How did a girl born in a poorhouse end up founding one of the most luxurious and high powered fashion houses in history? By being current. As Coco Chanel famously stated: “Fashion passes, style remains.” She couldn’t be more right, as fashion labels become irrelevant and close shop as quick as cars run red lights. Her rags-to-riches story was relatively unknown while she was alive—before she opened her boutique in France in 1913, she worked as a seamstress and cabaret performer.
It all started with a little black dress. She revolutionized fashion by using jersey fabric that were comfortable and affordable—unheard of at the time. She replaced structured silhouettes with functional yet flattering options—in essence, she embraced flapper style but went a step further and rebelled against the feminine standards of the time.
Instead, she used masculine colors, such as navy blue, and created an androgynous style with the ‘Chanel Suit.’ Until the debut of her suit, it was not acceptable for women to wear pants as a fashion statement. Chanel wasn’t just keeping up with current trends—she was making them.
Her outright rebellion caused the press to keep wanting more—which fashion & social rule was going to break now? The brand thrived until the Great Depression in the 1930’s and the outbreak of World War II, which subsequently caused the store to temporarily close in 1939, leaving only perfume and jewelry for sale. However, in 1954, Chanel returned with an awe-inspiring bang—a fashion show—all the while, Chanel No. 5 was selling nine million dollars annually by 1945, according to The New York Times.
Valerie Steele, director of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and author of Women of Fashion, credits none other than Karl Lagerfeld moving the brand along with the times in 1984. Steele states, “He started using different materials like denim … In many ways, Chanel would probably be rolling over in her grave in horror. On the other hand, that was necessary to make it relevant. He has certainly been brilliant in staying with the Chanel DNA, but then giving it shocks to make it modern.”
Lagerfeld himself is rebellious and even subversive (he rocks white hair like the 18th century is back), turning the elegant and characteristically glam Chanel brand into bad-girl couture by introducing leather, denim, and chains. He even told Vogue in 1984, summoning the spirit of Chanel herself, “Tradition is something you have to handle carefully, because it can kill…Respect was never creative.”