KARACHI: The pioneer of the little black dress and the strategies behind the House of Chanel were the subjects of an in-depth presentation by Eric Touze at the Alliance Francaise on Tuesday.
The presentation began with a quiz on the hugely influential French designer comprising some basic questions — what year was her fashion house founded — and some challenging ones — what clothing did Coco Chanel not like for a woman.
While people are aware of Chanel as a brand, however it is important to know the political and cultural context of the time in which Chanel created her unique fashion identity. It was the time of World War One that left a large number of widows and single women to fend for themselves. They entered the workforce and were looking for clothes that were simple and elegant. And it is during this period that Chanel entered and stamped her identity.
Gabrielle Chanel was born in Saumur and had a difficult childhood mired in poverty. Her mother died when she was 12. Left to fend for herself she became a cabaret singer in Moulins where she acquired the nickname Coco. According to Mr Touze this job allowed her to meet her first beau Etienne Balsan, a businessman and landowner, and through him she became a part of the social elite of the time. A talented woman with a natural inclination for fashion, she with Balsan’s help opened her first shop in 1909 that specialised in making hats.
Apparently, it was the men in Chanel’s life who aided her in achieving her fashion goals as described in the presentation. Her next man helped open her first boutique that was a huge success. The success of the boutique was also partly because she used wool jersey in creating clothes that hitherto was never done before. An interesting fact highlighted by Mr Touze was that till then wool jersey was used for inner wear and during the World War One a quota was issued for only this fabric cleverly used by Chanel to create her designs.
It was a changing world indicated by artistic trends such as dadaism, surrealism, art deco and abstract art. And Chanel consorted with proponents of these movements and trendsetters like Salvdor Dali, Picasso, Jean Cocteau, etc, who incorporated some of her creations into their wardrobe leading to popularity of her designs.
Successful business model
Other than the men in her life, the Wertheimer family provided the financial capital to sustain her business. The business model of the House of Chanel generated derivative products such as costume and diamond jewellery. Interestingly, it was the perfume Chanel No 5 that was the most profitable venture of the House of Chanel. “Duke Dmitri Pavlovich drew the perfume bottle based on the model of vodka flasks of the imperial guard,” said Mr Touze. Since the 1980s the House of Chanel has under a strategy of internationalisation opened more than forty Chanel boutiques worldwide. It massively used actors and celebs in their ad campaigns including Marilyn Monroe, Claudia Schiffer, Vanessa Paradis, Catherine Deneuve, Winona Ryder, Nicole Kidman and Brad Pitt. Another strategy has been what Mr Touze labelled as the scarcity model in which a new brand of perfume is introduced only after every 10 years.
She introduced masculine colours in female wardrobe such as grey and navy blue to denote boldness of character. She revolutionised women’s silhouettes by creating functional clothes. She also introduced holiday wear inspired by sailor stripes. The sizeable audience was shown photographs of Picasso and the sacked French economy minister Arnaud Montebourg wearing the famous striped shirt. This style was later reinvented by the hugely talented Jean Paul Gautlier.
Undoubtedly it was the little black dress, commonly known as LBD, that Chanel introduced in 1926 that made her a legend. Moreover, the suit popularised by the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy and opera singer Maria Callas also cemented her reputation as a visionary designer. This suit was later incorporated by Karl Lagerfeld who later on took over the House of Chanel. Tweed a traditionally masculine fabric was also introduced by Chanel into women’s fashion.
Chanel’s controversial associations with anti-republican, anti-communist and anti-Semitic figures during World War Two threatened to obliterate her legacy. But after going on trial in 1944 for allegedly being an an agent of the Reich, she fled to Switzerland and staged a comeback with vintage suit, necklaces of black and white pearls, handbags with gold chains and a men’s perfume called Pour Monsieur.
The Lagerfeld era
After her death in 1971, The House of Chanel was in the doldrums till Karl Lagerfeld took over in 1983. Mr Touze gave a short backgrounder about the designer who informing the attendees that he previously worked for Chloe and Fendi. “Lagerfeld always played second fiddle to YSL for some reason even though they were contemporaries.” Nevertheless, Lagerfeld appropriated the creative process of Chanel and gave a new lease of life to the House of Chanel.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the House of Chanel branched into swimwear, eyewear and travel accessories. The presentation was followed by a documentary on Lagerfeld titled Lagerfeld Confidential.
Published in Dawn, August 27th, 2014