C oco Chanel is back in the spotlight. Thanks to the V&A’s blockbuster exhibition Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto (running until February 2024), the iconic fashion designer’s legacy hovers over the cultural landscape yet again this season. And at Sotheby’s, Coco reigns supreme in the Handbags and Accessories auction, which offers a rare chance to buy superb and storied jewellery Chanel pieces, dating from the 1970s onwards.
But what makes the Chanel pieces in Handbags and Accessories more than simply a stunning assemblage of vintage costume jewellery and handbags, is their impeccable provenance. The sale features 48 lots, sourced directly from the personal collection of the late Frances Patiky Stein, the legendary New York fashion editor and designer. A trailblazing figure who lit up the city, she is credited with reviving the brand’s allure, following Coco Chanel’s death in 1971.
From sleek, Modernist silver, such as the three triangular bracelets, to elaborate Byzantine-style ‘gemstones’ and faux pearls (such as the astonishing green Gripoix collar), the sale offers a fascinating survey of the 20 or so years in which Chanel’s visual identity was re-crystallised, through Stein’s impact on the house’s instantly recognisable accessories.
And Frances Patiky Stein’s hand-notated press materials - also in the sale - show just how influential she was at this period, although in fact, her immaculate eye for talent and style had benefited some of America’s greatest designers, long before she found herself on the Rue de Varenne in Paris.
Like so many great fashion figures before her, Stein was discovered by Diana Vreeland, the legendary fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar. She became millinery editor at the magazine, which brought her into hot young designer Halston’s circle, along with designer Elsa Peretti and model and actress Marisa Berenson.
After working at Glamour, and partnering with Halston on his launch in 1968, she became fashion director at Vogue, where she discovered the young Vera Wang, then working at the Yves Saint Laurent boutique on Madison Avenue. Stein suggested Wang join Vogue - thus kicking off another extraordinary fashion career.
While at Vogue, she also hit it off with Calvin Klein and became design director – before reportedly being fired after The Daily News suggested a new collection be called “Calvin Stein”.
But it was at Chanel – and specifically working on jewellery – that she was to make her greatest mark. Stein had met Coco Chanel when the great designer was in her 70s and the fashion icon, knowing a hot talent when she saw one, asked Stein to leave Glamour and work with her in Paris as her press attaché.
“She never forgave me for refusing to take the job,” Stein later told The New York Times Magazine in 1982. “She never spoke to me again.”
“The pleasure of Chanel's way of dressing is that you can wear any outfit at almost any time of day, depending on how you accessorize it”
Nevertheless, 11 years after Chanel’s death, she was brought in to help revive the struggling brand's joie de vivre. And it was through jewellery and accessories that she saw the road to rejuvenation.
“I've tried to restate Chanel's accessory theory: clothes and accessories should live,” she told The New York Times Magazine. “The pleasure of Chanel's way of dressing is that you can wear any outfit at almost any time of day, depending on how you accessorize it.”
Stein set to work with the great couture jewellery ateliers of Paris, Gripoix and Goossens, who had for decades worked with Coco herself to combine fine goldsmithing techniques with costume materials, such as pâte de verre (poured glass gems). Stein quickly put bold costume jewellery back at the heart of the Chanel collections.
Yet it is the pared-back silver pieces that most defined her own style, says Aurélie Vassy, Handbags & Accessories specialist at Sotheby’s. “Silver bracelets were really her signature, and they are what she always wore – it showed her personal style going beyond the iconography of Chanel. They were closer to her personal vision of design.”
While the statement pieces of the 1970s, with their glowing ‘stones’ and historical style, might more closely align with the current passion for mid-century glamour, those turn-of-the-Millennium minimalist silver designs are certainly due their time in the sun.
And how beautifully they’ll shine when they get there.
Banner image: Frances Patiky Stein, a Chanel-associated jewelery designer who formerly worked as a fashion editor for "Glamour" and "Vogue," poses for portraits in New York City on June 18, 1979. (Photo by Dustin Pittman/WWD/Penske Media via Getty Images)