Chanel: An Iconic Brand
In 2014, Chanel celebrated its 105th anniversary, a milestone that can only serve as a testament to the enduring legacy of the brand. Recognized in haute couture circles for its ready-to-wear clothes, luxury goods, and an ever-growing collection of fine jewelry and fashion accessories, the French-based fashion house embodies the consummate definition of classic sophistication. Most notable in its branding is Chanel’s iconic logo, designed in 1925 by Coco Chanel herself. It has since remained unchanged, and in its classic simplicity serves as a steadfast emblem that is recognized the world over. Anyone who holds fashion, fragrance, and jewelry in esteem knows what those two interlocking, opposing, block-lettered “C’s” have come to signify—a brand that has existed for over a century, and still carries the weight of influence it has always maintained; so much so, that today, the privately held company generates international revenues exceeding $8.5 Billion across more than 300 storefronts worldwide.
Aside from the logo, one item that invariably speaks “Chanel” is the ubiquitous “little black dress,” whose provenance can be attributed to the House of Chanel. Long considered a staple in any woman’s wardrobe, the little black dress was an innovative design for the time, not only in its form-fitting, straight lines and shortened length (then, at the calf), but also in its choice of color; for, before the 1920s, black clothing customarily signified a period of mourning. Owing to this simple dress, the color black—and even other typically “masculine” hues, such as navy and gray—not only connoted a feminine daringness, but they became shades of polished refinement for women. With the little black dress, and other classic goodies, Chanel ushered in a new century of fashion by transforming the female silhouette from one of rigid corsetry to designs of elegance and fluidity, relative austerity, and less constriction, no doubt inspired by the black and white ascetic habits worn by the nuns during Coco Chanel’s years at the Abbey Aubazine. This was how she revolutionized fashion . . . by means of understated luxury.
Another archetypal Chanel design is the military-inspired Chanel Suit, known for its clean, masculine lines and flexible fabric, and executed with outstanding workmanship. Conceived with movability in mind, this signature suit—largely comprised of a fitted shirt and boxy collarless jacket, which was trimmed with braided fabric and embossed metal buttons, and often brandished square front pockets—popularized professional clothing for women. The suit was a hit, and its longevity can be traced from its inception in 1920 to the early sixties. To accompany this ensemble for the modern woman, Coco Chanel commissioned her first fragrance—No 5 de Chanel—named for the tester she selected from a line of samples provided by Ernest Beaux, the architect of the fragrance. Arguably the most popular fragrance, when No 5 was launched, Chanel’s name was on the bottle—a first, ever, and which cleverly served to “brand” her perfume. In time, No 5 was followed by numerous other fragrances, many of which have enjoyed wide popularity over the years.
But it wasn’t just clothing and fragrance that exemplified the Chanel brand. Jewelry was, and still remains, a key component of the Chanel enterprise. When Coco Chanel hired Duke Fulco di Verdura in 1927, an eight-year collaboration was formed. Chanel quickly appointed di Verdura head jewelry designer, thus spawning some of the most famous Chanel jewelry designs, including the renowned gem-studded Maltese Cross brooch and cuff bracelet, which still holds prominence in any “Chanel” jewelry image search.
Jewelry from the House of Chanel became ornaments of substance, following the release of Chanel’s first collection in 1932, titled: Bijoux de Diamants. Said to have been inspired by the constellations, one of the more prominent pieces in the collection was the Comete necklace, a platinum necklace that displayed a large diamond star at one end, and several thin strands of diamonds at the other. The brooch-like star sat on one side of the neck at the base, while the strands of diamonds were intended to wrap around the back of the neck and cascade down the front on the other side, beyond the neckline. An inventive piece for the time, this necklace cleverly mimicked a shooting star and the vaporizing meteoroids in its wake. Another piece in the collection was a delicate diamond fringe necklace that could morph into a kind of tiara, whereby one main strand of diamonds was designed to sit on top of the head, much like a headband, while the diamond strands—or fringe—were meant to splay out from it onto the forehead. This design more than hints of the beaded headpieces worn by flappers in the roaring twenties.
