10 things to know about the history of Chanel

Put your knowledge of the world-famous fashion house to the test, from Coco Chanel’s revolutionary designs to the story behind the brand’s iconic lions, camellias and clovers

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Coco Chanel sews the shoulder of a tweed coat on a fashion model. Douglas Kirkland/Sygma/Corbis via Getty Images

Coco Chanel didn’t come from affluence  

With a name now synonymous with luxury, it might be easy to assume that Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel came from a privileged background, but she grew up in poverty. When her mother died of tuberculosis in 1895 her father abandoned her at the orphanage of Aubazine Abbey in the town of Aubazines, France. She never saw him again.  

Chanel refused to let her difficult start define her and persevered through her adversity with great ambition, famously saying, ‘My life didn’t please me, so I created my life.’ She was interested in fashion and taught herself to sew whilst at the monastery, and her experiences later became inspirations for her designs. For example, her uniform and the white wimples and black skirts of the nuns around her reverberates through her later monochrome looks, and the geometric loops in the monastery’s stained glass windows served as the inspiration for her interlocking Cs.

Coco Chanel began her career in fashion as a milliner 

In 1910 she opened a hat boutique at 21 rue Cambon under the name Chanel Modes. Her hats were worn by well-known French actresses of the era, building her reputation as a chic tastemaker. Two years later she opened her another boutique in Deauville, on the coast of Normandy. From 1913 she released a line of sportswear made of jersey, a material then typically used to make men’s underwear. It was an instant success. Her approach, which did away with corsets in favour of comfort and simplicity, revolutionised women’s fashion.  

By the time she set up her Couture House in Paris in 1918, Chanel was a widely recognised authority on what women should be wearing. She liked to be subversive and whole-heartedly embraced the liberating silhouettes of the 1920s — long-line, slim cuts revealing a hint of calf. She hit her stride in these years, pushing trends forwards and unveiling innovations like the iconic ‘Little Black Dress’.  

Coco Chanel’s revolutionary designs changed the way women moved through the world 

Into the 1950s, for example, women typically sported miniature handbags that had to be carried or small bags attached to the wrist. The Chanel 2.55 handbag, unveiled in 1955, was the first popular yet elegant shoulder bag designed for women on the go, with both hands free.  

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Coco Chanel. Douglas Kirkland/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

She also used fabrics that hadn’t been seen in haute couture because they were traditionally for sportswear — like cotton, jersey and tweed. These brand signatures opened up a new possibilities for comfort and style. 

Chanel’s impact extended beyond what women wore — she also changed the way women dressed. At the time it was considered proper to dress for the morning, afternoon and evening separately, depending on the different activities you were doing at the time. Chanel helped women break away from this. She was determined to design items that were timeless, not just in terms of the year — we still wear her classic designs over 100 years later — but also the hour. The majority of her creations were intended to be worn day to night.

The Chanel 2.55 bag is the paradigm of Chanel’s craftsmanship  

The 2.55 handbag — its name a reference to the date it was revealed, February 1955 — is the ultimate collector’s item. Coco Chanel would insist her atelier staff have perfectly manicured nails and hands free of cream or gloves, saying they needed to feel the bag in order to create it. It is still made to such exacting standards today: between six and 15 people work on each 2.55 bag, using only the softest skin from the belly of the lamb.  

The seven pockets — themselves a revelation in design — include an inner one that Chanel intended for love letters. Other inspirations came from her own life: The jackets worn by the horse breeders at her boyfriend’s stables led to the bag’s signature quilting. Ropes anchoring a yacht inspired the chains threaded with leather. The Cs recall Chanel’s girlhood spent in the convent, evoking a pattern in the cathedral’s stained-glass windows.The chatelaine chains worn by nuns at the convent to hold their keys inspired the chain shoulder strap.

Chanel popularised costume jewellery  

When Coco Chanel introduced jewellery made from crystals and non-precious stones to her collections, people were shocked. Until that point, faux gemstones were widely considered a pitiable faux pas committed by people who couldn’t afford the ‘real thing’, but Chanel delighted in breaking the rules and mixing fine jewellery and couture with an opulent array of costume jewellery. As she put it, ‘costume jewellery isn’t meant to provoke desire, just astonishment at most. It must remain an ornament and an amusement’.  

