Handbags & Accessories

Chanel's Iconic Designers: Coco Chanel & Karl Lagerfeld

By Erica Kagan
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Coco Chanel
Coco Chanel (1883-1971) , c. early 50's

Early Life of Coco Chanel

Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel was born in a hospice in Lamur, France on August 19th, 1883. One day, the world would know her by the eponymous name of Coco Chanel, but the iconic fashion designer first had to survive an impoverished, grief-stricken childhood. The neglect of her childhood began immediately, with a massive spelling error on her birth certificate that read Gabrielle Bonheur Chasnel, instead of her true, enduring surname. As such, much of Chanel’s childhood is unknown and her real family is difficult to trace. Following the sudden death of their mother, Jeanne Devolle, Coco and her three sisters were abandoned by their father, Henri-Albert Chanel, and placed in custody of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, in Aubazine. The convent was run by cruel nuns dressed only in austere, black and white clothing. Yet, it was the harshness and rigidity of Aubazine that taught Coco to defy discipline, inspiring her unwavering radical spirit.

At 18 years old, Coco Chanel was finally freed from the constraints of Aubazine, and she began her career as a sales assistant in the Maison Grampayre shop in Moulins. On the side, Chanel worked as a singer in a café. Rumor has it, one of Chanel’s signature songs to perform was Qui qu'a vu Coco?, and it served as the inspiration for her legendary nickname, Coco. At the cafés in Moulins, Coco Chanel was first exposed to fashion executives, particularly Étienne de Balsan, the son of a textile entrepreneur. Chanel and Balsan sparked a six-year relationship, and he served as her first financier as well as romantic partner. It wasn’t long before the women who resided near Balsan’s company headquarters began to notice Coco Chanel’s innovative hat designs, and the demand skyrocketed.

Mademoiselle Chanel in Paris

By 1908, growing demand for Chanel’s millinery creations took her first to Paris and then Deauville, where she opened her first shop in 1914. Just two years later, Chanel would open her first high fashion showroom in Biarritz. Coco Chanel’s designs were a sharp contrast to the traditional and restrictive pieces that dominated popular fashion at the time. Her favorite fabric was jersey, which had been used for men’s underwear in the early 20th century. Chanel’s sporty silhouettes emphasized simple and soft lines, which was a radically new style that freed women’s physical form.

The 1920s were pivotal years in the career of Coco Chanel. 1920 saw her return to Paris, and Chanel opened her first boutique at 31 Rue Cambon. The following year, in collaboration with French perfumer Ernest Beaux, Chanel would launch the world’s most iconic fragrance: No.5. A fashion revolution quickly followed, when Coco Chanel utilized the color black as the key to her success. Formerly reserved for house servants or mourning, black was never a color represented in mainstream fashion, until Coco Chanel birthed the petit robe noir, or little black dress. In gabardine, tweed and jersey, women around the world were captivated by the liberating designs of Mademoiselle Chanel.

Opulent costume jewels were Coco Chanel’s next endeavor, where she astounded her followers with unprecedented combinations of faux and precious materials. Chanel’s more understated garments were perfectly balanced with whimsical accessories, and she awed the fashion world with her playful design combinations.

Chanel Tweed Suit
Chanel Suit Princess Diana, Amal Clooney and Jackie Kennedy

Instant Classics: Chanel Tweed Suit and 2.55 Flap Bag

This series of groundbreaking and successful endeavors came to a halt in 1939, when World War II forced the closure of Coco Chanel’s Paris boutique. It wouldn’t be until 1954 when Chanel would stage her lasting comeback, marked by the debut of one of her most timeless designs: the tweed suit. The First Lady Jackie Kennedy, Grace Kelly and Liz Taylor were among the earliest fans of the Chanel suit, solidifying it as an instant classic. In February 1955, Coco Chanel first designed the 2.55 Flap. A signifier of fashion liberation, the 2.55 was the first bag made for women to come with a shoulder strap. This Chanel handbag emphasized practicality, comfort and elevated taste. From this moment on, Mademoiselle Chanel tirelessly pursued her life’s work, adding to the allure of Chanel with slingback heels and quilted leather bags.

On January 10th, 1971, at the age of 87, Mademoiselle Chanel peacefully passed away in her suite at the Hôtel Ritz in Paris. Coco Chanel’s influence on the fashion world and her liberation of the female body was bar none. Daring, free and ahead of her time, Chanel was the ultimate avant-garde woman, inspiring generations to come. The inheritor of Coco Chanel’s legacy seemed an impossible role to fill, that is, until Karl Lagerfeld stepped in.

