Born in Saumur, France in 1883, Coco Chanel grew from an inauspicious start to found one of the world’s most famous fashion brands. Now a global powerhouse with a business comprising haute couture, ready-to-wear, accessories, beauty and fragrance, its 110-year history is a lesson in reading the zeitgeist, responding to the mood of the moment and capitalising on a designer’s personal instincts and style. Here’s how Chanel became the brand we know and covet today…
The iconic Chanel No 5 fragrance, created for the house by Russian perfumer Ernest Beaux and named both because it was the fifth scent presented to Coco Chanel and for her superstitious belief in the number being lucky, is released. The house’s first fragrance was an instant hit, reigning supreme for decades and gaining famous fans including Marilyn Monroe.
Building on the success of Chanel No 5, the lively, floral and delicate No 22 fragrance is introduced.
Chanel’s first cosmetics line launched comprising of face powders and lip colours while the Societe des Parfums Chanel is founded to capitalise on the brand’s growing beauty and fragrance business.
1924 is also the year in which Coco Chanel introduces her signature tweed suits after discovering the fabric during frequent trips to Scotland with the Duke of Westminster. A traditionally masculine fabric, her feminine take offers a new uniform for modern women.
The ‘Ford’ dress becomes the world’s first Little Black Dress and is hailed as an instant classic, with American Vogue calling it “the frock that all the world will wear”. Daring in its simplicity, with long sleeves, a drop waist and accessorised with a single string of pearls, it is a style which continues to inspire designers today.
The brand’s first skincare line launches offering 15 products aimed at helping women gain the perfect complexion.
At the behest of studio boss Sam Goldwyn, Coco Chanel heads to Hollywood to create clothes for its burgeoning cohort of glamorous silver screen stars.
Bijoux de Diamants, an exhibition of fine jewellery created in honour of the diamond, is staged at Chanel’s private home in Paris. It begins a high jewellery tradition at the house, cemented with the creation of Chanel Fine Jewellery and Watches in the 1990s, which still sees the brand present bi-annual collections on the Place Vendôme.
After reaching the height of her fame a decade earlier, with 4,000 employees and boutiques across France (including five on Rue Cambon), World War II forces the house to close all but 31 Rue Cambon. Despite the austerity and war effort, fragrances and accessories continue to be in high demand - especially among American soldiers buying gifts to send home.
Coco Chanel passes away on 10 January 1971, aged 87, and is mourned by a global cadre of fans including Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly, Jackie Kennedy and Jane Fonda. Accordingly, her posthumous collection performs exceedingly well.
Despite its international fame, until 1978 Chanel remained a couture house in the classic mode. The introduction of ready-to-wear this year saw the house’s collection and accessories exported globally for the first time - much to the joy of fans.
New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art honours Chanel with a dedicated exhibition. This is a rare recognition of the house’s contribution to fashion history that has been given to only a handful of designers, including Alexander McQueen, Charles James, Rei Kawakubo and Paul Poiret.
Chanel’s association with art continues with a travelling exhibition designed by Zaha Hadid. Featuring artworks inspired by the house’s quilted handbag, the exhibition stops in Hong Kong, New York City and Tokyo before being donated to the Arab World Institute in Paris.
Karl Lagerfeld dies following complications from pancreatic cancer on 18 February. Chanel and Fendi come together to honour Lagerfeld with a joint memorial in Paris in June. His right-hand woman, Virginie Viard, is named as Chanel’s new artistic director.
While the global coronavirus pandemic causes many fashion brands to question the traditional fashion cycle, with its mammoth six collections a year and non-stop international travel, Chanel vowed to remain true to its tried and tested routing of couture, resort and seasonal collections. Its Resort 2021 collection, however, became the first in the house’s history to be presented solely online, with its Capri show made impossible by the pandemic.