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Coco Chanel: Innovator and Icon

by Aime Joseph

The Woman behind the Designs

Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel (1883-1971) may have very well been the most influential and innovative fashion designer to date. As Christian Dior put it: "With a black pullover and ten rows of pearls she revolutionized fashion." Not only is Chanel known for her little black dress and her No 5 fragrance, but also her classic and timeless suits, shoes, purses and jewelry. Her designs helped define women's fashion.
Coco Chanel, year unknown, in one of her classic outfits.

Despite the fact that Chanel did not have the breeding of the upper class, in 1912 she met the wealthy socialite, Arthur "Boy" Capel who helped her open her first hat shop in 1913. But her real break came in the early '20s during the Great Depression when Chanel, with the financial help of Capel, opened her first and now legendary shop at 31 rue Cambon.

Chanel was raised in a French orphanage. The simplistic and stark dress of the nuns and their environment influenced Chanel's designs. Her simple little black dresses, squarish suits, and almost boyish designs suits were vastly divergent from the confining and tight-fitting corsets and long dresses with petticoats. By the mid '20s, Chanel's comfortable and practical "working costume" designs flourished and she opened two boutiques: one in Paris and the other in Biarritz. Together these shops employed over 300 people. During this period, Chanel created her world-renowned No 5 fragrance.
Chanel Couture Evening Gown, chiffon and silk, for sale at Clothes Heaven.

In 1931, Chanel was hired by Samuel Goldwin for one million dollars to dress his stars, including Kathrine Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor and Gloria Swanson. This lasted for a very short time, however, as many starlets refused her service. Later that decade, back in her hometown, Chanel designed and developed an array of costume jewelry inspired by the "art deco" movement of the '30s.

In 1939 after the fall of Paris, Chanel closed her boutiques and spent the next fifteen years of her life living in Switzerland exiled, due to her love affair with a Nazi officer. In 1954, Chanel decided to revamp her '30s designs. Some say that the popularity of Dior's "new" corseted look disgusted Chanel and gave her inspiration that had long been dorment. Once again, Chanel's designs flourished and she now was embraced by Hollywood starlets. In fact, Chanel spent much of the '50s and '60s working for various Hollywood studios, dressing the likes of Audrey Hepburn, Liz Taylor and Anne Baxter. During this time her clothing became very popular, especially in the United States.

Chanel passed away in 1971. Prior to her death, a custom Chanel suit or gown fetched as much as $12,000. In the early 80s designer Karl Lagerfeld took over the Chanel design house. Today, Lagerfeld incorporates modern designs with the already-established classic Chanel look.

The Chanel Suit

Whether it is a 1930s suit, 1960s suit, or a "millennium" suit, the classic Chanel suit has "boxy" lines. The typical suit also has braided trim and a slim skirt lined with a gold link chain. The buttons either resemble coins or are gold with the double "cc" logo displayed amid them. There is always a ribbon sewed in the waist of the skirt to prevent the blouse from slipping and the zipper is placed on the side of the skirt to enable comfort. In a sense, wearing a Chanel suit is like wearing a customized ornate costume, made to fit so that when the wearer moves, the suit still maintains perfect grace and elegance.
"In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different." -Coco Chanel

To accessorize this classic suit, an excessive array of pearls, genuine and costume, simple and gold intertwined is often worn. A classic quilted Chanel handbag with the CC logo and gold shoulder would hang over the shoulder, and Chanel's trademark two-tone pumps or ballet flats would be worn on the feet.
Chanel suit, wool with black patent leather trim, for sale at Clothes Heaven.

Today the average cost of a Chanel suit is $5,000 and can only to be purchased at Chanel boutiques or at high-end department stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue. Although details such as exquisite fabrics, bias cuts and hand sewing contribute to the high cost, Chanel was a firm believer that if the costs of her products was high, then her obsessively perfect designs would truly be valued.


Chanel's website

Hyperfashion short article and links

Label France article

Time Magazine's top 20 artists and entertainers feature on Chanel

Fashion Windows


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