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
With the passing of Karl Lagerfeld, the handbag industry lost a creative genius. One of the most influential and recognisable fashion designers of the 20th century, he left an incredible legacy, including some extraordinary runway pieces which are usually made in extremely limited quantities and sell out quickly.
While Chanel is mostly known for its quilted bags in lambskin or caviar leather, Lagerfeld’s Runway styles were often made in plexiglass and represented both his creative vision and playful sense of humour. While embracing the elegance that has defined Chanel since its inception, Lagerfeld-designed handbags catapulted the brand towards contemporary cool. Lagerfeld was never one to shy away from bold statements, and his pieces have incorporated such unusual items as a hula-hoop and a milk carton.
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, which was 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, which is a testament to its enduring style.
The classic Double Flap Bag is a must-have for every Chanel collector. Karl Lagerfeld, who became creative director of Chanel in 1983, made one notable addition: the CC turnlock, now a feature on the Classic Flap. Traditionally crafted in jersey, then lambskin and caviar leather, the Classic Flap has also been issued in exclusive, highly sought-after materials such as ostrich and alligator.
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 Coco 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 has been 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, such as the camellia flower given to her by her lover, Boy Capel, and the number 5 — the name of the perfume that made her famous. Lagerfeld used this iconography on handbags and accessories to tell the story of the house’s founder, and to offer a wink towards collectors in the know.
Chanel’s seasonal Métiers d’Art collections celebrate the artisans with whom the house works. Featuring the most meticulous craftsmanship and attention to detail, these collections are often inspired by the aesthetics, history and dress of one particular country.
The Paris-Salzburg collection, for example, was staged in the 18th-century Schloss Leopoldskron Castle. The historic embroidery house of Lesage worked with Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel from 1983, and collaborated on the Métiers d’Art collections from 2002. The atelier’s exquisite embroidery can be seen on the limited-edition runway Flap Bag shown above.
In addition to her celebrated handbags, ready-to-wear, and cosmetics, Coco Chanel was known for her brilliant eye for jewellery. This exceptional Flap Bag reflects that, incorporating more than 500 grammes of 18-carat white gold and 348 brilliant, colourless diamonds with a total weight 3.14 carats. One of a limited edition of 16 pieces, it is the most valuable Chanel bag in existence: a functional piece of jewellery for the most discerning of Chanel collectors.
One of the most important recurring symbols of the brand is the pearl. Coco Chanel added faux pearls to many of her designs, ranging from jewellery to clothing, and established faux pearls as a fashion trend.
Equally closely associated with the brand is the iconic Chanel N°5 perfume. The famous bottle, the design of which has remained unchanged, contains the most famous fragrance in the world — celebrated in this quirky, rare and playful runway bag.
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The newest addition to Chanel’s distinguished line of handbags is the Gabrielle, which Karl Lagerfeld intended as an homage to Chanel’s founder — who was christened Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel. The shape of the bag, released for Spring 2017, was apparently inspired by the vintage binocular cases so often seen at racecourses.
The Gabrielle is also a clear descendant of the 2.55, famously created to enable women to move with more freedom. This Gabrielle has an emphasis on comfort and flexibility, and can be worn over the shoulder, across the body — or even carried in the hand, the old-fashioned way.