The rebel whose clothes set women free
London - As head designer and creative director Karl Lagerfeld took his bow at the end of the Chanel show last month in Paris, he paid homage to the legacy of Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, who opened her first store 100 years ago.
Many celebrations will take place this year, not least a film directed by Lagerfeld and starring, rather improbably, Keira Knightley as Madame herself.
Even if you do not own anything with an interlocking ‘C’ (bar perhaps a nail polish), it’s worth wishing the brand many happy returns, not least for the fact that Coco - as she liked to be called (it was a nickname from her brief career as a singer) - changed the way women dress for ever. She took us out of the constricting S-bend corset and made us believe we could found business empires.
She refused to change for dinner, wearing the same suit she’d had on all day, maybe with a different scarf. She wouldn’t wear the prevailing over-embellished fashions of the day, such as a hat shaped like a meringue. She cut her long hair, refused to marry and never had children.
She invented or made fashionable so many things: minimalism, the easy tweed cardigan jacket, the little black dress, sportswear worn as daywear, androgynous tailoring, jersey, quilting and costume jewellery.
In fact, it’s almost impossible to list all the things that Coco Chanel made fashionable.
Born in 1883, Chanel began her career in 1910 as a milliner in Paris, and was soon so financially successful that, on April 11,1913, she was able to found her own fashion house. The boutique was not on the chic streets of Paris, but 500 metres from the beach at the fashionable French Riviera holiday resort of Deauville.
Chanel was a feminist before the word truly existed, believing fashion could liberate women from the constraints of convention.
She even changed how we smell by launching her No 5 fragrance in 1921. It was the first perfume to bear a fashion designer’s name on the label, and with 10 million bottles sold worldwide last year, it remains the biggest-selling fragrance ever created.
Coco understood what the masses wanted to wear, and that ‘in order for there to be low fashion, there must first be a high one’.
Most importantly, she forged an empire that still bears her name: Chanel. Coco worked hard all her life, often six days a week, immersing herself in her career. She died in her apartment at the Ritz Hotel in Paris in 1971, aged 87, having designed almost to the end.
Lagerfeld, who took over the house in 1983, can be viewed as a silly, vain man, but that he’s breathed new life into a house that had been languishing is beyond dispute. Under his watch, a Chanel fashion show has become an event.
Passports often need to be shown to black-suited bouncers, as if you are about to enter a different country - which in a way you are. His stage sets are increasingly outlandish: a giant iceberg featured in the ready-to-wear show in 2010/11, and last year’s couture collection show took place inside an aeroplane. Lagerfeld has introduced some howlers: bum bags and fingerless gloves, for example. But as Chanel defied two world wars, and a recession, so too is Lagerfeld flying in the face of propriety, seeing his brand soar where others are faltering.
His show last month proved there is nothing new in fashion to be discovered: he featured over-the-knee waders, which Coco Chanel wore to go fishing in Scotland with the Duke of Westminster. Metallic thread brought tweed to life - just as it did in the Thirties.
An enormous globe hovered over the catwalk, covered with teeny flags depicting the location of every Chanel store on the globe - the Far East by far the area most densely speckled.
When I was an editor, I was once allowed to sneak upstairs to Mme Chanel’s private office - which positively reeked not of Chanel 5 but of loneliness, and of her giant suede couch.
Around that time, I was also given a black quilted ‘2.55’ bag with a gilt chain, which I promptly gave away to an OAP. Of all the freebies showered on me, this is the one item I wish I’d kept. You know you have grown up when you own a piece of Chanel - which is just part of the reason the brand has remained both iconic and current.
Lagerfeld might have added bling, but what remains are the slightly masculine lines that women of any age and shape can wear - although not, sadly, of any bank balance.
If you want to immerse yourself in the spirit of Chanel, visit the boutique in Rue Cambon in Paris. It opened at No 31 in 1919, yards from her first Paris shop at No 21 and right behind the Ritz. A shop devoted to accessories, perfume and beauty products soon stood alongside it.
Watch the last six minutes of the movie Coco Before Chanel for a parade of the house’s greatest fashion hits descending the mirrored staircase at her couture house.
You can also gaze at the 1937 black trouser suit made of fish-scale sequins, teamed with a silk chiffon blouse buttoned with pearls, which is currently on display at the V&A.
As Chanel herself said: “I gave women the ability to laugh and to eat without doing themselves an injury.”
Oh, that designers today were so hands on, so concerned about our comfort, our ease and our happiness! - Daily Mail