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Jan 24, 2024

Is (Coco) Chanel’s heritage still relevant today?

Yet another Tuesday of Haute Couture has drawn to a close, revealing the latest chapter in Chanel’s repertoire of intricate and precious creations.

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To interpret this collection, we must take a captivating journey through the brand’s storied past, ça va sans dire, an essential step in bridging the fashion house’s rich heritage with its contemporary expression, all while casting an imaginative gaze towards the future.


Inside the Realm of Chanel

“Fashion comes and goes but style lasts forever.” This concept, echoing as a well-established mantra for over a century, was coined by one of the pioneers of the modern style as we know it today.

This trailblazer was Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, known as Coco, who firmly believed that being ‘classy and fabulous’ was the only thing that mattered. An extraordinary businesswoman, she revolutionised the fashion world, becoming an eternal icon.

Gabrielle Chanel, 31 rue Cambon, Paris, 1937 Photo: Roger Schall/Condé Nast/Shutterstock. Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Gabrielle Chanel, 31 rue Cambon, Paris, 1937 Photo: Roger Schall/Condé Nast/Shutterstock. Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Today, Chanel stands as an enduring symbol in the fashion world, exemplified by the latest blockbuster exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, titled “Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto.” This enduring legacy is also credited to her illustrious successor, the late designer Karl Lagerfeld, who led the brand for more than 35 years. Now, the challenge has passed into the hands of the current creative director, Lagerfeld’s second-in-command Virginie Viard, who has been at the helm of Chanel since 2019.


The Coco Chanel Supernova, Detonating Over the Belle Époque

Despite the challenges of growing up as an orphan and the absence of formal fashion education, Gabrielle Chanel always possessed clear and precise ideas for constructing her garments, meticulously attending to every detail. She admitted to not wanting to draw or sew but rather to ‘sculpt’ the clothes on the mannequin.

In an era when male designers dominated the fashion industry, Coco Chanel was a pioneer for women’s emancipation and gender equality. With her visionary intuition, she provided women with what they desired—comfortable clothing that was both modern and freeing.

Mounted print of Shauna Trabert modelling a Chanel suit, for Life magazine, September 1961. Paul Schutzer (1930 - 1967) © Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock. Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Mounted print of Shauna Trabert modelling a Chanel suit, for Life magazine, September 1961. Paul Schutzer (1930 - 1967) © Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock. Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London

She abolished lace and corsets, introducing significant innovations into the women’s wardrobe, such as her famous tweed suits, the little black dress, but also high-waisted pants, and garments made of jersey—a comfortable and soft fabric that adapted well to women’s bodies.

‘Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto’ at the V&A © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

‘Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto’ at the V&A © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In 1910, Coco Chanel opened her first hat shop in Paris at 21 rue Cambon, financed by her long-time lover, the industrialist Boy Capel. However, her true debut, launching her into bourgeois society at the time, occurred in 1913 in Deauville, between the Casino and the luxurious Hotel Normandie. It was here that she drew inspiration for her iconic looks from sailor uniforms.

“Independent in her personal life, Gabrielle Chanel was just as much so in her business life,” states the Chanel website. “Although she was financially supported by Boy Capel in the beginning, who helped her open her Parisian hat shop as well as the Deauville boutique, Gabrielle made a point of paying him back every cent.”


In 2013, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Chanel’s first store launch in Deauville, Keira Knightley portrayed Coco Chanel in the black and white short film “Once Upon A Time,” directed by Karl Lagerfeld


Chanel after Coco – 35 Years of Karl Lagerfeld

Following Gabrielle Chanel’s passing in 1971, the fashion house was managed by her assistants and several designers for 12 years. Without a precise vision, the Chanel brand struggled to maintain its reputation. However, in 1983, a significant moment occurred when the revolutionary Karl Lagerfeld took over as the leader of the French fashion house, infusing new energy into Chanel for 35 years.

A designer with an unmistakable style, Lagerfeld’s signature style elements, such as sunglasses, tied-back hair, and gloves with exposed fingertips, became synonymous with both him and the Chanel brand. He was not only a designer but also a visionary, photographer, and artist whose personality was reflected in his external appearance. 

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The Met Gala 2023’s latest edition, titled ‘Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty,’ was a tribute to his immense talent. Actors, models, and renowned personalities graced the red carpet, adorned in various past works of the creative director. Highlights included black and white ensembles, tweed outfits, and intricately embroidered camellias

His talent lay in foreseeing fashion trends and identifying shifts in the spirit of the time. He incorporated a touch of modernity and youthfulness into his collections while upholding the traditions of the French fashion house and those of Coco Chanel.

