The Hague, NL – The exhibition The Chanel Legend recently started a run at the Gemeente Museum here in The Hague, which continues through February 2, 2014. It offers insight to the life of Gabrielle Bonheur "Coco" Chanel, the French woman (born 1883 in Saumur), who came from her humble beginnings (which included several years spent being raised by nuns in a convent) and eventually built a worldwide fashion empire which, to this day, remains one of the most respected fashion houses in in the business…the House of Chanel.
She has been credited with ushering in the modern era of women's wearable, comfortable clothing, by shortening the length of dresses and introducing materials such as jersey and tricot which until that point had only been used for making such things as men's underwear. She had a penchance for costume jewelry and by incorprating it into her fashions, was able to substantially broaden its appeal. Her successes began when she designed and sold hats from a shop she opened on Rue Cambon in Paris. This was followed by a seaside shop in Deauville in 1913. It was from this shop she began designing and selling luxury sportswear.
As early as 1915, Chanel's creations were garnering attention and mentions in such fashion magazines as Harper's Bazaar. They touted her designs which were simple, soft, unstructured and flowing, as ushering in an age of the "modern woman". Up until that point, women were mostly limited to tight fitting, stiff dresses worn over constricting corset which created an unnatural exageration of the female figure. Chanel's designs followed the truer contours and used knit fabrics which were soft and fluid.
She favored certain looks, such as an oversized cardigan top over a calf-length skirt. She created an ensemble which would become known as the "Chanel suit" which consisting of either 2 or 3 pieces: a simple skirt (either straight or pleated), a wool-jersey cardigan jacket and sometimes a blouse, which would often be made of the same fabric (usually silk) which lined the jacket. Her preferred colors included navy, gray and beige.
Coco Chanel's popularity continued to grow and she expanded the Paris store further. In 1924, she signed an agreement licensing her name for use on a perfume. Of the fragrance samples she was sent for approval, she chose the fifth one, which is where Chanel No. 5 gets its name. There were never fragrances sold with the numbers 1-4.
Coco Chanel was considered thee designer of the 1920's. In addition to the "Chanel suit" and menswear looks inspired by her own sporty lifestyle which included a fondness for equestrian riding and sailing, she had introduced a multi-functional dress which could be worn to a daytime function, an evening cocktail hour or a night on the town. The first "little black dress" was long-sleeved and made of silk crepe du chine. It was featured prominently in magazines such as American Vogue and referred to as a wardrobe staple. Over the years, the dress evolved, with numerous incarnations (see below).
During the 1930's, as fashion moved away from menswear looks and flapper-type dresses, Chanel's popularity began to wane. Facing this turn of events, and in light of growing national hostilities and impending war, Chanel retired and closed down her fashion house. This was 1939 and she was 56 years old.
After a break of 15 years from the fashion industry, Coco decided to reopen the House of Chanel in 1954 at the age of 71. Although the French were no longer fond of her work (due in part to her relationship with the Germans during the war), she found renewed success with British and American fans.
In 1957, she received the Neiman Marcus Fashion Award. She had modernized her designs with color and material interest. In 1963, the United States' First Lady, Jackie Kennedy, requested a pink Chanel suit be reproduced by an American tailor. It was the dress she wore in Dallas the day her husband, President John F. Kennedy, was shot and killed.
Among the celebrities which were often found wearing her looks in the 1960's was Marlene Dietrich. The exhibition not only shows three of the Chanel fashions which Dietrich had been photographed wearing, it had a looping video of a televised interview she had done in 1968. In the video, she is seen wearing the pink pantsuit below.
Up until the time of her death in 1971, at age 87, Chanel had continued to work at the fashion house which bears her name.
The Chanel business continued to operate after her death, although ready-to-wear sales began to decline substantially. In 1983, German designer Karl Lagerfeld was brought in as creative director at the House of Chanel. He has reinterpreted the brand by incorporating elements from the Chanel archives into fresh, modern fashion silhouettes. Below are some of the Karl Lagerfeld-designed Chanel pieces which are featured in the The Chanel Legend exhibition.
Today Chanel ready-to-wear fashions are primarily through the company's own stores located in over 120 countries around the world. The brand ranks #83 on the Forbes list of the 100 Most Powerful Fashion Brands based on valuation. This coming 100 years after the brand was first introduced. It is no wonder that Coco Chanel was the only fashion designer which made Time magazine's list of the 100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century.
Check out this season's Chanel assortment at these fine retailers: