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Chanel: The making of an icon

Chanel: The making of an icon

She was shrewd, chic and on the cutting edge: Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel’s clothes changed the way women looked and how they looked at themselves. Patty Huntington reveals how the brand she created has become one of the world’s most profitable, not to mention influential, fashion forces.

Over the course of 2018, the late Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel’s artistic director for 35 years, transported his runway show audience to a forest, a beach, a 100-metre-long luxury cruise liner and ancient Egypt, among other places. In all but one case, no one set foot outside the 8th arrondissement of Paris.

A 19th-century exhibition hall located adjacent to the Champs-Élysées, the Grand Palais has been Chanel’s preferred show location for the past 13 years, with the venue’s cavernous, glass-domed Nave used to deliver cinematic-scale shows that leave audiences agape. There has been a Chanel-branded rocket ship, a scale replica of the Eiffel Tower, a Chanel supermarket and even a 265-tonne iceberg – shipped in from Sweden.

Karl Lagerfeld with Adut Akech at Chanel Spring/Summer 2019 Ready-to-Wear © Guillaume Sanner
Coco Chanel in 1936 © Boris Lipnitzki Photography, courtesy Chanel

At 85, Lagerfeld was just two years younger than the brand’s founder, Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel, was when she passed away in January 1971 at her apartment in the Ritz Paris. An equally indefatigable octogenarian, Coco was not retired at the time, but in fact in the midst of putting the finishing touches on her latest spring collection, 61 years after she founded the maison in Paris.

Born into poverty in 1883, Coco was abandoned after her mother’s death, sent to live in an orphanage in provincial France where she was raised – and taught to sew – by Cistercian nuns. After a brief career as a music hall singer, Coco segued into the fashion business, opening a millinery boutique called Chanel Modes at 21 rue Cambon in 1910.

“I set the fashion for a quarter century because I knew how to express my own time. My time was ready for me, waiting. All I had to do was come on the scene.”

Over the course of her often controversial life – which saw her accused of being a Nazi collaborator during WWII – Coco created one of the fashion industry’s most iconic brands, not to mention what is considered to be the best-selling fragrance of all time: Chanel N°5.

Along with Paul Poiret, Coco is also credited with liberating women from the constraints of the corsetry of the post-WWI era and ushering in a new, sporty silhouette. She pioneered the use of menswear fabrics such as jersey and tweeds, and popularised costume jewellery, trousers, sun-kissed skin and the boyish bob haircut of the Flapper era. Perhaps her most famous achievement, however, was the ‘invention’ of the little black dress. First launched in 1926, using a colour previously reserved for mourning, the future wardrobe classic was hailed by American Vogue as Chanel’s “Ford”, referencing Henry Ford’s Model T.

Cruise 2018/19 Collection finale © Olivier Saillant

Lagerfeld was at Chanel’s creative helm from 1983 until his death on 19 February 2019, and while Coco developed and grew the brand, the German-born designer – who also had his own label and had been the creative director of Fendi since 1965 – is widely credited with reinvigorating it. Over 36 years, he reinterpreted Chanel’s ‘house codes’, infusing them with modernity and, in so doing, shepherded the label to the colossus it is today.

According to Interbrand’s 2018 list of the Best Global Brands, Chanel now sits at number 23, with an estimated brand value of US$20 billion – only $8 billion behind the top-ranked fashion brand Louis Vuitton, sitting at number 18, but well ahead of Hermès and Gucci. It was Chanel’s first appearance on the list in nine years, with Interbrand highlighting its “authenticity”, “clarity” and “engagement”; the latter also saw Chanel named as 2017’s most influential luxury brand on social media by marketing platform InsightPool.

Detail from Chanel’s 2018 Métiers d’Art Show in New York

Then in June, the independent French company – privately owned by brothers Alain and Gérard Wertheimer – took the highly unusual step of disclosing its full year sales results for the first time in its 108-year history: US$9.62 billion for 2017, up a healthy 11 per cent on the previous year.

The brand’s rise and Coco’s rags-to-riches story has been chronicled in a score of biographies and Chanel biopics; there was even a Broadway show: 1969’s Coco, starring Katharine Hepburn in her only stage musical. According to a March 1931 profile of the designer in The New Yorker, Coco was “a dressmaker who grew rich launching the genre pauvre”.

“I set the fashion for a quarter century, because I knew how to express my own time,” she said in a rare filmed interview that appeared in the 1989 documentary Chanel, Chanel. “My time was ready for me, waiting. All I had to do was come on the scene.”

Chanel Spring Summer 2019 Ready-to-Wear finale © Lucile Perron
Chanel Fall Winter 2018 Ready-to-Wear © Olivier Saillant
Chanel Spring Summer 2019 Ready-to-Wear © Kim Weston Arnold
Chanel Métiers d’Art 2018, New York © Olivier Saillant
Backstage at Chanel Spring Summer 2019 Ready-to-Wear © Chanel

This article originally appeared in volume 32 of Signature Luxury Travel & Style magazine. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.

LEAD IMAGE: CHANEL FALL WINTER 2018 READY-TO-WEAR © OLIVIER SAILLANT

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