A s Sotheby's Chanel Handbags and Accessories opens for bidding, fashion journalist, author and critic Alexander Fury discusses the history and legacy of this iconic fashion house. Fashion Features Director of AnOther magazine, and the Men's Critic of the Financial Times, Alexander's latest book with Assouline is titled Chanel: The Impossible Collection, in which he has curated one hundred signature looks from the brand.
What surprising discoveries did you make as you were researching the book?
"I don’t think I realised quite how precise Chanel’s style was, in every element. I was really surprised, when pulling the book together, how focused the colour palette became, which absolutely was not intentional. It’s something that Gabrielle Chanel’s work – and, indeed, much of Karl Lagerfeld’s – simply dictates. I was also surprised at the incredibly quality of Chanel pieces in museums around the world and how they perhaps tell a different story to the Chanel we think of, of endless suits. Which was certainly the case in the 1950s and 1960s, when Chanel was using the suit as a uniform for life, not even as fashion anymore. That said, I was also surprised, when I delved into the story of that suit, that, far from static, the forms and details were actually fluctuating and evolving, precisely from the practice of Chanel wearing them constantly. She changed them as her needs changed."
How did you even begin to narrow down the one hundred items that best represent Chanel? It almost seems an impossible task given the breadth and scope of the brand.
"Of a fashion, it would have been easier to summarise Chanel in ten pieces or a thousand pieces than a hundred. But actually, it ended up neatly charting a century of the house, and a century of style. The process of selection was one of discussion, dissection and deliberation alongside the teams at Assouline who ceaselessly picture researched, and Martine Assouline. There were obvious things we had to have; I really wanted to start with a little black dress, and we found one of the earliest from 1920 in the collection of the University of Melbourne. But I also wanted unexpected things. I love the image of the Chanel suit alongside its licensed copy from 1966, as it really shows the excellence of Chanel’s construction and subtleties of her style."
Of all the iconic couture designers from Chanel’s era such as Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, what is it about Chanel that has truly stood the test of time?
"I think Chanel established herself as a maverick very early on – someone who fought against prevailing trends and fashions, and proposed something fresh and new. Luckily, her intuition for what women would want to wear was correct. In the 1910s she began a process of stripping away decoration and freeing women’s bodies which has, by and large, been characteristic of the development of fashion ever since then. When she returned in the 1950s, it was again to combat highly-constructed, constricting clothes, and again, women (quite notably clients as opposed to the press, at first) were thrilled to wear her pieces.
So the template of Chanel has always felt modern. Add to that the fact that Chanel’s style didn’t outmode itself, but rather built on established codes season after season – again an antidote to the ever-changing fashions of the mid-century, especially the fluctuations of hemlines proposed by Dior. Chanel suits could be worn for years and still can today. By the time Karl Lagerfeld came to Chanel in 1982, Chanel’s architecture had been cemented. And rather than a specific silhouette, it was ideas of clothes, colours, materials and symbols – the cardigan suit, tweed, beige, pearls, camellias – that could be played with to invent and reinvent Chanel looks. Karl Lagerfeld signed one of his drawings “Always and never the same,” which is very true of Chanel."
What do you think is the most incredible moment of fashion for Chanel?
"For me, it’s Chanel in the 1930s: that decade surrenders a very unexpected series of Chanel pieces, with sinuous feminine lines and unusual uses of materials. The dresses are extraordinarily decorative and romantic. Chanel uses lace lavishly, and ruffles, and includes historical elements in her dresses. But there’s something about her economy of fabric and decoration, about the simplicity and purity of the pieces, and the ingenuity of keying decoration with structure so it becomes not just ornament but an integral part of the garment, that feels very Chanel. This was also Lagerfeld’s favourite period of Chanel – it's when he was a child and, he said he remembered his mother wearing Chanel."
Tell us about Karl Lagerfeld and how he kept Chanel’s legacy alive.
"Karl Lagerfeld told me (and many others) that when he came into Chanel in 1982, every friend he had told him he shouldn’t take the job – that Chanel was dowdy, passé, dead. The house, as well as the woman. What Karl did with the legacy of Chanel, however, was revolutionary and ground-breaking, and really invented the idea of how to resuscitate a historic house and bring it back to modern relevance. That is, by taking elements from its past and endlessly reinterpreting them for modern tastes and demands. Karl Lagerfeld was uniquely suited to this, with his relentless search for the new and the next, and Chanel’s archives (physical and ideological) are also uniquely rich and deep. It was a match made in heaven."
What do you think will happen next for Chanel?
"We’ve now moved onto a new era for Chanel – my book charts up to Karl Lagerfeld’s final haute couture collection in January 2019, before the official appointment of Virginie Viard as the artistic director of Chanel’s fashion collections. This is notable as she is the first woman since Gabrielle Chanel to lead the fashion house, and this has already affected the spirit of her designs, which feel lighter, freer, perhaps easier, although of course continuing in a style well-established. It’s too early, I feel, to conjecture on the direction Chanel will take overall: Lagerfeld’s tenure was creatively vital and notably long-lasting (second only, indeed, to his tenure at Fendi in longevity). His input to Chanel was remarkable but it will be fascinating to see how the house evolves and develops."
Can you articulate why Chanel has such a timeless appeal after almost a hundred years?
"The cross-generational appeal of Chanel is very striking, and today this is largely due to Karl Lagerfeld. By the 1980s, Chanel was seen as staid and stuffy: clothes for grand dames. Much as Chanel was the destination for exciting, effervescent clothes that spoke of youth and dynamic energy during its early days in the 1920s – when Chanel herself was young, too – the house had aged with its founder.
Lagerfeld revived Chanel by plugging it into the most current fashion – mini-skirts, the denim and chain belts of hip-hop, leather, leggings. Every momentary trend was Chanel-ified, passed through the house's filter to give the timeless braided tweeds and pearls an update. What was then interesting is that, after the initial ‘shock treatment’ of Lagerfeld’s approach in the 1980s, the designer and Chanel returned to the archives and began to reference, and even reissue, designs that harked back to Gabrielle Chanel’s original designs, such as the 2.55 handbag – Lagerfeld’s tweaked variation is now called the ‘Classic’. In 1996, he created an almost exact facsimile of a sequined lace dress created by Chanel for her Autumn/Winter 1937 collection, in which she was famously photographed by Cecil Beaton. That process of selection and curation was also important – ensuring that Chanel always felt relevant and therefore desirable."