The house that dreams built

The hallowed name of the house of Chanel could in itself be a synonym for rapture. Few maisons have managed to inspire such legions of loyal fans. Fewer still can cause hysteria simply with the introduction of a new nail colour (the launch of Jade in October 2009 had a waiting list of hundreds and saw shoppers in Paris queuing from 6am). Such is the devotion of a Chanel aficionado.

Chanel’s own brand of rapture is perhaps a rather subtle and complex one. Its trademark colours and logo are extremely simple: black, beige, white, two initials. And yet, almost a century after it was founded, Chanel is still one of the world’s most influential fashion houses, and arguably the most iconic. As French writer André Malraux famously predicted, “From this century, in France, three names will remain: de Gaulle, Picasso, and Chanel.”

Who would have guessed that the relatively modest millinery shop on the rue Cambon, started by Gabrielle Chanel and financed by her lover, Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel, would one day become the greatestfashion empire of the 20th century? Chanel’s determination and genuine modernity, however, made up for her lack of experience. “Success is often achieved by those who don’t know that failure is inevitable”, Chanel wrote, and the fearless early expansion of her business perfectly illustrates this thought.

In 1914, when the First World War broke out, Chanel decided to stay in her newly opened shop in Deauville, a fashionable seaside resort in Normandy. Against all odds, this proved an astute move. Parisian society ladies who had fled the capital for Deauville were often volunteering in hospitals, and with most of their male domestics gone to the front, now needed new, more practical wardrobes. Chanel’s comfortable, loose-fitting clothes perfectly suited their needs. In the summer of 1915, while war was still raging, Chanel developed her business with another bold move. In order to make the most of the wealthy Spanish clientele which holidayed in Biarritz and were less affected by the war, she opened the town’s first fashion house and pioneered the use of jersey in her designs, with extremely successful and profitable results.

“I woke up famous in 1919”, Chanel said, “but I had no idea I was; I would have been paralysed if I had known. I wanted to be independent, I wanted to work, and that was it.” By the beginning of the 1920s, Chanel employed thousands of workers and was one of France’s wealthiest and most influential couturières. She would remain so until the start of World War II. In 1939, arguing that the months ahead were to be “no time for fashion”, she closed her fashion house. However, in 1954, after years of living in Switzerland, Chanel decided to go back to work, “because work is all my life”, she wrote in a letter to Harper’s Bazaar editor Carmel Snow in 1953. This was a risky bet. Many of the couturiers of her generation had failed to adapt to the times and were no longer in business. Even Elsa Schiaparelli, the flamboyant couturière who had been Chanel’s famous rival in the 1930s, didn’t manage to find her place in post-WW II Paris. Ironically, she closed her fashion house just as Chanel was re-opening hers.

Chanel’s comeback collection was not well received by the French press, with most journalists agreeing with Le Figaro’s statement that “You had a feeling you were back in 1925”. All predicted that her return to fashion would be short-lived. But Chanel would not give up on her beloved house. “The house of Chanel is my only possession, it’s the only thing I’ve made on my own.” American press and buyers though, were seduced by the practical,simple suits, and Chanel relied on her incredible ability to capture the spirit of the times. “Fashion is in the air, born upon the wind. One intuits it. It is in the sky and on the road”. Chanel soon turned her return into a resounding success and created some of the most immediately identifiable icons of twentieth century design, such as the Chanel tweed suit and the quilted handbag.

After Coco Chanel’s death in 1971, a series of designers were employed to continue the house but with limited success. The collections had been criticised as being too respectful of Chanel’s legacy and were no longer generating the same excitement. Then in 1983 in a stroke of genius, Karl Lagerfeld was given the reigns of Chanel, creating what would become one of the most iconic and successful fashion unions of all time. Lagerfeld, born in Hamburg in the 1930s (he is known to insist that no one knows his birth date), was fascinated by French culture and fashion from a very early age.

After seeing a presentation of a Christian Dior collection in 1949, the first fashion show young Karl ever attended, his decision was made. “I thought it was the height of chic”, Lagerfeld recalls, “It was the image of Paris, and I said to myself: this is where I want to live”. Chasing his Dior dream, Lagerfeld moved to Paris to pursue a career in fashion while still in his teens and famously won a design competition organised by the International Wool Secretariat two years after arriving. He was immediately hired as a junior assistant at Balmain as a result.