Thanks to Chanel, costume jewelry also came into vogue in the twenties in the likes of bold necklaces, chunky bracelets, and multi-jeweled brooches. Though costume jewelry existed at the time, first used by French designer Paul Poiret, it was Chanel who rendered them fashionable. She would combine gold with faux pearls, and intermix semi-precious gemstones in a multitude of colors. It wasn’t uncommon, either, for her to pair faux pearls with precious gemstones, such as emeralds and rubies, and to employ turquoise in gold settings with pearls or diamonds. It was a kind of mix-and-match approach that worked exceedingly well.
After World War II, Chanel would often design jewelry to complement her clothing lines, the intention being to pair pieces that fit the ensemble as a whole. Interestingly, while her tailoring frequently denoted a clean, uncomplicated style, her taste in jewelry design ran toward the dramatic. One strand of pearls, for instance, wasn’t enough; a woman should adorn her neck in several emboldened strands, in sautoir fashion. Chanel, essentially, dressed women from head to toe, and did so quite stylishly.
Still the benchmark to emulate in the high fashion world, the Chanel brand continues to inspire clothiers, perfumers, jewelers, and accessory designers across the globe. With its uniquely established brand image and reputation, Chanel endures as both pioneer and leader in the high fashion arena, and is well positioned to maintain its standing at the top of haute couture world.
Humble Beginnings of a Fashion Trendsetter
Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, later nicknamed “Coco,” was born on August 19, 1883 in Saumur, France, a market town on the river Loire, to an unmarried laundress named Eugénie Jeanne Devolle and Henri-Albert Chanel, a street merchant who hawked work clothes and undergarments from town to town across central France in order to eke out a living. Gabrielle was named after “Gabrielle Bonheur,” a nun in the hospital for indigents where she was born. Her mother married shortly thereafter in 1884, when Gabrielle was a toddler, and the family eventually grew to include six children, one of which died in infancy.
In February 1895, when Gabrielle was eleven years old, her mother succumbed to a respiratory illness at the age of thirty-one, likely brought on by years of poverty, numerous pregnancies, malnutrition, and multiple bouts with pneumonia. Shortly after her mother’s death, Gabrielle and her sisters were sent to the convent at the Abbey of Aubazine. This orphanage was to be Gabrielle’s home until she left at the age of seventeen to live at the Notre Dame School in Moulins, a Catholic boarding house. These years of living in poverty, in an orphanage, and at a boarding house left a lasting impression on Chanel, and led her to fashion various alternative narratives about her upbringing, which have partly been responsible for the many inaccurate stories about her early life in central France.
Chanel perfected the craft of sewing during her years at both the Aubazine orphanage and the Notre Dame School, where the Mother Superior had secured employment for her as a seamstress. It was also at this time that she took up cabaret singing. In 1906, she headed to Vichy, a resort town in central France, to audition for performances. After a bustling season, in which she could not secure a place on the stage, she returned to Moulins. It was there that she met Etienne Balsan, a cavalry office and the heir to a textile fortune. She became his mistress and took up residence for the next three years at his chateau, where she was indulged by Balsan and his life of leisure and decadence.
This relationship led to her introduction to Balsan’s friend and British Socialite, Captain Arthur Edward “Boy” Capel, which formed the turning point in her life. The two commenced a nine-year affair, during which he financed the opening of her millinery shop in Paris in 1910, selling custom-made decorated hats to wealthy Parisian women (hat-making being an initial diversion of hers). She gained some success in this business, after a stage actress twice modeled her hats, and in 1913, Capel financed the launching of her clothing boutique in Deauville. There she designed leisurewear for women, largely incorporating comfortable but modest fabrics, such as jersey, in large part because of the drape of the material. During the First World War, however, such fabrics came in handy for designing practical garments for women now taking up work in factory jobs. With coal in limited supply, they needed warm, comfortable clothing for the conditions under which they worked. The success of this shop led to the acquisition of her shop in Biarritz in 1915, a seaside town frequented by high society. This proved to be a lucrative endeavor, followed in 1919 by the establishment of her “fashion boutique,” a relatively new concept, at 31 Rue Cambon in one of Paris’ more fashionable districts. She bought the entire building, and in no time her name, according to Harper’s Bazaar, was “on the list of every buyer.” Here, she previewed her ready-to-wear styles, such as the simple dress-and-coat collections she became known for, as well as her fashionable evening attire. In time, she was designing clothing not only for her pret-a-porter customers, but also for celebrities, high society, and Hollywood’s MGM.
Ownership and Nazi Affiliation
Possibly the most influential fashion designer of all time, Coco Chanel did not maintain full possession of her brand. In 1922, at the Longchamps races, she was introduced to Pierre Wertheimer, a French businessman and racehorse owner. She pursued him and his brother, Paul, as partners, seeing that they possessed the capital, business acumen, and connections that would expand her business and fund the inauguration of her perfume, No 5. Théophile Bader, founder of Galeries Lafayette, a Parisian department store, wanted his venue to be the first to offer the Chanel fragrance. As such, the Wertheimers provided the financing for the production and distribution of the perfume for a seventy percent share in the company. The remainder was divvied up between Bader, who was granted twenty percent, and Chanel, who consented to a mere ten percent. In the deal, she received the license to “Parfums Chanel,” but absolved herself of the business end, therefore maintaining only the arm of her couture enterprise.
In time, Chanel grew increasingly dissatisfied with the financial arrangement she’d undertaken with the Wertheimers. She felt she had been exploited, and endeavored to gain full control of Parfums Chanel by hiring a lawyer in 1935 and filing a lawsuit against them. Her efforts, however, proved futile. But after World War II commenced, Chanel pursued another avenue, this time endeavoring to benefit from the Nazi practice of confiscating Jewish-owned property. Being of Jewish descent, the Wertheimers fled to the U.S. in 1940, and Chanel sought to gain an advantage in their absence. In 1941, positioning herself as an Aryan, Chanel made a plea to the German government to legalize her full ownership rights. She, however, had no knowledge of the prior undertaking by the Wertheimers to protect their financial interests by legally assigning their interests to Felix Amiot, a Christian businessman. Chanel had no recourse.
In the period during the war, Coco Chanel retired and took up residence with her new suitor, Nazi officer Hans Gunther von Dincklage. At the time, clothing was not manufactured, and only Chanel perfumes and accessories were vended. When France fell under German control, and the Nazis took up residence in a hotel in proximity to Chanel’s boutique, it was rumored that Chanel grew rather chummy with the Germans, a relationship that just about branded her a spy. It was alleged that as a liaison on their behalf, Chanel engaged in a secret mission, meeting with Winston Churchill as part of an attempt to garner a peace agreement. The agreement never came to fruition, and owing to French resistance and support from American troops, France was liberated in 1944. Shortly thereafter, Chanel was arrested for aiding the Germans. Apparently, Churchill interceded and she was freed, only to flee to Switzerland to avoid the increasing punishments meted out by the French to female German collaborators. During this period, Pierre Wertheimer returned to Paris and regained control of his financial holdings from Amiot. Chanel subsequently initiated a parfumerie in Switzerland, and though Wertheimer felt she violated his legal rights, he abstained from initiating a legal campaign against her for trademark infringement, and instead chose to bestow to her the sum of $400,000, a two percent royalty, and limited rights to the sale of her perfumes in Switzerland. In exchange for a monthly remuneration, she sold the rights to her name in Parfum Chanel altogether.
When Coco Chanel returned from her exile in Switzerland, she discovered that the fashion scene in Paris was abuzz with Christian Dior’s “New Look.” In an effort to resurrect the industry, Dior had launched a post-war collection that emphasized fitted cropped bodices or tailored jackets that nipped at the waist, and billowing skirts—a precursor to what we know as the characteristic 1950s party-dress style. With fabric no longer under ration, full skirts could now be manufactured, and this look, which emphasized the hourglass curve, served to feminize women from the former masculine-edged clothing.
