Why collectors love Chanel handbags

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

  • 1
  • The genius of the late Karl Lagerfeld

A runway black lucite & crystal Rocket Ship evening bag, Chanel, fallwinter 2017. 11 w x 14 h x 11 d cm. Estimate HK$70,000-90,000. Offered in Handbags & Accessories  on 25 November 2019 at Christie’s in Hong Kong
A runway black lucite & crystal Rocket Ship evening bag, Chanel, fall/winter 2017. 11 w x 14 h x 11 d cm. Estimate: HK$70,000-90,000. Offered in Handbags & Accessories on 25 November 2019 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

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.

A fall runway gold and black lucite Spool evening bag with gold hardware, Chanel, Fall 2016. 12 w x 16 h x 12 d cm. Sold for £4,000 on 11 June 2019 at Christie’s in London
A fall runway gold and black lucite Spool evening bag with gold hardware, Chanel, Fall 2016. 12 w x 16 h x 12 d cm. Sold for £4,000 on 11 June 2019 at Christie’s in London

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.

  • 2
  • Coco Chanel was a rebel

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.

A black lambskin leather compartment medium flap bag with black hardware, Chanel, 2016. 21 w x 20 h x 11 d cm. Estimate $4,000-6,000 (£3,170.40 - GBP 4,755.60). Offered in Handbags X HYPE, 26 November to 10 December 2019, Online

A black lambskin leather compartment medium flap bag with black hardware, Chanel, 2016. 21 w x 20 h x 11 d cm. Estimate: $4,000-6,000 (£3,170.40 - GBP 4,755.60). Offered in Handbags X HYPE, 26 November to 10 December 2019, Online

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.

A shiny amethyst alligator medium double flap bag with gold hardware, Chanel, 2010-2011. 26 w x 15 h x 6 d cm. Sold for £18,750 on 11 June 2019 at Christie’s in London
A shiny amethyst alligator medium double flap bag with gold hardware, Chanel, 2010-2011. 26 w x 15 h x 6 d cm. Sold for £18,750 on 11 June 2019 at Christie’s in London
  • 3
  • Chanel’s life is in the details

A coral velvet medium quilted double Flap Bag with ruthenium hardware, Chanel, 2015. 25.5 w x 16 h x 7.5 d cm. Sold for £1,875 on 11 June 2019 at Christie’s in London
A coral velvet medium quilted double Flap Bag with ruthenium hardware, Chanel, 2015. 25.5 w x 16 h x 7.5 d cm. Sold for £1,875 on 11 June 2019 at Christie’s in London

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.

A limited-edition black lambskin & patent leather Camellia Small Double Flap Bag with distressed gold hardware, Chanel, 2015. 23.5 w x 14.5 h x 6.5 d cm. Sold for £3,750 on 11 June 2019 at Christie’s in London
A limited-edition black lambskin & patent leather Camellia Small Double Flap Bag with distressed gold hardware, Chanel, 2015. 23.5 w x 14.5 h x 6.5 d cm. Sold for £3,750 on 11 June 2019 at Christie’s in London

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.

  • 4
  • Chanel’s seasonal collections celebrate the skills of its artisans

A limited edition dark pink patent leather Milk Carton Bag, Chanel, 2014-2015. 9.5 w x 20.5 h x 10.5 d cm. Estimate $2,000-3,000. Offered in Handbags X HYPE, 26 November to 10 December 2019, Online

A limited edition dark pink patent leather Milk Carton Bag, Chanel, 2014-2015. 9.5 w x 20.5 h x 10.5 d cm. Estimate: $2,000-3,000. Offered in Handbags X HYPE, 26 November to 10 December 2019, Online

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. 

A Metiers d’Art Paris-Salzburg multicolour felt embroidered Double Flap Bag, Chanel, 2015-2016. 24 w x 15 h x 7 d cm. Sold for $2,750, 5 December 2018, Online

A Metiers d’Art Paris-Salzburg multicolour felt embroidered Double Flap Bag, Chanel, 2015-2016. 24 w x 15 h x 7 d cm. Sold for $2,750, 5 December 2018, Online

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.


  • 5
  • Coco Chanel had a brilliant eye for jewellery

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.

  • 6
  • The Chanel icons: from pearls to perfume

A runway iridescent white lucite Pearl clutch with light gold hardware, Chanel, Cruise 2015. Circumference 41 cm. Sold for HK$56,250 on 29 May 2019 at Christie’s in Hong Kong
A runway iridescent white lucite Pearl clutch with light gold hardware, Chanel, Cruise 2015. Circumference 41 cm. Sold for HK$56,250 on 29 May 2019 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

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.

A runway clear lucite N°5 Perfume Bottle clutch with gold hardware, Chanel, Cruise 2014. 12 w x 16 h x 5 d cm. Sold for HK$68,750 on 29 May 2019 at Christie’s in Hong Kong
A runway clear lucite N°5 Perfume Bottle clutch with gold hardware, Chanel, Cruise 2014. 12 w x 16 h x 5 d cm. Sold for HK$68,750 on 29 May 2019 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

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.

Sign up today

Christie's Online Magazine delivers our best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week

Subscribe
  • 7
  • The pursuit of perfection is ceaseless

An iridescent silver calfskin leather Gabrielle Hobo bag, Chanel, 2017. 28 w x 24 h x 10 d cm. Sold for £2,500 on 11 June 2019 at Christie’s in London
An iridescent silver calfskin leather Gabrielle Hobo bag, Chanel, 2017. 28 w x 24 h x 10 d cm. Sold for £2,500 on 11 June 2019 at Christie’s in London

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. 

A matte black alligator and calfskin leather Gabrielle Hobo with silver & gold hardware, Chanel, 2018. 28 w x 21 h x 10 d cm. Sold for HK$81,250 on 29 May 2019 at Christie’s in Hong Kong
A matte black alligator and calfskin leather Gabrielle Hobo with silver & gold hardware, Chanel, 2018. 28 w x 21 h x 10 d cm. Sold for HK$81,250 on 29 May 2019 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

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.