When a fashion designer establishes a fashion house with their own name at the forefront, there is a chance that through great success this name will become legendary and echo through generations, the mere utterance of it conjuring images of grandeur. Neither designer nor Maison is guaranteed longevity, however. The literal demise of a fashion designer is inevitable, whereas the demise of a fashion house is not. But it is possible. So what happens when the founder of a fashion house is no more? Does the label die? The answer is no. A situation like this necessitates a change of hands and requires a forward-thinking visionary to rejuvenate the brand without obliterating its deep-rooted themes. Many of the past fashion masons, who chiselled their industry into what it is today, left behind lofty legacies and great temples in which other designers could potentially flourish. For living proof of this we need look no further than into the history of the brand, Chanel.
Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, the Maison’s founder, is forever hailed as the matriarch of haute couture, having created life-changing fashion that defined an era. Chanel, born in 1883, had the humblest of beginnings, but would end her days at the Ritz Hotel in Paris in 1971 aged 87, having lived there for 35 years – a world away from the life into which she was born.
Funded by a male admirer, Chanel opened her first shop in Paris in 1913, and her designs were soon internationally renowned. The entire Chanel ethos was about giving women freedom through practical and comfortable dressing to lead an ‘on-the-go’ lifestyle. There was also the definitive Chanel minimalism which exuded luxury, with black, white and beige often mingling together.
The Midas-touched successes that Chanel achieved were and are still golden in their lustre. They include the creation of the most desirable perfume in history, Chanel No 5, in 1921, and the glorified reinvention of the little black dress in 1924. Needless to say the black dress was around long before Chanel, but when her attention turned to the item, something that was previously viewed as sombre got transformed into a chic and malleable wardrobe staple. The introduction of the classic Chanel suit, the cultivation of the quilted handbag and the inauguration of the eternal CC logo are also key landmarks. “She had few equals in terms of professional legacy”, wrote one commentator. Fashion author, Alicia Drake, added: “It’s impossible to overestimate her relevance to high fashion today.” Indeed it is impossible, especially when she is the only couturier to be named amongst Time’s 100 Most Important People of the Century.
Up until her death Coco Chanel remained working, but it was not until 1983 that Karl Lagerfeld, a formidable character as a fashion designer, would begin his role as Chanel’s creative director. What happened next to the then flailing label was something quite extraordinary. Lagerfeld, who nowadays is as much associated with the Chanel brand as Chanel herself, took firm grip of the reins and charged the label into new-found glory. It is now worth somewhere between £5.6 billion and £8 billion.
Deciphering what Lagerfeld possesses that allowed him to re-stimulate the Chanel label is impossible; his subtle but astounding depth and ability to act upon his acute intuition played a considerable role, even saying himself: “For me it is easy to follow things, to have an evolution, to move ahead”. This is exactly what Coco Chanel did not do in Lagerfeld’s eyes, who says the mini skirt, or more precisely Chanel’s resistance to it, was the reason for the brand’s waning in the 1960s.
It cannot be contested that Lagerfeld’s techniques are anything but effective, even genius. Fashion journalists lavish him with praise, whether they’re discussing his haute couture masterpieces, prêt-à-porter collections or just the man himself. His greatest legacy is the resurrection of the Chanel suit. Throughout the 60s and 70s, the classic look had wilted, and was mostly worn by women aged fifty-something. After Lagerfeld’s intervention the look was immediately adopted by younger women, and is reworked for every new season. In a recent ready-to-wear collection, one of the new Chanel suits is a metallic gold and silver creation, but so fabulously modern is the design that the jacket is paired with mesmerising hot-pants. The Chanel/Lagerfeld marriage is a perfect example of how the entire history of a brand can translate so superbly to another gifted individual, and how with such a conjoining of forces that something even more wondrous is born.