The fashion industry is one of the very few fields that are dominated by women. With all due respect to the men in fashion through the years, the impact certain women have had in this industry are significant. It is, by many accounts, an industry focused on women, and women have, in turn, greatly responded to the heads of the field more so than men. But when it comes to naming a woman whose influence has greatly changed the industry, and the way people dress as a whole, none comes close to Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. Her life, label, and legacy are ones that have stood the test of time and continues to be relevant and significant to today.
Chanel bag before Salvatore Ferragamo fashion show in 2016. Milan, Italy. Photo: andersphoto
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Impact on Fashion
Chanel front store display in 2016. Verona, Italy. Photo: Creative Lab
No other house can boast the type of impact quite like the house of Chanel. Its journey to being found is, of itself, a revolution on how women dressed. Before Chanel, women were still wearing corsets, floor-length dresses, yards of lace, and full of embellishments. People were still opulent, but around that time was the industrial revolution, and people suddenly had to work to make a living, including women. Coco Chanel freed women from constricting garments and elaborate silhouettes, offering a look that is both contemporary (to this day) and wearable for any occasion. She’s also credited with creating the “flapper” look of the 1920’s, one of the first times women’s fashion revolutionized societal norms.
Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel came to the world on August 19, 1883. At a young age, her father left her in one orphanage, where she was raised by a nun, from whom she learned sewing. In 1910, her first boutique was opened, which was a hat shop that attracted many customers. From her hats alone, she already exemplified her refined and simple style. A few years later, she started selling sportswear made out of jersey, a fabric that was mainly used to create underwear at that time. By 1915, her haute couture atelier in Biarritz, France was opened, which eventually moved to its current and permanent home at 31 Rue Cambon in Paris in 1918.
By the 1920’s, Chanel was the most prominent couture house in all of Paris. Women loved the freeing silhouettes she designed, leading to the “flapper” look that defined the decade. Also during this decade, she ventured into cosmetics and fragrances, becoming one of the first couture labels to do so. The 1930’s saw Chanel reach her peak, becoming the best-selling the most popular couturier in the world. She was even invited by Hollywood studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to create costumes for their leading ladies.
Like with any other couture house, Chanel closed hers in the 1940’s during the Second World War. In 1954, she opened it again, but this time had a lot of pressure as Christian Dior had taken her place as the premier couturier of the era. After a rocky start, the designer and the house quickly gained prominence in fashion again, standing out with her simplistic looks against the more elaborate “New Look”. She continued on designing until 1971 when she passed away at age 82.
Karl Otto Lagerfeld at the entrace of Fendi Fashion Show during Milan Fashion Week in 2017. Credit: Marco Aprile / Shutterstock.com
A German designer by the name of Karl Lagerfeld took on the creative directorship of the house after the founder passed away. During this time, the house of Chanel wasn’t as prominent as it used to be, but Lagerfeld quickly turned things around. He incorporated all the known codes of the house, from the use of tweed to the black-and-white motif, into every shape, silhouette, style, and aesthetic he can think of. He made the Chanel woman, which had been criticized for being too refined and snobbish, younger and more playful. When the label branched into ready-to-wear, Lagerfeld’s designs got a lot quirkier and more commercial, inviting success back to the couture house and becoming the fashion giant it is today.
When it comes to signatures, the house of Chanel is arguably the richest against its haute couture counterparts. Some of the most iconic items known in the industry and beyond emanated from the house of Chanel. One of the first of these is the little black dress, which Chanel herself introduced in the 1920’s. Back then, the color black was only worn when one was mourning, but Chanel transformed it into a chic hue worn for any occasion. There’s also the iconic Chanel suit, a trademark still produced by the house today. Usually, made out of tweed, the suit gave women a supremely-sophisticated look without an elaborate silhouette.
Beyond clothing, Chanel also introduced the concept of designer perfume. To this day, the most well-known fragrance is Chanel No. 5. The scent has become so massive that it’s practically a rite of passage for a woman to have a bottle. Another is Mademoiselle Chanel, a younger and more playful scent for the ingenue. When it comes to accessories, the quilted Chanel bag is also one of the most iconic. Made of leather and paired with a gold chain strap, the item is one of the most best-selling bags in the history of luxury leather goods.
Chains and Pearls
Despite popularizing simple and minimal fashions, it’s the jewelry where the Chanel became elaborate and exuberant. The famed designer created a balance that would make the woman free and move with ease in an haute couture suit but still look expensive and glamorous. She defined a look that, to this day, is still embraced by women of all ages. It’s a look that is quintessentially French but also dictates the universality of the Chanel style. When it came to the house’s jewelry, only two stood through the years—the chains and the pearls.
Coco Chanel was always decked out in pearls, personifying the look she wanted to give women. Her clients followed suit, wearing strings of them with almost all their pieces, whether it was a little black dress, a Chanel suit, or an evening gown. Way before Audrey Hepburn’s “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” look popularized it into greater heights, Chanel was already known for her pearls. When Karl Lagerfeld took over the haute couture house, he began dressing his women with chains as a substitute to pearls. Gold chains added a sense if ruggedness yet still refined, the same way the founder feminized masculine staples of fashion to create the Chanel look.
Plume De Chanel
Even though Chanel is famous for their simple clothes and their ostentatious jewelry, their Plume De Chanel collection is the opposite. For this delicate and pristine jewelry, designed by Coco Chanel herself back in 1932, the feather is interpreted into a series of diamonds. They decorate an array of necklines, rings, pendants, and brooches—all add a touch of sparkle for any ensemble. It’s arguably their most sophisticated line, absent of all the commercialism the brand is known for. The items are precious and minimal, quite like how Chanel once envisioned her women to look like when wearing her couture creations.
The house also adapted their signature quilting into their jewelry line with “Coco Crush.” Made out of gold, silver, and diamonds, the line has the famous pattern embossed in the fine materials. It follows the house’s tradition of incorporating and interpreting their iconic signatures into each and every piece they make. Similarly to how the famous interlocking C’s and the camellias are featured in almost every Chanel item in their roster, Coco Crush proves that quilting can work as well on jewelry as it does on their leather goods. Such is the dedicationtoi brand identity that the famous French label is known and beloved for.
Adapted from the famous play, “The Lady Of The Camellias,” Coco Chanel embraced camellias. She constantly had a bouquet of them in her offices in Paris, and in her famous apartment right above her famous atelier. When Karl Lagerfeld inherited the design leadership for the brand, he adapted the founder’s love of camellias into a fashion staple.
Soon, camellias were worn as brooches, whether they were real, fabric, or made out of diamonds. Camellias also became pendants and rings, further diversifying the house’s jewelry line. Aside from the pearls and the chain, camellias became one of Chanel’s most indelible signatures, one that makes you think of the famed fashion house in an instant.
From the 1960’s to today, a lot of prominent women have become fans of the Chanel look. Silver screen icons such as Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly, and Catherine Deneuve have all worn Chanel both on and off screen. Former First Lady of the United States Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis also prominently wore Chanel throughout her life. She was even wearing what is now an iconic pink Chanel suit when her husband, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated beside her back in 1963.
In the 1980’s, models became the houses’ most prominent muse. Karl Lagerfeld had a special relationship with them, most famously with French model Ines de La Fressange, who was the house’s muse of that entire decade. When the supermodels came about, German model Claudia Schiffer became Lagerfeld’s new runway and campaign favorite. But by the early 2000’s, the house went back to picking celebrities to front its name. British actress Keira Knightley, for example, has for the longest time been the face of the Mademoiselle Chanel perfume, often appearing in its print and TV campaigns.
The house of Chanel is one of the bedrocks of modern and contemporary fashion. The house not only changed the industry but revolutionized how modern women dressed. To this day, the house stands as a reminder of the founder’s impactful legacy, as well as Paris’ significance in the world of fashion.
Chanel boutique on Sloane street, London, United Kingdom.