on the likes of Bridgitte Bardot and Grace Kelly, quickly becoming a fashion essential. Today, it is still a staple in any Chanel collection, as Karl Lagerfeld often plays with colors and pairings. After all, according to him there are only three things that never go out of style: t-shirts, jeans and a Chanel jacket.
The Quilted Chanel 2.55
It was soldiers, believe it or not, who inspired Chanel’s first version of a handbag. In the early 1920’s Gabrielle was tired of having to carry her handbag with her hands and drew inspiration from soldiers’ packs to tweak the design of the then traditional purse. At once, she incorporated a long, extended strap onto her own bag, making it easier and much more practical to carry. The idea stuck with her, but the first ever Chanel handbag was only put into production after the Second World War, in February 1955, hence its name. The classic flap-over bag was first made in supple lambskin, had a delicate turn-lock and was quilted to give the bag body and act as a Chanel trademark, which is still the case today, nearly 60 years later. Plus it featured a long chain strap allowing the bag to be worn at multiple lengths, just as Chanel had desired. The signature quilting was made to lineup perfectly across the front flap and back pocket of the bag, adding to its immaculate detail. Since it’s first-ever 1955 version, Karl Lagerfeld has toyed with the design of the bag while still staying true to its roots. The 2.55 now features the brand’s interlocking C logo rather than a simple gold turn-lock, but the bag still comes in a quilted version, with the signature metal and leather chain strap that is so synonymous with the Chanel brand. The 2.55 is undoubtedly the most classic of Chanel bags, still highly coveted over half a century later.