Three years later Lagerfeld left to work for Jean Patou, before designing collections for Mario Valentino, Charles Jourdan, Fendi and Chloé (where he became head designer) over the next few years. While other designers such as Yves Saint Laurent were eager to develop their own brands, and unlike Coco Chanel’s strong sense of ownership, Lagerfeld was happier being fashion’s top “mercenary”, hopping from one brand to the next. Until Chanel. There isno underestimating Lagerfeld’s monumental role in the maison’s survival. “When I took over Chanel, no one wanted to work for an old company. I accepted, against everyone’s advice, to breathe some life back into a house which was more than a Sleeping Beauty. It wasn’t trendy at all then”.

Lagerfeld brought a new, ruthlessly creative energy to Chanel, irreverently playing with the maison’s style staples to make them modern and desirable; very short skirts, big shoulders, oversized jewellery,and a ubiquitous logo. “Not that all this was very ‘Chanel’: Coco Chanel would never have done that”, Lagerfeld says of his early collections. “Chanel is the symbol of the modern woman, even from the last century, but the taste of and what Chanel is all about is the same approach, the same attitude, the same spirit of freedom and modernity.”

Lagerfeld’s own obsession with the “now” is well documented. “I love change, I’m not attached to anything”. He is known for religiously keeping up with the latest music, books, news, etc. and refuses to keep any archives of his work (he destroys most of his sketches after they are no longer immediately useful). Lagerfeld has gone through many physical metamorphoses; “I’ve changed myself often”, he says, “like the phoenix who is reborn, or Orlando who lives for a hundred years. I rather like that”. His style and silhouette today are instantly recognisable, even by those who are not fashion enthusiasts. With the signature swept back silver hair, high collared white blouse, black suit and leather gloves, Lagerfeld has created a brand image of his very person. Echoing Coco Chanel’s understanding of becoming her own most powerful marketing tool, Lagerfeld has become one of the biggest fashion icons of today. Steiff even famously created a bear in his likeness.

Under Lagerfeld the house of Chanel has soared to dizzying heights. The latest project, a 5,160-square foot flagship store situated in the Peninsula Hotel, Shanghai, broke world records for opening day sales and is Chanel’s biggest store in China yet. All this is part of a general Chanel charm offensive over China. Though relatively new to the country, the house has been welcomed with open arms. Lagerfeld even directed a short film in homage to the city, “Paris- Shanghai: A fantasy. The trip that Coco Chanel only made in her dreams”, depicting Coco Chanel dreaming of the city after falling asleep in her rue Cambon apartment.

Despite his pioneering role, Lagerfeld plays down Chanel’s groundbreaking success there, saying, “I am not the right person to be asked about the appeal Chanel has for the Chinese market. I am a designer, I create the collections. The inspiration is not China in the sense of doing a collection for the Chinese market. We just opened a huge, I must say, very beautiful boutique here and it shows that people are interested and they love it. But this kind of Chinese inspiration, the flair of a certain kind of China, it is fashion for women all over the world. I don’t see it in terms of market, I see it in terms of homage, of being right for the place. It’s polite to make something that can look pleasant to a Chinese eye because they are used to it.”

So what enraptures the master of controlled elegance? “A lot of things, I cannot name only one. I’m a publisher and I have a bookshop, so you know, nobody is so much into art and books than me. I have three jobs. Fashion, photography and books. They all inspire me. Architecture stimulates fashion, and there is a symbiosis between fashion and photography.” And which photographer does he most admire? “I love Steven Meisel, he is the fashion photographer par excellence.”

“I’m open to anything”, Lagerfeld declares, “for me, everything that is in accordance with the Zeitgeist is OK. In every new development I manage to find a niche that fits my personality so I can go on”. It is through this approach that Lagerfeld has been able to show Chanel the way it had been created by Coco Chanel herself: infinitely modern.

by Adelia Sabatini

From the Glass Archive – Issue two – Rapture

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