Karl Lagerfeld
Karl Lagerfeld

Karl Lagerfeld: Coco Chanel’s Contemporary Successor

When Karl Lagerfeld took the reins of Maison Chanel in 1983, Coco had been gone for 12 years, and the brand was struggling. The death of its founder had left a vast void, and Chanel was in desperate need of a new iconic persona. Lagerfeld, like Coco, understood what it took to transform fashion for the modern woman. Instead of abandoning her legacy for his own, Karl Lagerfeld considered himself the “channeler” of Coco. As such, he would reinterpret and rejuvenate the iconic designs of Coco Chanel, inserting ready-to-wear into popular culture and restoring Haute Couture to its former glory. With his regular uniform of a black suit, dark shades, a powdered white ponytail, and fingerless leather gloves, Karl Lagerfeld molded himself into a distinctive caricature who kept alive the myth and legacy of Coco Chanel.

Karl’s Iconic Interpretations

Embracing the iconic motifs of Chanel – from the pearls and suits to the interlocking CCs – Karl Lagerfeld modernized the house’s designs, while ensuring that they remained recognizably Chanel. In combining the allure of his own persona with that of Coco’s, Lagerfeld preserved Chanel’s image as the ultimate luxury brand.

Chanel Double Flap Black Quilted Lambskin Paris Gold and Silver Hardware, 1986-1988

Looking to past designs for inspiration, Lagerfeld incorporated signature Chanel details, tweed fabrics, gold chains, and quilted leather in each contemporary collection. Most notably, Coco Chanel designed the interlocking Cs logo in the 1930s, and Lagerfeld championed this iconic image in everything from necktie prints to handbag clasps. Echoing the influence of men’s fashion on Coco's designs, Karl Lagerfeld abandoned a more traditional, feminine design and incorporated men’s t-shirts and briefs into his collections.

During his first year as creative director at Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld reimagined one of Coco Chanel’s most iconic designs: the 2.55 Flap Bag. Thus, Lagerfeld’s decision to reinterpret such a timeless piece was tremendously bold. His inspired vision was channeled through the Classic Double Flap bag, and it was a breakout success. With Lagerfeld’s redesign came two new features – a leather woven chain and Double C turn-lock closure. Just as universally wearable and simple as the 2.55, the Classic Double Flap quickly became a mainstay statement piece.

Chanel Diana Bag
Pricess Diana with her Chanel Diana bag

The Muses and Living Legacy of Chanel

Following in the footsteps of Coco Chanel, who dressed the most fashionable women of her generation, Karl Lagerfeld’s muses helped solidify his designs as timeless classics. From German supermodel Claudia Schiffer who declared Lagerfeld’s Classic Flap as her most treasured Chanel handbag, to French singer Vanessa Paradis who has publicly adored the Coco Cocoon bag for decades, celebrity icons remain an integral piece of the Chanel brand. Of particular note is Princess Diana of Wales, the ultimate style icon of the 80’s and 90’s. Designed by Lagerfeld and produced from 1989 to approximately 1995, the Chanel Diana bag is a coveted find among vintage hunters and Diana admirers alike. This classic design closely resembles that of the Chanel Single Flap, and was sported so frequently by Princess Diana, that Karl Largefeld felt it only fitting to honor her in the name. Despite the resurrection of this handbag style in the Spring 2015 collection, the vintage Chanel Diana in caviar leather remains the most elusive and sought-after variation ever crafted. For an exciting cinematic moment with the upcoming film Spencer, Kristen Stewart – one of Lagerfeld’s more modern day Chanel muses – will play Princess Diana in a striking performance.

Chanel Diana Flap Navy Quilted Lambskin Gold Hardware, 1991-1994

From the Boy Bag (inspired by Coco Chanel’s lover Arthur “Boy” Capel), to the Perfume Bottle Bag (an ode to Chanel’s iconic No.5 perfume bottle design), Karl Lagerfeld never stopped looking to the design archives of Mademoiselle Chanel for inspiration. Immediately following his death, Lagerfeld’s right-hand woman, Virginie Viard, took over as creative director. Coming full circle, Viard’s appointment marks the first time that a woman is at the helm of the fashion house since its eponymous founder, Coco Chanel. A creative entrepreneur and changemaker, Coco Chanel’s legacy – as kept alive through her successors – has withstood the test of time.

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