Thursday, 9 January 2014

On This Day in Fashion History...

...Chanel dies at the Ritz, Paris leaving behind a lasting fashion legacy.

For fashion designers to secure their legend lives long after they have expired, retired or gone bankrupt, they must create a signature style. A successful designer need have only one groundbreaking creation, to secure a place in history, like Mary Quant and the miniskirt. So what then of Gabrielle Chanel, whose style not only defined key moments of the twentieth century, but whose innovations are still shaping fashion today? January 10th marks the passing of this fashion revolution so what better time to remember the woman behind the name and celebrate the work of the legendary ‘Coco’ Chanel. 

From the very start, Chanel defied convention. Born in Saumur, France in 1883, she was abandoned to a convent following the death of her mother and raised by nuns. Such humble and austere beginnings seem barely conceivable for a woman who would go on to own one of the most prestigious couture salons in the world; a woman who would dine with royalty, and entertain some of the most influential figures of her era. Yet it was this childhood of poverty and pious discipline that ignited her determined ambition to achieve something great.  

Introduced to society circles by a rich, playboy lover, Chanel started her career in millenary, making hats for wealthy socialites. They adored her fresh, unfussy approach and Chanel soon progressed to creating clothing to complete the look. 

She had little formal training as a dressmaker but she was in no doubt of her vision of how women should dress: they should be free to move, and to enjoy life without being restricted by fashion. She detested corsets and favoured pants over skirts, promoting trousers for women before they were considered an acceptable choice for ladies. 

She was an early advocate of ‘less is more,’ and she paired back the frills and flounces typical of early twentieth century womenswear. Her palette too, was simple and it was Chanel who, in response to the opulent colours paraded by rivals such as Paul Poiret, created one of the most celebrated symbols of femininity - the little black dress. Not only did she continue to reinvent it throughout her career but the style has been adapted and updated by practically every designer since.

Chanel disregarded the luxurious and extravagant traditions of haute couture, choosing cheap cotton knit fabric that was at the time, only used for underwear. She created simple, boyish silhouettes and began introducing sportswear garments for women as early as 1920. Compared to today’s high-tech, streamlined activewear, her efforts are more akin to leisurewear but her innovation was a formative step in bringing sportswear to the fashion fore.  

Her ethos captured the mood of the decade. It was the 1920s: there was an economic boom, women were gaining greater political freedoms, and people were dancing their way forwards from the desolation of the First World War. Women were wanting to enjoy life, to embrace their new-found opportunities and they wanted clothes that would allow them to actively participate in this exciting new world. 

Chanel herself was the personification of this mood, and the House of Chanel was about more than simply clothes, it was a lifestyle. Coco worked hard, played hard and she partied with some of the most dynamic people of the twentieth century; she was charismatic, stylish and encapsulated the very essence of her creations. Understanding her power as the figurehead of her label, she would style models as herself and send them out not just in salon shows but all round Paris to promote the Chanel look. Such a crucial factor in succeeding in the fashion industry today, Chanel was one of the first pioneers of that all important ‘brand identity.’ 

She was a formidable businesswoman. With her brand established, she looked for ways she could extend it’s reach. First sold in 1921, Chanel No.5 became the first of a flourishing line of fragrances and cosmetics that would make Chanel a household name. Licensing fashionable names in this way has now become an essential way for fashion labels to raise revenue and for Chanel too, it was the success of her fragrances more than her clothes that finally allowed her to enjoy the financial freedom she longed for.

With the outbreak of World War Two in 1939, Chanel closed her salon. It wasn’t a quiet retirement however. Both a friend of Winston Churchill and the lover of a Nazi officer, she was suspected of spying by both the Allies and the Nazis. Her exploitation of wartime agendas to serve her own means added more dirt to her already tarnished reputation, and following the war, she exiled herself in Switzerland. 

Back in Paris, Christian Dior was making fashion headlines after unveiling his ‘New Look’ in 1947. Seeing Dior’s ‘flower women’ with their cinched in waists and long, heavy skirts loaded with more fabric than freedom was enough to re-ignite Chanel’s passion for designing. It took another few years to engineer her return but in 1954, she launched her comeback collection. 

Slammed by the French media who were not yet ready to forgive her wartime indiscretions, Chanel’s return was saved thanks to American Vogue whose favourable review not only re-established her reputation as a great couturier it went on to inspire recognition of her fashion legend. 

Proving her style was timeless, her designs perfectly suited the post-war era. Not only did her effortless way of dressing immortalise her own fashionable legacy, it also launched that of another style icon - Jacqueline Kennedy. The Chanel suit with it’s tweed boucle fabric, boxy jacket and straight skirt, styled with two-tone pumps and the signature quilted handbag, became Kennedy’s presidential uniform, and one of the most iconic looks of the twentieth century.

The impact of Chanel on fashion cannot be overestimated. She introduced some of the most significant changes to women’s wardrobes celebrating the demise of the corset, introducing freedoms that were previously the privilege of menswear, and immortalising the little black dress. A revolutionary, she defied the established rules to bring her ethos to the world with designs that are as relevant now as they were eighty years ago. Whilst the body of Chanel departed in 1971, her spirit is one that will live on, forever timeless.

Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel: 19 August 1883 - 10 January 1971

Like the Hautie Couturist on Facebook/hautiecouturist and follow me on Twitter @HautieCouturist

No comments: