We’re delighted that our piece on Louis Vuitton’s history is so popular, it’s the second most clicked-on page on our website (you can access the piece here. So we decided to keep the history lessons going with the story of Coco Chanel. The next time you take your prized Chanel handbag out of its dust-bag, you’ll know just how far its travelled to reach your wardrobe!
The Early Years
Gabrielle Chanel was born in 1883 in Saumur, France, coming from very humble beginnings. She was orphaned at the age of 12, following her mother’s tragic death from tuberculosis. Her father left her and her siblings on the doorstep of a Catholic orphanage where she spent the rest of her childhood. However, it was to stand her in good stead because it was where she learnt how to sew and make clothes.
Eventually, she left the orphanage and found work as a seamstress in Moulins where she made clothes for singers and actresses. To subsidise her life, beautiful Gabrielle Chanel became a singer in bars where she’d gain many admiring glances from the men. Her stage name was Coco.
Becoming a Fashion House
In 1906 she became the mistress to a French textiles millionaire who paid her bills and helped get her business off the ground. At first, she set up her own millinery which did well; eventually she met another man, Boy Capel, a wealthy Englishman and the love of her life. Capel took her to Paris where in January 1910, she opened a milliners in Rue Cambon.
In 1913, Coco opened her first boutique in Deauville thanks to her lover’s money. It was there that she launched her first relaxed looks featuring simple dresses and casual knitwear. The look was a sharp contrast to the fussy outfits of Paris. Perhaps it was luck, perhaps it was Coco Chanel’s obvious sense of style but her designs were welcomed especially as it was wartime as there was a dramatic shift towards simplicity. As well as her simplistic but obviously stylish designs, Coco Chanel inspired women across France to keep their figures slim and delicate.
Not long after, Capel died in a car crash which greatly affected Coco and she immersed herself in work. She had many wealthy lovers after Capel but none of them measured up to her English man-friend.
In the 1920’s Coco introduced the Little Black Dress, it was part of her way of expressing her loss through design, because of it’s obviously sombre colour. However, its simplicity was extremely chic and head-turning, especially when she added white cuffs and a collar (believed to have been inspired by her time at the orphanage, under the watchful eye of nuns). Her LBD became a blend of masculinity with femininity and was a brand new look that took off not only in Paris but soon, across the wealthy classes in Western Europe.
Coco’s designs excited and thrilled women, she kept her looks simple and smart, with flattering lines and gently feminine shapes. She did use more lace and frills for eveningwear, mainly in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s when her evening lines were floaty and soft.
World War 2 & Reinvention
During World War II, Chanel closed down her business and hid away in the Ritz with an enemy, German officer Von Dincklage. Once the war was over, Chanel left France to go to Switzerland and reinvented her brand. She had already created perfume with Chanel No. 5, she had a signature clothing style that was also glamorous but knew that to keep up with the other notable designers that were springing up all over France, she needed something different.
The Pastel Suit
Her new collection launched in early 1954 and surprisingly, wasn’t embraced by the French, who were still reeling from Chanel’s affair with a German officer however, the Americans and the British fell in love with it! The Chanel suit was a hit, pretty soft pastels and tweeds with gloriously large and decorative buttons heralded a new look that women suddenly couldn’t get enough of.
The 1950’s and Beyond
Chanel was loved by actresses and notable celebrities throughout the 1950’s and beyond. Coco Chanel’s famous Chanel No.5 was adopted by Marilyn Monroe as her scent of choice. Famously, Marilyn Monroe was once asked what she wore to bed and her response was “Only Chanel No.5”!
Next, in 1955, Coco Chanel introduced the first Chanel bag. While she had toyed with bags in the 1920’s, this was a huge moment for the brand. It was the introduction of the shoulder bag; the 2.55 quilted shoulder bag complete with a gold chain. The idea was that a woman could then have her “hands free” to do other things rather than hold a handbag – revolutionary!
In 1957, she introduced two-tone shoes (with a contrasting toe area) and in 1960, the brand was close to reaching cult status with Jackie Kennedy preferring it for most of her wardrobe, actress Jane Fonda wore it constantly and other big A-list personalities such as Elizabeth Taylor and Grace Kelly were two of her most loyal customers. Chanel was seen as a luxury brand that women everywhere aspired to wear.
In the 1970’s, Coco Chanel introduced another perfume that is still on sale today, Chanel No.19. In 1971, Chanel died having left a legacy and an impact on the fashion world that even today, shows no signs of slowing down. A few years after her death, the first ready to wear collection was launched in 1978, featuring a treasure trove of garments suitable for day and night along with a number of exciting accessories such as the famous chain belt.
Karl Lagerfeld Takes The Helm
In 1983, Karl Lagerfeld was appointed Design Director at Chanel and further developed the brand in clothing, accessories and handbags but always kept Coco’s signature style at its core. A few years later in 1987, the Premier Watch was launched designed by Jacques Helleu, featuring the same design as the stopper from the still popular Chanel No.5 perfume bottle. Over the ensuing years, the Premier Watch range diversified and grew into a fine jewellery collection. In 2000, more watches were introduced but with a sportier feel.
Chanel Handbags Today
Bags continued to thrive and even today, some of the pieces introduced in the 1970’s/80’s and 90’s continue to be staple pieces in the smartest women’s wardrobes.
In fact, owning one of these bags gives you something that will never date. The classic is still one of the most popular styles you can buy – see them on our website HERE and the Boy Bag HERE is also a firm favourite.
Today, the Chanel brand continues to thrill, pieces from the brand, whether vintage or brand new are much coveted by royalty, A-listers, celebrities and aristocracy. Instantly recognisable, Chanel is an iconic brand that will always appreciate in value. Owning anything from Chanel but especially a Chanel handbag is seen as a milestone. Timeless, classic and always head-turning, there is nothing quite as fabulous as seeing a magnificent Chanel bag adding glamour to any outfit! Shop our Papillonkia collection of exceptional quality Chanel HERE