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
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.
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.
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.
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 2009 collection reflected 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, pictured above, reflects the exceptional craftsmanship for which the house is famous. The Mongolian-lambskin body rests beneath a bejewelled and enamelled head, the bag’s closure taking the form of a pseudo-revolutionary badge.
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.
For its runway presentations, Chanel builds fully contained worlds. Past shows have transported audiences to spaces as diverse and unexpected as a casino, an airport terminal and a Parisian café. Every aspect of the presentation is expertly calculated, and no detail is overlooked. Runway-show bags are thus unsurprisingly collector favourites.
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, are often inspired by the aesthetics, history and dress of one particular country.
The Matryoshka evening bag pictured above, 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 immediately became a highly sought-after collectible.