Ask almost anyone to name the most iconic French fashion brand and we bet the reply will be the same each time: Chanel. In the world of fashion, the house of Chanel has become synonymous with luxury, sophistication, elegance—and France. The paragon of Parisian chic, champion of haute couture, guardian of the famed maisons d’art, and a pioneer in women’s fragrance and beauty, Chanel has always been the fashion house for the beau monde. And, fueling it all—the forces animating its spirit—were two of fashion’s most innovative and visionary designers: the house’s namesake and founder, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, and Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel’s creative director until his passing in February of this year.
How a small millinery shop on 160 Boulevard Malesherbes transformed into one of the world’s most recognizable luxury brands is due largely to the indomitable spirit and creativity of Gabrielle Chanel, whom many would refer to simply as “Coco.” A striking beauty with an unmatched eye for the trends of her time, not mention an awareness of what was missing, Chanel was equally at ease with the avant-garde—composer Igor Stravinsky, notably among them—as she was with the age’s jet-set, and she parlayed her skills into a brand imagined for the modern woman of the age. Within around a decade of its founding, Chanel had captured the attention of the world’s fashion elites: first in 1921 with the launch of her legendary eponymous fragrance—Chanel No.5, decidedly modernist in its packaging and refreshing in its champagne-like sparkle (owing to the ingenious addition of aldehydes)—and then again in 1926 with the introduction of what would become known as the “Little Black Dress,” the simplicity and elegance of which were unlike anything women had available to them before. As Harper’s Bazaar noted in 1923 of Chanel’s creative designs, “simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance.” Having rapidly established herself as a designer par excellence, Chanel paved the way to establishing her house as an unstoppable force in women’s fashion.
By the time Karl Lagerfeld assumed the role of creative director of Chanel in 1983—after the passing of its founder in 1971—the house had established itself as the epitome of luxury. Lagerfeld, who previously had been at the helm of Chloé, immediately adapted the savoir-faire of his predecessor, incorporating many of Coco’s hallmark design elements—tweeds, gold accents, chains, and padded leather—while also aligning these with the spirit of his own time. Under Lagerfeld’s stewardship, Chanel expanded its global reach, tapping into new markets internationally and connecting with a new generation of consumers. With an uncanny eye—much like Coco Chanel—Lagerfeld was able to connect the world of society elites with the faces of popular culture, acutely aware of the latter’s ability to extend the brand’s reach. If Andy Warhol was the expert at understanding pop culture's influence in art, Lagerfeld was equally his match in reading the tea leaves to propel Chanel forward as a cultural driver.
But if Lagerfeld had one eye firmly on the future, he was also deeply reverential toward the traditions of France’s cultural heritage. Like Coco Chanel, Lagerfeld incorporated French artisans in the production of his haute couture creations, going so far as to work with Chanel CEO Bruno Pavlovsky to establish Paraffection in 1997. This subsidiary of the company aimed to support artisanal manufacturing, gathering the various maisons d’art under one umbrella.
With Lagerfeld's death earlier this year, the creative reigns of Chanel now belong to his longtime collaborator, Virginie Viard. And while the world awaits the next chapter in the house's history, the legacy that began with Gabrielle Chanel will undoubtedly continue for generations to come.