Fashion 101: A Brief History of Chanel

There is much to learn about famous French fashion designer Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel. She was born in Saumur in 1883 and was raised by nuns in an orphanage where she learned to sew at a young age. Chanel started her career as a milliner opening her first shop in Paris in 1913 following in the footsteps of fellow French milliner and fashion designer Caroline Reboux. As she expanded her business to Deauville and Biarritz, she began designing clothing where her first hit was actually jersey dresses. However, Chanel is most known for her legendary collarless jackets and well-fitted skirts which borrowed elements from menswear and focused more on tailoring and comfort than femininity and restriction. Chanel is also known for popularizing the little black dress, worn by Chanel as chic mourning wear after the death of a lover. The idyllic little black dress is now a closet staple for all occasions. Chanel also launched a phenomenally successful perfume – unheard of by a designer at the time – called Chanel No. 5. This single innovation revolutionized the industry and was the single factor that contributed to her insatiable success.

Another one of Chanel’s  wildly successful designs was the 2.55 shoulder bag. Chanel has long created handbags before the 2.55, but it was her ingenious idea to elongate the strap to free women’s hands is what made it an “It Bag” of its time and decades later. The practical bag with the Mademoiselle Lock was released in February 1955, hence the name 2.55. Its thoughtful design was truly for the modern woman on the go: the zippered inner pocket design was rumored to stashed love letters, the space in between the two internal pockets is designed to hold a single lipstick, and the back outside pocket is designed to securely hold money without opening the bag. The burgundy lining is said to reference the uniforms worn at her convent school. The 2.55 is just another innovation that ushered in a new way of dressing for the modern woman and revived the brand after a slump in interest due to Christian Dior’s buzzy “new look.”

After a variety of lovers that checkered her legacy, as well as her business, Chanel died at the Hotel Ritz Paris in 1971. More than a decade after her death, designer Karl Lagerfeld took over as creative director of the brand in 1983 and continues to oversee the creative direction for the brand. The Chanel you know now may be thanks to the flashy new life that Lagerfeld breathed into the brand after his arrival. For instance, the iconic CC turnlock and the leather and chain straps were additions Lagerfeld, not Chanel herself, made to the 2.55 bag in the late 1980s. Nevertheless, Chanel remains one of the most sought after brands in fashion history due to Lagerfeld’s ability to remain true to the allure of the independent woman that was the foundation of the brand, while infusing an unpredictability that makes each show and collection unique. 

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