Chanel’s high-end costume jewellery is treasured today for its originality and excellence in design, and it commands high prices at auction. Some of the most sought-after pieces are made with colourful glass by the House of Gripoix. Chanel herself was known to don a resplendent stacking of faux-pearl necklaces and sautoirs, enamel cuffs, and brooches. She was inspired by different historical cultures, especially Byzantine jewellery: Maltese crosses became a house signature.

Chanel has worked with the same métiers for the past hundred years

In an age of increasing automation, bespoke workmanship is a rarity. But Chanel has always worked with the best métiers in the world, a commitment that continues today. 

Chanel brings together several hundred renowned embroiderers, feather workers, goldsmiths, pleaters, shoemakers, hatters, milliners, glove makers and tanners, and these are relationships that go back to the founding of the brand. Chanel’s emblematic camellias have been assembled petal by petal by Lemarié, the flower maker, since the 1960s, and the Lesage atelier has been responsible for Chanel’s embroidery and tweed since 1924. Vintage Chanel pieces maintain a uniquely high quality because Chanel has always sourced and cultivated the most sought-after craftsmen.

From camellias to lions, Coco Chanel’s personal motifs can be spotted throughout the brand 

Coco Chanel had a code of motifs she integrated into her designs, each bearing personal significance. The story goes she was given her first bouquet of camellias by her lover and muse Boy Capel. Her favourite flower became omnipresent throughout her collections.   

She was superstitious and surrounded herself with lucky talismans. It is said, for example, that she kept a small bundle of wheatsheaf, a symbol of prosperity and abundance, in her private quarters at the Ritz Paris as well as in each room of her apartment at 31 Rue Cambon. Both the wheatsheaf and the four-leaf clover appear throughout her collections like lucky charms, along with the lion — a reference to her zodiac sign, Leo. 

Five was Chanel’s lucky number, so when the house’s parfumier Ernest Beaux presented her with 10 samples for their first fragrance together, she picked number five, and named it after her favorite numeral. It is now considered the most famous fragrance in the world, and the number five recurs throughout Chanel’s creations.

Karl Lagerfeld reimagined Chanel for a new generation

When Coco Chanel died in 1971, many wondered who would be able to take up the fashion house’s legacy. Karl Lagerfeld was a talented designer who had already worked at some of the world’s top fashion houses, like Balmain, Patou and Chloé. Like Coco Chanel, he understood how to create fashion for the modern woman. When he took the helm in 1983 as creative director, he ushered in a new era for the maison. He honoured the brand’s heritage by prioritising Chanel’s legacy above his own, whilst reimagining its iconography in surprising and subversive ways, emphasizing iteration rather than imitation. 

He revitalised the Cruise collections and created Chanel ready-to-wear as we know it today. He introduced the collectible Métiers d’Art handbags, the Chanel Boy Bag, the Chanel Deauville tote and the Chanel crossbody Gabrielle bag, along with its now-iconic double-C logo that became recognisable everywhere, just as the fashion industry was going global. He breathed new life into Chanel, bringing it once again to the cutting edge. By the end of Lagerfeld’s reign in 2019, Chanel was the most popular brand in the world, and he had grown it into a $10 billion global business.

Coco Chanel’s personal collection was sold at Christie’s 

On December 2, 1978,  Coco Chanel’s personal collection of clothes, costume jewellery and other accessories was auctioned off at Christie’s. The audience filled three rooms, and many honoured the late designer by wearing her creations.  

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The 'little black dress' being shown at the Christie's auction of Coco Chanel's private collection, 1978

With the exception of a bodice that Chanel designed for herself in 1930, all the clothes in the auction dated from her post-war fashion comeback, beginning in 1954. The sale contained multiple gems, including the famous ‘little black dress’ from Chanel’s winter 1960 collection, one of her classic brown tweed suits — with a unique twist of being bordered with a braid and bright pink silk — and the last two suits she ever made for herself. The jewellery exceeded expectations, soaring past its high estimate.

Chanel’s power in the secondary market continues to grow 

Chanel remains a titan in the fashion world today, and its influence shows no signs of waning. Chanel handbags continue to be top performers at auction, capturing the attention of collectors around the world. Chanel lovers scour auctions around the world to acquire rare and unusual models, that are limited and discontinued. The spirit of the designer who created liberating fashion for the modern woman remains alive in every Chanel bag, costume jewellery piece, and garment. There is nothing like a Chanel creation. 

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