Harper Bazaar’s March 2013 “New Fashion Issue” starts with three full Chanel ad spreads. The models in the first wear white dresses embroidered with bright, spring-hued flowers; in the second, their geometric black-and-white dresses are accessorized with high-heel renditions of Chanel’s iconic peep-toe shoes and a classic red Chanel quilted clutch with matching red lips. There are no models in the third ad – just a dressing room strewn with Chanel accessories – shoes, bags, jewelry and, of course, perfume.
It’s been over forty years since the designer’s death – yet her relevance shows no signs of wavering. Through all of fashions’ twists and turns, Chanel’s classic looks – which she first launched in Deauville, France in 1912 – continue to be a driving force behind her company, now led by Karl Lagerfeld.
Just as impressive as the brand’s longevity is the influence Chanel’s vision continues to exert on the fashion industry. Even the Louis Vuitton ads that follow Chanel’s could, in fact, easily be Chanel. The clothing is cut in that classic, geometric, easy yet sophisticated style Coco Chanel invented and made famous.
Unlike the vast majority of fashion designers before and after her, Chanel didn’t believe in fashion trends. Following the motto “fashion fades – only style remains the same,” she ignored conventions – and tapped into a universal sense of style and comfort based on the way women really live and move.
Born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, the designer lived a fascinating life (the details of which she revised as freely as her clothes). She learned to sew at the nun-run orphanage where she and her sister were raised after their mother died and their father abandoned them. After working as a singer in cafes and concert halls (where she got the nickname “Coco”) and as a seamstress, she fell in love and became the mistress of a French officer, Etienne Balsan – and then of his friend, the wealthy Englishman Arthur “Boy” Capel. Boy backed her first hat shop in Paris in 1910, inspired her first influential clothing collection with his jersey shirts – and was, it seems, the love of her life. The love story ended tragically in 1919 when he died in an automobile accident, possibly on his way to reunite with Coco after a split. “What followed was not a life of happiness,” Chanel later said.
But it was a life of success – and many more love stories. She was involved with Russian composer Igor Stravinsky (played by Mads Mikkelsen in the film Coco & Igor) and the Russian Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich. She was fascinated with the Ballets Russes, and joined Picasso, Miro, Matisse and Dali in designing for the company. Between 1920 and 1924 – Chanel’s Russian Period – she reinvented and popularized Russia’s long, belted “roubachka” shirts and peasant-style embroidery (reincarnated in the Bazaar ad), and initiated the popularity of Eastern European models by hiring aristocratic Russian émigrés as seamstresses and models.
In a time when women’s ability to eat and breathe was still limited by corsets, Chanel stepped in and redefined how women should dress, feel – and be. In the 1920s, she developed her legendary relaxed style. In 1922, she launched Chanel No. 5, becoming the first fashion designer to lend her name to a fragrance. (Marilyn Monroe said that all she wore to bed was “just a few drops of CHANEL No. 5.”) Then came the legendary Little Black Dress (inspired by the dresses Chanel wore to mourn Boy’s death), the quilted handbag, the two-tone shoe that simultaneously shortened the foot and lengthened the leg, the collarless suit – and many other classics. In the 1960s, she was asked to come to Hollywood to dress celebrities. Liz Taylor, Jane Fonda, Jackie Kennedy, and Grace Kelley joined the Chanel movement – and the whole world followed suit.
Today, Chanel’s hugely influential fashion and beauty concepts are so ubiquitous that it’s easy to forget their origins. But one glance at Chanel’s life story, and it’s easy to see why she was the only fashion designer to make Time Magazine’s list of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century.
There’s always something timeless by Chanel in the Lauritz.com inventory – check out if it’s the perfect addition to your wardrobe!
Anastasya Partan, a Boston-based freelance writer, is a guest blogger for Lauritz.com. She was born in Moscow, raised in the US, and has lived in New York, Washington, DC, London, Paris, and Copenhagen. With both a corporate and creative background, she writes for international brands and explores topics related to lifestyle, culture and the arts.