Among the key designers who made a bold and lasting impression on women’s fashion in the 20th century, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel deserves special recognition. Born in Saumur, in the Loire Valley of France, Chanel survived an impoverished childhood and strict convent education. The difficulties of her early life inspired her to pursue a very different lifestyle, first on the stage, where she acquired the nickname “Coco,” and then as a milliner.With the help of one of the male admirers who would provide key financial assistance and social connections over the course of her career, Chanel opened her first shop in Paris in 1913, followed by another in the resort town of Deauville. Selling hats and a limited line of garments, Chanel’s shops developed dedicated customers who quickly made her practical sportswear a great success. Much of Chanel’s clothing was made of jersey (which is a tough medium to start out with in the sewing world), a choice of fabric both unusual and inspired. Until the designer began to work with it, jersey was more commonly used for men’s underwear. With her financial situation precarious in the early years of her design career, Chanel purchased jersey primarily for its low cost. The qualities of the fabric, however, ensured that the designer would continue to use it long after her business became profitable. The fabric draped well and suited Chanel’s designs, which were simple, practical, and often inspired by men’s wear, especially the uniforms prevalent when World War I broke out in 1914.
Chanel’s uncluttered styles, with their boxy lines and shortened skirts, allowed women to leave their corsets behind and freed them for the practical activities made necessary by the war. Elements of these early designs became the trademark of the Chanel look. Chanel took great pride as a woman in designing for other women, and by 1919, at the age of thirty-two, she enjoyed huge success, with clients around the world. Soon after, she relocated her couture house in Paris to 31 Rue Cambon, which remains the center of operations for the House of Chanel today.
Following Chanel’s death in 1971, several of her assistants designed the couture and ready-to-wear lines until Karl Lagerfeld took over the haute couture design in 1983 and ready-to-wear in 1984. Lagerfeld, like Chanel at the time of her comeback, looked to past designs for the secret to his success. His designs incorporated signature Chanel details, tweed fabrics, colors, gold chains, quilt-stitched leather, and the famous linked “CC” logo. In later collections, Lagerfeld became more irreverent, deconstructing some of the ladylike polish of Chanel’s 1960s looks. Playing with the fact that Chanel’s favorite jersey fabric had been used for men’s underwear at the turn of the twentieth century, Lagerfeld even incorporated men’s T-shirts and briefs into his designs.Nonetheless, Lagerfeld’s ability to continuously mine the Chanel archive for inspiration testifies to the importance of Gabrielle Chanel’s contributions to women’s fashion in the twentieth century. Still today Chanel is up and running with the most timeless garments yet.