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Why handbag collectors love Chanel

From its links to Coco Chanel’s childhood to its radically practical design, there’s more to the house's most iconic accessory than meets the eye. Handbags & Accessories specialist Rachel Koffsky explains
 

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  • Coco Chanel was a rebel

A rare limited edition Black Lambskin Leather Boy Bag with L.E.D. Chanel, 2017. Estimate €6,000-8,000. This lot is offered in Sacs & Accessoires on 12 December at Christies in Paris

A rare limited edition Black Lambskin Leather Boy Bag with L.E.D. Chanel, 2017. Estimate: €6,000-8,000. This lot is offered in Sacs & Accessoires on 12 December at Christie's in Paris

Part of the enduring appeal of the house of Chanel is the timelessness of founder Coco Chanel’s aesthetic. But her signature simplicity was actually a rebellious response to ornate and constricting late-19th and early-20th century fashions.

A matte sea green alligator and lambskin Maxi Flap Bag with antiqued gold hardware. Chanel, 2016. Estimate HK$60,000-80,000. This lot is offered on 29 November in the Handbags & Accessories sale at Christies in Hong Kong

A matte sea green alligator and lambskin Maxi Flap Bag with antiqued gold hardware. Chanel, 2016. Estimate: HK$60,000-80,000. This lot is offered on 29 November in the Handbags & Accessories sale at Christie's in Hong Kong

Chanel first presented a shoulder bag in 1929. Tired of having to carry her purse in her hands on social occasions, she added a chain, inspired by the straps on soldiers’ bags. The now-iconic Flap Bag was introduced in February 1955, dubbed the 2.55 after the date of its release. The bag has changed little since, a testament to its enduring style. 

Karl Lagerfeld, who took over at Chanel in 1983, did make one notable addition to the Flap Bag: the CC turnlock, now a feature on the Classic Flap. Traditionally crafted in jersey, then lambskin and caviar leather, iterations in exclusive materials such as ostrich or alligator are collector favourites. The straps on the first Flap Bags were entirely made of chain metal. But when materials became scarce, Coco improvised by weaving leather into the chain to reduce the amount of metal needed.


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  • Chanel’s life is in the details

Many of the design features of the first 2.55 can be directly linked to aspects of Chanel’s early life. According to fashion lore, the bag's burgundy lining was inspired by the burgundy uniform she wore at the Aubazine Abbey orphanage in Corrèze, France, where she was raised. The zippered interior pocket, tucked beneath the top flap, is said to have been created for hiding love letters — Coco notoriously engaged in several torrid love affairs. The fact that she never married is reflected in the name given to the original rectangular clasp: Mademoiselle. 


A limited edition black calfskin leather 2.55 Lucky Charm Double Flap with aged silver hardware. Chanel, 2006-08. Estimate €2,000-3,000. This lot is offered in Sacs & Accessoires on 12 December at Christies in Paris

A limited edition black calfskin leather 2.55 Lucky Charm Double Flap with aged silver hardware. Chanel, 2006-08. Estimate: €2,000-3,000. This lot is offered in Sacs & Accessoires on 12 December at Christie's in Paris

Chanel’s personal history remains a rich creative source. In its updates of the 2.55, the house frequently makes use of design elements that recall events in its founder’s life, like the camelia flower given to her by her lover, Boy Capel, and the number 5 —  the name of the perfume that made her famous. Lagerfeld uses this iconography on handbags and accessories to tell the story of the house’s founder, and to wink to collectors in the know.


A Paris-Moscou Runway Mongolian Lamb Bag. Chanel, 2009. Estimate $15,000–20,000. This lot is offered from 22 November - 5 December in Handbags & Accessories, Online 

A Paris-Moscou Runway Mongolian Lamb Bag. Chanel, 2009. Estimate: $15,000–20,000. This lot is offered from 22 November - 5 December in Handbags & Accessories, Online 

A 2009 semiannual collection was an ode to Chanel's history with men, her alleged relationship with the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, and the Russian culture from which she drew inspiration. 

The one-of-a-kind Paris-Moscou Runway Mongolian Lamb bag produced for that collection reflects the exceptional craftsmanship for which the house is famous. The Mongolian-lambskin body rests beneath an expertly crafted bejewelled and enamelled head, the bag’s closure a symbolic pseudo-revolutionary badge. Sold in Monaco, this bag is a trophy for collectors and connoisseurs of the iconic brand.


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  • Karl Lagerfeld brought fun to Chanel

A limited edition Straw Bird Basket Bag with gold hardware. Chanel 2010. Estimate $6,000-8,000. This lot is offered in Handbags & Accessories from 22 November - 5 December, Online 

A limited edition Straw Bird Basket Bag with gold hardware. Chanel 2010. Estimate: $6,000-8,000. This lot is offered in Handbags & Accessories from 22 November - 5 December, Online 

While embracing the elegance that has defined Chanel since its inception, Lagerfeld-designed handbags have catapulted the brand toward contemporary cool. Never one to shy away from bold statements, his playful pieces have incorporated such unusual items as a hula-hoop and a milk carton. 

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  • Chanel's runway shows are immersive experiences

A Casino Runway Collection black lucite Dice evening bag. Chanel, 2016. Estimate €4,000–6,000. This lot is offered in Sacs & Accessoires on 12 December at Christies in Paris

A Casino Runway Collection black lucite Dice evening bag. Chanel, 2016. Estimate: €4,000–6,000. This lot is offered in Sacs & Accessoires on 12 December at Christie's in Paris

For its runway presentations, Chanel builds fully-contained worlds. Past shows have transported audiences to spaces as diverse and unexpected as a casino, airport terminal, or Parisian café. Every aspect of the presentation is expertly calculated, and no detail is overlooked. Handbags are frequently the critical and collector favourite of the runway shows.

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  • From the Métier to the runway

A Paris Bombay limited edition black plexiglas Matryoshka evening bag with silver hardware. Chanel, Métiers d’Art pre-AutumnWinter 2012–13. Estimate €4,000–6,000. This lot is offered in Sacs & Accessoires on 12 December at Christies in Paris

A Paris Bombay limited edition black plexiglas Matryoshka evening bag with silver hardware. Chanel, Métiers d’Art pre-Autumn/Winter 2012–13. Estimate: €4,000–6,000. This lot is offered in Sacs & Accessoires on 12 December at Christie's in Paris

Chanel's seasonal Métiers d’Art collections celebrate the artisans with whom the house works. These collections, which boast the most meticulous craftsmanship and attention to detail seen in couture today, are often inspired by the aesthetics, history and dress of one specific country. 

The Matryoshka evening bag, which first appeared on the Chanel Métiers d’Art Paris-Moscow Fall 2009 runway, was inspired by traditional Russian nesting dolls. It sold out soon after its release to Chanel boutiques, and became an iconic collectible.