For roughly a century, the name Chanel has been synonymous with taste and style, a brand whose signature looks have survived the fickle nature of the fashion world to become classics in their own time. For most of its history, the sole reason for the Parisian fashion house’s success was Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel.
Chanel's reputation for leading rather than following was established early. In 1916, just a few years after she opened her first shop in Paris, Chanel took the bold step of using wool jersey, then an undergarment fabric, in daywear.
Shocking the delicate sensibilities of the fashion press was not on her mind, although it appears she accomplished that. Instead, she was after a fabric that women could move in without constraint. For Chanel, a child of the Edwardian Era, casual jersey represented a rejection of all the formal fussiness that had come before.
By the 1920s, Chanel was the darling of Paris, and the decade’s sense of style is routinely lumped together with her name. Her perfume, Chanel No. 5 (five was reportedly her lucky number) arrived in 1921, throughout the decade she designed black evening dresses that were studded with beads, in 1927 she opened a branch in London, and by the end of the decade her simple jersey sweater with wraparound skirt had elevated sportswear to the heights of fashion.
In the 1930s Hollywood called and Chanel answered, designing costumes for Gloria Swanson and other United Artists actresses. Through her couture house, she also designed countless one-of-a-kind dresses for upscale clients. But by 1939, Chanel had shuttered her shops, fleeing Paris and World War II.
In her absence, in 1947, Christian Dior created his famous New Look. This was too much for Chanel, who had once dismissed Dior’s approach to design as the equivalent of dressing women up like armchairs. By 1954 she was ready to get back in the game, even at age 71. Not surprisingly, one of the first garments she re-invented was her trademark suit, which she now gave a shorter skirt and a matching cardigan jacket with braid for trim.
A version of this same basic suit would bring Chanel attention she no doubt never wanted. It was November of 1963, and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy had decided to wear a pink Chanel suit with a matching pillbox hat for a trip with her husband to Dallas. For many people around the world, the indelible image of Mrs. Kennedy standing numb from the shock of her husband’s assassination, still wearing her blood-soaked Chanel suit, remains strong. Today that suit is in the National Archives, but so sacredly regarded is the garment that it will not be available for public viewing until the year 2103...
More recently, Chanel has been guided by maverick designer Karl Lagerfeld, who, in 1983, began yet another re-invention of the storied fashion house. Lagerfeld put the Chanel double-C logo on everything from accessories to motorcycle boots, but it was his endless fascination with the possibilities of the Chanel suit that kept Chanel fans happy.