LUXURYCULTURE.COM - Chanel Takes On Coco

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Nine decades after it was created, the house of Chanel continues to explore and evoke the style and the influence of its iconic founder Coco Chanel.

Connected by the magic thread that is the legacy of Coco, the house of Chanel continues to weave a future fusing fashion and perfume in reverent acknowledgement of its visionary founder.


Call it a homage to Coco Chanel. Or call it the clear-channeling of Coco. Whatever it is, right now the focus at the house of Chanel seems to be turning back to its founder and the world she invented. From the recent Paris-Monte Carlo collection to the launch of the Les Exclusifs range of perfumes inspired by her life and surroundings, there is a renewed effort on the part of the French fashion house to set its orbit in the universe of Coco Chanel.

Chanel acquired the Parisian building that became her couture house in 1921. Since then the location has become legendary, the street forever associated with the ambitious visionary that the writer Colette dubbed "a little black bull." Today, 31 rue Cambon is still the nerve center of the Chanel empire, the only big fashion house that remains in private hands. At the creative helm, ironically, three men now carry on the legacy of the pioneering couturière who changed how the women of the world dressed and whose brazen imprint guaranteed that the world of fashion would never be the same again.

Those three men are creative director Karl Lagerfeld, artistic director Jacques Helleu, and master perfumer Jacques Polge. And while Lagerfeld, who arrived at Chanel in 1983, twelve years after Coco's death, is the best known of the power triumvirate, it's Polge who operates as the olfactory memory of Chanel, and Helleu who is the visionary memory, with all three defining and refining the Chanel legacy, moving it forward but always keeping one foot in the past.

One of the greatest identities is provided by the couture house and the apartment for entertaining that Chanel kept there (she slept across the street in her suite at the Ritz). With its banks of rich Coromandel screens, beige suede furniture, gilded mirrors, blackamoors and porcelain fauns, the apartment provided a dense, deep-pile refuge from the world of poor-boy jersey cardigans, in a way the perfect setting for such understated fashion. It also highlighted Chanel's love for the luxurious and luxuriant, and her exquisite taste in furnishing three small rooms so that they glowed in candlelight like the interiors of ornate jewel boxes.

That apartment is perfectly maintained to this very day and provided the backdrop for the Karl Lagerfeld-lensed photos for the Paris-Monte Carlo collection (see below). The apartment juxtaposes opulent surfaces and textiles with the downplayed colors so redolent of Coco and so resonant in Lagerfeld's pre-fall collection: black, cream, beige, all with the touch of ornamentation that brings the apartment's interior to life.

The apartment was also the inspiration for two of the six new perfumes that Polge created: Coromandel and 31 Rue Cambon. Chanel was obsessed by her 17th-century Chinese lacquer screens, and so Coromandel the perfume resonates with a surprisingly light oriental spirit, provided by amber, wood, and tangy fruit peel. 31 Rue Cambon is a more recognizably Chanel fragrance in tone, a chypre that simultaneously evokes complexity and clarity—in other words, everything a baroque apartment at the heart of a couture house standing for simplicity represents.

Helleu, who tends to the face the Chanel brand presents to the world, overseeing packaging, advertising and corporate image – fine-tuning fonts, ramping up the powerful simplicity that black-and-white communicates, shaping some of the most memorable advertising and publicity in the luxury league – was responsible for Les Exclusifs's packaging. Like Chanel, who had looked to the minimalism of pharmacy bottles in the '20s when she made N°5, Helleu took large 200ml flacons that wouldn't look out of place on a laboratory shelf, feminizing them with slight curves, producing stark white boxes that slot into black bases, each opening to reveal a big bottle of scent softly glowing with liquid gold, topped with a black cap ingeniously magnetized so that it always closes with the double-C correctly in line.

Such subtle details are key components at Chanel. Jackets hang perfectly, due to unseen metal chains sewn to the lining; Rouge Allure lipstick opens and closes with a reassuring click; haute couture dresses with staggering prices that look to the untrained eye like the simplest thing in the world are anything but. Chanel represents a fusion of technology and innovation, but always in the context of craftsmanship and skill, the skill of lightly-worn luxury.

Tracing a link between Chanel's life on the French Riviera with its accompanying social life in Monte Carlo, the house chose the Monaco town this past December to debut the pre-fall collection, dubbed, unsurprisingly, Paris-Monte Carlo. In the city's 19th century opera house, Karl Lagerfeld conjured up a perfect blend of Coco in the capital and Coco on the coast, all with the aid of the couture artisan ateliers that the house has been snapping up over recent years.

Thus the collection hovered somewhere between ready-to-wear and haute couture with its lashings of Lesage embroidery, delicate tulle pompoms, and necklines filled with Desrues jewels. Even at the maximum, everything was played down, and some pieces were pure Coco, like a belted, slouchy striped cardigan or a black jersey cardigan decorated with knot work and teamed with wide crochet pants embroidered with tulle. The latter, down to the turban wrap, was the distillation of Chanel's Mediterranean style and the modern reworking of a photograph of the couturière at play in the '30s.

Such resemblances are not just purposeful coincidences: they're indicative of the coherence that the house of Chanel expresses, a creative synergy that has been there right from the beginning. From a tube of lipstick to a perfume, from a silk camellia to an haute couture suit, the flow of output is always complementary, always luxurious, and always a direct link to the pioneering vision of the woman who changed fashion forever: Coco Chanel.

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