His mission was to harmonise the contemporary spirit with the historic essence of Chanel, and he succeeded. One of his profound insights was bringing modernity to Parisian bourgeois fashion without succumbing to the commonplace. 

In his early Chanel collections, Lagerfeld aimed to preserve the Maison’s staple pieces like bouclé tweed suits and simple dresses, introducing new elements such as oriental embroidery and exotic flowers made with beads and pearls. Even the famous little black dress, conceived by Coco Chanel, underwent a revolution at Lagerfeld’s hands—sequins, tulle, and chiffon took centre stage.

He revitalised the Chanel brand not only by introducing significant innovations to the collections but also by personally overseeing the execution of advertising campaigns—a truly disruptive move for a creative director.

Through his visionary lens, Lagerfeld immortalised some of the most well-known models of all time, including his muse Claudia Schiffer, Kate Moss, Cara Delevingne, Kristen Stewart, Lily Rose Depp, and Vittoria Ceretti.


The Chanel N°5 perfume commercial featuring Nicole Kidman, a 3-minute short film directed by Baz Luhrmann, made advertising history by breaking all budget records—it cost a staggering 33 million dollars


Elevating Fashion Shows at the Grand Palais to Monumental Spectacles

Karl Lagerfeld’s genius and imagination propelled the Chanel brand to renew itself in a way that will never be forgotten. As a creative director, he produced some of Chanel’s most iconic and magnificent fashion shows, not only showcasing extravagance but also addressing critical themes such as the environment, politics, and society.

In the Fall-Winter 2010/11 collection, where Lagerfeld presented a high dose of furry garments, he transformed the Parisian Grand Palais into an icy setting. The epic scenario crafted by the creative director featured a colossal iceberg on the runway, constructed with over 250 tonnes of ice by expert set designers

During the Fall-Winter 2014/15 runway show, Karl Lagerfeld converted the location into a customised Chanel supermarket. Inside, you could find every product on the shelves, as in a real supermarket. Models walked the aisles wearing necklaces, tweed ensembles, eccentric sneakers, and the classic Chanel bag on their wrist, using it as a shopping basket. The message was loud and clear – a critique of consumerism in fashion.


For the Spring-Summer 2016 ready-to-wear runway show, the Grand Palais transformed into an airport terminal. Models paraded through the airport, carrying their luggage, ready to depart for new destinations. Lagerfeld displayed the brilliant ability and intuition to convey real-life meaning through his fashion shows, making it easy for the audience to relate.


Karl Lagerfeld’s Enduring Legacy and the Creative Direction of Virginie Viard

After the loss of Karl Lagerfeld, Virginie Viard was appointed as Canel’s new creative director in 2019. Having previously followed Lagerfeld from Chloé to Chanel, she balanced her role as a high-level costume designer for directors like Krzysztof Kieślowski.

Lagerfeld considered her his right and left hand; she oversaw all the collections of the brand and selected models for the fashion shows. 

What did she inherit from her predecessor? The common thread between Virginie Viard and Karl Lagerfeld includes breathtaking locations, the profound meaning behind their fashion shows, and revisited iconic pieces that are ever-present.


For instance, in the Haute Couture Spring-Summer 2023, Virginie Viard brought to the runway a collection ‘in the style of Karl Lagerfeld.’ The artist Xavier Veilhan designed a set closely linked to Madame Coco Chanel, inspired by the mythical animal sculptures inside her apartment at 31, rue Cambon, in Paris. The models emerged from inside larger-than-life animals made of wood, cardboard, and paper.

The show featured tailored suits with short skirts, tiny jackets, and tweed pieces adorned with embroidered flowers like the camellia — a symbol of the Chanel brand. The models also wore total black pieces, double-breasted jackets, long bouclé, tulle, and organza dresses. 

Closing the show was a short and unfussy wedding dress covered in embroidered doves, simple yet impactful, celebrating Chanel’s signature lightness and elegance.

The Chanel Fall-Winter 2023/24 Haute Couture show unfolded on the riverbanks of the Seine. “It was easy to get swept up in the everyday-idyllic atmosphere of Virginie Viard’s massed stroll of Parisiennes along the Seine,” remarked Vogue’s Sarah Mower. “Viard’s approach embodies Chanel as a lifestyle. Without high-flown concepts, jokes, or theatrical gimmicks, her focus is on capturing the essence of French-ness.” Silhouettes, playing with masculine codes and blending rigour with asymmetry, dominated the parade, with Caroline de Maigret leading the way.



Angelica Bonetti
MA in Fashion Promotion, Communication & Digital Media, Milan