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Coco's canvas: Inside Chanel's history

Explore the rich legacy of the esteemed French luxury fashion house, Chanel, tracing its origins from Coco Chanel's modest hat store to its current status as a global powerhouse

In the ever-evolving realm of fashion, where trends flicker and styles fade, Chanel reigns as an enduring icon – a timeless brand that has not only weathered the changing sartorial tides but has also thrived for over a century. Its legacy remains as untarnished as that of its founder, Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, who ruled Parisian haute couture for decades and whose influence resonates powerfully across the fashion universe even in the present day. Her journey, from a modest beginning to establishing one of the world's most esteemed fashion houses, unfolds as a narrative of innovation, resilience and an unwavering dedication to style.

Born in Saumur, France, in 1883, Coco Chanel, as she had come to be called, took her first steps by opening a hat boutique called 'Chanel Modes' at 21 Rue Cambon in Paris. It swiftly became a haven for well-known French actresses of the era, who were enchanted by the simplicity and elegance of her designs.

The brand's ascent continued with the opening of the first Chanel boutique in Deauville in 1913, where Coco introduced a collection of sportswear made of jersey – a material that was previously only limited to menswear. This move proved to be an instant hit and revolutionised women's relationships with their bodies.

Following her first taste of success, Coco went on to open her inaugural couture house in Biarritz in 1915, employing 300 workers to breathe life into the designs of her first haute couture collection. Within the same decade, she purchased the 31 Rue Cambon building and set up another couture house there – which remains to this day.

One of the brand's biggest milestones to date would come in the early 1920s, when the Chanel N°5 was introduced in 1921 – a fragrance that would become synonymous with elegance and luxury. In partnership with perfumer Ernest Beaux, Coco went on to create Chanel N°22 soon after, with its name as a reference to the perfume’s year of creation, 1922. It was inspired by the same revolutionary spirit that characterised the N°5 – a powdery floral fragrance carried by tuberose.

Chanel's foray into cosmetics followed in 1924, marking the beginning of a beauty empire. That same year, Coco unveiled her signature tweed suits, a feminine adaptation of a traditionally masculine fabric, offering modern women a distinctive new look.

Two years later, in 1926, she introduced the 'Ford' dress or the world's first 'Little Black Dress' – a daring yet simple design that captivated fashion enthusiasts the world over. American Vogue called it “the frock that all the world will wear” and it remains timeless to this day. It was first featured with long sleeves and a drop waist, accessorised with a single string of pearls – a style statement that continues to inspire designers today.

From this point on, there was no stopping her as Chanel's international rise to fame saw Coco setting out for Hollywood in 1931 on an assignment to create clothes for silver screen stars – a move that solidified her influence in the world of glamour. Riding this wave of success, the brand presented the Bijoux De Diamants collection – Coco's only high jewellery collection – with more than 45 pieces of jewellery.

As World War II disrupted the fashion landscape, Chanel's resilience shone. Despite closures and adversity, fragrances and accessories remained in high demand. Of the five Rue Cambon buildings, only the 31 Rue Cambon boutique remained open, where American soldiers, seeking gifts for their loved ones, were pictured lined up to purchase the N°5 perfume.

In the post-war era, at age 71, Coco decided to make a grand comeback by reopening her couture house in 1954, with a fashion show that was extremely well-received by the international press. The first look of her collection was a jersey set with the number 5. Her prominence continued to break barriers, with the most influential women of the era – Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Fonda, Jackie Kennedy, Romy Schneider and Jeanne Moreau – pictured wearing Chanel pieces.

The year 1955 witnessed the birth of another legend – the iconic Chanel 2.55 bag, featuring quilted leather and a gold chain, forever encapsulating the essence of the brand. In the same decade, the house introduced its first men's fragrance, the emblematic trimmed tweed suit for women made its debut and the iconic two-tone pumps with black tips were launched.

Coco Chanel's passing in 1971 marked the end of an era, but her posthumous collection resonated with global fans. She was famously quoted saying: "May my legend prosper and thrive. I wish it a long and happy life!"

1978 was a pivotal year as the brand embraced ready-to-wear, expanding its global footprint. The dawn of a new era arrived in 1983 with the appointment of Karl Lagerfeld as Artistic Director. Lagerfeld injected fresh energy, revamping ready-to-wear and transforming the interlocking 'CC' monograph into a house icon. The brand continued to evolve under his leadership, introducing accessories like watches and acquiring specialty firms to safeguard classic Parisian craftsmanship.

Chanel remained unwavering as the world faced the challenges of the 21st century. The passing of Karl Lagerfeld in 2019 marked a poignant moment, but the brand seamlessly transitioned with Virginie Viard taking the helm. Even the global pandemic in 2020 could not deter Chanel, as it continued to uphold tradition while adapting to the new normal.

A brand known for making history since its inception, the French luxury retailer recently appointed Leena Nair at the helm – the first-ever Indian-origin Global CEO of the brand and its second female boss in its 113-year history (following in the footsteps of Maureen Chiquet who was appointed as Global CEO in 2007).

An outsider in the fashion industry, Leena Nair previously spent three decades at consumer goods giant, Unilever, before the 53-year-old was tapped by Chanel to lead the luxury fashion house.

Her appointment garnered widespread acclaim, drawing praise not only for the brand but also celebrating her personal triumph. In a recent interview, Nair shared her experience of overcoming societal expectations, recalling instances where she was told she couldn't achieve certain things because of her gender. However, she asserted: "Afterwards, you stop listening!" Emphasising her trailblazing journey, she stated: "I’ve been the first at every job I’ve done. The first woman, the first brown person, the first Asian, the first Indian – but I don’t want to be the last and I am going to try and make it easier for those who come after me."


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