Coco Chanel wanted in, but not to follow in Dior’s footsteps. Her line of thinking still fell in concert with the perception what a modern woman should wear. She found Dior’s fashions impractical for the unconventional woman. While Dior seemed to represent a movement that pushed women out of the workforce and back into the kitchen, Chanel once more favored clothing that embodied the liberated woman while making a fashion statement. Seeking a resurgence of her signature style clothing and jewelry, but lacking the funds, staff, and materials, she was forced, once again, to approach Wertheimer for financial backing. He consented, demanding full rights to all Chanel-branded products, and she relented. She took on jeweler Robert Goossens to revitalize her line of jewelry, knowing he’d pair the high-end with the low-end in gems, pearls, rock crystal, shells and the like, in keeping with her preferences. Though it took some time for her to become re-established, in 1953, at the age of seventy, she released her couture collection, which exemplified a reworking of Chanel classics. It was not an immediate success, but in typical Chanel style, she persisted and in less than a handful of seasons, she once more caught the interest of wealthy women everywhere for her clothing, handbags, shoes, and jewelry. Celebrities also sought her designs, the likes of Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, and even Jackie Kennedy, complete with telltale pillbox hat. (Rumor has it, however, that the infamous pink Chanel suit the First Lady wore on the day of her husband’s assassination was a knock-off, the suit having been replicated from a Chanel design and incorporating Chanel fabric, but stitched in the U.S.) This reworking of her classic designs lasted through the 1950s and into the sixties, where we can glean images of a Mad Men-style era of polished boucle suit sets and silk blouses, stylized cocktail dresses, and bold statement jewelry.
An Enduring Brand
Coco Chanel died in Paris in 1971. She was 87 years of age and still designing, an effort that produced uniforms for the Olympic Airways flight staff in the late 1960s. Leadership was assumed by her assistants, Yvonne Dudel, Jean Cazaubon, and Philippe Guibourge. Pierre Wertheimer’s son, Jacques, who assumed direction of Chanel’s parfumerie, bought a controlling share of the House of Chanel. His son, Alain, in turn, took control of Chanel S.A. The new designer for Chanel came in 1983, when Karl Lagerfeld was named chief designer. He continued to honor Chanel’s memory by incorporating the types of fabrics and accents she had favored, while maintaining a contemporary edge, raising hemlines, adding leggings, and pulling in other fabrics, such as denim and leather.
In 1987, Chanel released its first watch, a sophisticated timepiece whose shape mimics the stopper on the No 5 perfume bottle. This shape, it is said, was inspired by the Place Vendome, a city square in Paris which Chanel could observe from her room at the Hotel Ritz. A sapphire crystal with faceted edges sat atop this octagonal shape, and it formed the foundation for many of the watches that have since been manufactured by Chanel.
Today, Chanel is owned by Alain and Gerard Wertheimer, grandsons of Pierre Wertheimer. Under their direction, Chanel continues expanding in brand, market shares, and revenues. The company brand has expanded through its clothing line, which is still under Lagerfeld’s stewardship, and by adding new product lines, such as the swimwear label Eres, the skincare line Précision, a travel collection, sunglasses, and additional fragrances.
Over a century after Coco Chanel first began stitching hats, her legacy continues to endure. Her luxury brand is strong and maintains a presence in the fashion industry, in perfume, in cosmetics, and much more. Through the company’s high points and low, and owing to her ability to buck convention and controversy, Chanel strove, with her usual aplomb, to set trends, continually placing herself in the avant garde and establishing herself as a perfectionist who was not to be outmatched. Her first perfume, Chanel No 5, is the “[b]est-selling and most famous fragrance of all time,” according to the House of Chanel. Marilyn Monroe once said a few drops of it is all she wears to bed, and of late, Brad Pitt has endorsed it as his “luck, fate, and fortune.” Chanel products continue to sell at a brisk pace, and vintage Chanel (clothing, jewelry, handbags, and more) remains highly coveted. Through her vision and her sense of the aesthetic, Coco Chanel managed to build an empire, one which has, without a doubt, stood the test of time. For this reason, both Chanel, the brand, and Coco Chanel, remain icons whose prominence in history and the fashion world will likely never fade.