“The woman who hasn’t at least one Chanel is hopelessly out of fashion,” wrote Harper’s Bazaar in 1915, just five years after the legendary designer opened her first boutique.
More than a century later Coco Chanel’s style legacy endures, characterised by the three qualities that run through her timeless pieces: simplicity, elegance and comfort.
Breaking away from the constraints of corsets, lace and effusive layering, style icon Coco Chanel embraced items for the working woman, producing quietly revolutionary yet practical designs.
As one of the only female designers of her time, Coco Chanel’s iconic looks were influenced by what she herself wanted to wear. Rather than following in the footsteps of her male predecessors, who had a tendency to cater to their own fantasies of femininity, the French provocateur forged her own path.
Coco Chanel’s style was as influenced by the practicalities of the era as it was by aesthetic concerns. Following World War I, the lush fabrics favoured by fashion houses were in short supply and almost impossible for a young, struggling couturist to experiment with. Ever the innovator, Chanel incorporated jersey into her designs – a fabric used primarily for men’s underwear at the time – and created one of her most influential items: the striped top.
Luckily, Chanel considered imitation a sincere form of flattery, allowing this staple to become one of the pillars of a fashion-forward wardrobe. Jersey is now a regular component in collections of designer tops, illustrating the ground-breaking reach of this repurposed material.
Another lasting look that sprang from functionality was trousers on women. Although increasingly worn during and after the war, Chanel transformed this masculine commodity into an item desired by the sartorially savvy Parisienne. While holidaying in Deauville, northwestern France, she wore sailor’s pants to protect her modesty rather than a swimming costume – and legions of dedicated fans followed suit.
Tailored trousers became ubiquitous on women in Paris during the 1920s and 30s, inspiring the androgynous look seen today on actress and Chanel favourite Kristen Stewart.
Not only motivated by practical concerns, Chanel was determined to overhaul what fashion meant for women. Casting off the rich colours that were the pinnacle of style before the war, she unleashed black from its funereal status and placed it at the centre of her design aesthetic.
In 1926, Chanel released a sketch of what Vogue described as a “frock that the world will wear”. This illustration of a loosely fitting calf-length, drop-waist ebony dress introduced the initial concept behind the now archetypal LBD. The epitome of chic simplicity, it was an item women could slip on to achieve instant sophistication with minimal effort.
The LBD shot to further fame when Audrey Hepburn wore the Givenchy version in fashion's favourite film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Just like Chanel’s original design, Givenchy dresses often rely on a versatile all-black or monochrome palette to this day.
The classic tweed skirt suit is perhaps Chanel’s most instantly recognisable ensemble. Not only did the two-piece elevate tweed from its association with British men's hunting gear, it provided women with an outfit for the office that was both professional and feminine.
Tweed jackets appear in the contemporary collections of high-end labels such as Lanvin year after year. Yet they are still synonymous with the original designer’s collarless structure featuring a braid trim, fitted sleeves and embellished buttons. The Chanel jacket is one of the fashion house's most preeminent styles, and its elegant influence can be seen in any collection of women's vintage suits.
Although the Chanel two-piece was adored by sartorial heroines such as Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly, it became immortalised when Jackie Kennedy wore a distinctive pale pink version – albeit produced in the US – with a matching hat and elegant white gloves the day her husband, President John F Kennedy, was assassinated.
In part due to its illustrious wearers, the tweed ensemble has been bestowed with a rich heritage steeped in the juxtapositions of independence and tradition, practicality and glamour, and femininity and tragedy.
Chanel brought touches of subtle luxury to her understated aesthetic, popularising costume jewellery with her sought-after designs. The best things in life are free, she once quipped, but the second best are very, very expensive.
Accompanying every ensemble the couturier donned was a spritz of Chanel No. 5. While invisible to the naked eye, it was the pièce de résistance to her outfits and paved the way for legions of other signature scents by fashion brands.
In fact, the perfume is so iconic that current Chanel Creative Director Karl Lagerfeld crafted a playful pendant necklace and cross-body bag in its shape. Although a far cry from the quilted gold-chain tote favoured by Chanel herself, this quirky nod to the brand’s history evokes a rich connection to its innovative roots.
Coco Chanel's style legacy has remained steadfast since she first freed women from the tyranny of tightly fitted corsets and heavy skirts. The combination of versatility and lavishness in her designs proves she lived by her own sentiment:
"A girl should always be two things: classy, and fabulous."