Coco Chanel Defines Classic and Chic

Chanel Paris
Photo: Chanel

Chanel is the epitome of style, an idol of elegance, the exemplar of timelessness in fashion. Two of the most evocative words favored by fashionistas (classic and chic) are synonyms of Chanel.

Founder of Chanel, Gabrielle Chanel came from Le Pays de la Loire, the “white wine region” of France. She was born in 1883 to parents of modest backgrounds, according to legend. At home, she was known simply as Coco. In 1910, driven by her interest in hat design, Ms. Chanel opened a hat shop, Chanel Modes, at 31 rue Cambon in Paris. Traditional hats were then elaborate constructions; headpieces in demand were trimmed with fine detailing and shaped like umbrellas. Ms. Chanel, on the other hand, produced simple unadorned hats. Initially, her hats failed to find a market. They were looked down upon for their simplicity and ridiculed for their low-key style.

However, success came fast after her hats were seen on the heads of iconic French actresses. Ms. Chanel served her clients attentively and honestly: “this looks chic on you” or “try this on instead.” Ladies who frequented her shop were in awe of, and inspired by, Ms. Chanel’s simple elegant dress code. Her style was soon imitated and adopted on the streets of Paris. Seeing this as a propitious sign, Chanel turned her endeavours to the field of garment creation; specifically, the casual wear sector. To this end, she opened a second store in 1913, wherein her collections sold-out immediately. Her reputation well established and designs widely admired, she then turned her fledgling business empire into a full couture house.

In 1921 the world of perfumery saw the birth of an iconic formulation, the basis of Chanel No. 5. This was the fifth sample presented to Ms. Chanel and still is the ultimate celebration of femininity. With the popularity of designer scents and makeup on the rise, fashion businesses searched for new ways to ‘recruit’ customers of more moderate social status. Chanel made it her night job to take up as much space on a woman’s vanity table as she could. State of the art pigments and collectible packaging were keys to her empire’s growing influence. Chanel’s lipsticks proved best sellers. Ever since, celebrity lips always feature in expensive advertising campaigns for which striking supermodels like Natalia Vodianova and Gisele Bündchen lend their faces to Chanel’s beauty products.

On visits to Scotland with her “friend,” the Duke of Westminster, Ms. Chanel discovered tweed – a traditionally masculine textile used to make suits and jackets. She anticipated that it would look chic on women. In 1924, the tweed fabric was cast and the male suit re-imagined. Mademoiselle’s view of the modern woman was realised and the reaction was public acclaim. Two years later, with her creativity at full throttle, Gabrielle Chanel introduced her iconic little black dress. The simplicity and effortlessness of the style was so daring and groundbreaking it revolutionised fashion. And for many years onwards, the business sailed on grandly, that is until production was forced to slow abruptly in 1945, at the outbreak of World War II.

Many businesses were obliged to shut during wartime. However, Ms. Chanel was determined to keep at least her home base (the boutique on rue Cambon) up and running. While other fashion houses floundered, Chanel perfumes and small accessories sold out; bought up by depressed Parisians seeking a whiff of Shangri-La during hard times, and American soldiers bringing back small gifts for the wife or girlfriend (or mistress) back home.

During the 60s Hollywood starlets hankered after Chanel goods and thus proclaimed Chanel an international treasure and symbol of class. Mademoiselle passed away in 1971, but her legacy lived on in spirit; especially after Karl Lagerfeld was ordained Artistic Director of Chanel in 1983. Lord Lagerfeld (as the media have taken to calling him) took the reins in stride and created hit after hit. Respecting the house’s rule, he returns to the archives for inspiration, yet ingeniously updates the look so it’s relevant to the times, fashionably and socially; to wit, at the close of Chanel’s Spring-Summer 2013 Haute Couture show, Lagerfeld sent out two brides, hand-in-hand, to close the show.

Chanel channels simplicity, understated elegance, and classicism in all its artefacts. The haute couture bypasses gauderies, the ready-to-wear are never garish, the accessories are always varnished but functional, and the perfumes and cosmetics consistently discreet but never obtrusive. The master of chic, tutor of class, and principal of classic: this is Chanel.