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The little black dress, the tweed suit, the quilted leather handbag, and the first-ever designer perfumethese are just some of Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel's lasting contributions to fashion. Little did she know when she opened her small millinery shop in Paris in 1913 that she was laying the foundation for what would become one of the world's most illustrious fashion houses. Offering a selection of sporty clothes alongside her cloches and toques, however, Chanel speedily became the rage among upper-crust mademoiselles eager to don her modishly boyish dresses made of unfussy jersey (a fabric that until then had been used primarily for men's underwear.)
World War I broke out the very next year, of course, but in the long run that only boosted the popularity of Chanel's new kind of chic, as women sought more comfortable garments to replace their restrictive corsets. Throughout the twenties and thirties, Chanel continued to revolutionize the way women dressed, particularly with the popularization of the Chanel suit, which for the first time gave women a socialor perhaps even workuniform as simple and unimpeachable as a man's business three-piece. Chanel No. 5 was created in 1923 and is still the best-selling fragrance in the world all these decades later.
While Chanel's legacy is legendary, so was the public persona she constructed and promoted. Raised in a French orphanage, she rewrote the narrative of her life, cultivating an aura of privilege. "Coco," the persona known for her royal lovers, rotogravure friends, and rarefied tastes, became her own best advertisement.
Again buffeted by the winds of war, Chanel shut the doors to her atelier in 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. She didn't reopen the business until 1953, introducing the Chanel suit to a new generation of women.
The first lady of fashion died in 1971 at the age of 86 at the Hôtel Ritz in Paris, where she had lived for 30 years. While a design team kept the label on life support, it wasn't until 1983, when Karl Lagerfeld assumed creative control, that the house was reborn in all its glory. Today, the company is privately owned by Alain and Gerard Wertheimer, the grandsons of Pierre Wertheimer, who originally funded Chanel No. 5.
In his 25 years as creative director of Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld has not only safeguarded the towering legacy of Coco Chanel but has also enhanced it by turning the house into one of the most powerful and profitable brands in the world.
When Lagerfeld joined Chanel in 1983 to design haute couture, his résumé was already impressive; he was serving simultaneously as creative director of Chloé and Fendi. (To this day he remains the creative director of the Italian label, in addition to overseeing his eponymous line, Karl Lagerfeld.) At the time, Chanel was still languishing in the wake of Mademoiselle's death in 1971, subsisting largely on sales from its best-selling fragrance, Chanel No. 5. In 1984 Lagerfeld also assumed control of Chanel's ready-to-wear collection and swiftly began to reinvigorate the brand. He sifted through the house's archives, incorporating such signature Chanel details as tweed fabrics, pearls, gold chains, and the double-C logo, but showing them in a sexy, youthful, andmost importantlyirreverent way. As Vogue magazine wrote in 2004, "He made sensational shows, subverting and redefining the Chanel look in every way imaginable (trashing, slashing, parodying if need be) but perpetually filling the stores with a fresh supply of wearable sexy clothes."
Along the way, Lagerfeld has become something of a legend himself. With his white powdered ponytail, signature black sunglasses, and fingerless black gloves, he is the most recognizable fashion designer in the world. He is also touted as the industry's resident Renaissance man. In addition to the numerous collections he puts out each year, he owns the Parisian bookstore 7L and has his own publishing imprint, Edition 7L. He has received six awards from the CFDA, including a Lifetime Achievement nod in 2002.