Chanel No. 5, a love story

The perfume that launched a thousand ad campaigns? Perhaps, but Chanel No. 5 has been in continuous production since its 1921 launch, and the company estimates that somewhere in the world, a bottle is sold every 55 seconds.

It was the Duke Dmitri Pavlovich of Russia, who introduced Coco to the perfumer Ernest Beaux in 1920 on a trip to Cannes, where the couple visited his laboratory. Originally intended as a Christmas present to her best clients and limited to 100 flacons, Chanel understood the marketability of exclusivity. The hard-to-find scent soon became the most coveted perfume for her devotees, and bottles poured off the production line.

The bottle’s shape was a departure from the norm, as most perfumes of the time were packaged in ornately decorative bottles shaped as birds, or flowers. Chanel’s art deco minimalism has never been changed, and it is purported that the flacon’s origination was inspired by a men’s toiletry item belonging to Chanel’s only love, Arthur “Boy” Capel.

Why the 5? Some say it was the 5th concoction during testing that ended up being the right combination of scents for Chanel’s taste. Others insist Chanel herself chose 5 because it was her lucky number — she staged her fashion shows on the 5th day of the 5th month.

The scent — a mix of jasmine, May rose, ylang ylang, iris, sandalwood and vetiver — remains one of the most recognizable in the world. Perhaps the most famous Chanel No. 5 quote ever was uttered by the legendary Marilyn Monroe. When asked what she wore to bed, her response was, “Five drops of Chanel No. 5.” And it was Coco herself who said a woman should wear her perfume “wherever she wishes to be kissed.”

(This blog entry is dedicated to my first bottle of Chanel No. 5, received last week, and my instaneous infatuation for it).

Published in: on January 19, 2010 at 7:23 am  Comments (2)  
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Chanel and the Little Black Dress

The Little Black Dress (or “LBD”) has become a staple within the wardrobes of women worldwide. Yet, few know it was the legendary designer Coco Chanel who championed the LBD movement, and fewer still can agree on Mademoiselle Chanel’s motivation for its creation.

The color black had come in and out of fashion by the turn of the 20th century, although it was still seen primarily as a color of mourning. Chanel was quite aware of this tradition, and two separate stories tie these notions together.

 The first story concerns Paul Poiret, Chanel’s primary rival in Parisian fashion design at the time. Seeing Poiret’s collection featuring riotous colors, Chanel disdained his garish displays and, to set her work apart from her competitor, used black instead. By including superior textiles and relaxed silhouettes, Coco remade the image of the woman who wore the black dress, and in keeping with the Roaring 20s, she continued to challenge fashion’s mores by raising hemlines and removing excess layers to create freer and more revealing looks. By Chanel’s vision, a woman in an LBD was independent, and made her own rules.

 By 1928, Paul Poiret passed Chanel on the street one day, wearing all black, and asked who she was in mourning for. With her usual acerbic wit, Chanel answered, “For you, Monsieur.”

 But, this tale might contain a less obvious underlying sense of truth. In 1919, Boy Capel, whom Chanel called the love of her life, died suddenly in a car accident. The LBD, she has purportedly said, was her tremendous grief spilling over into her other greatest love, her work. “I will make the world mourn for you,” she vowed to her lost love, and proceeded to dress women in black, in perpetuity.

 But, like everything with Coco, there are always more stories. Ever the pragmatic designer, Chanel argued that a simple black dress not only hid stains, but was multi-functional, easily transitioning from daytime wear to evening attire, all by changing one’s accessories.  Add a jacket for daytime, and swap the jacket for long gloves and a luxurious wrap, and a lady could be ready for the opera, all with minimal effort and still creating maximum effect. 

One more tale lingers in the legends of the LBD’s origins… Chanel was raised by nuns before becoming a seamstress in her youth, and some claim Chanel’s motivation for using black as a uniform harkens to her subconscious desire to return to her youth, and the caretakers she once knew.

Published in: on November 4, 2009 at 7:30 am  Comments (2)  
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Chanel’s classic flap handbag, a short history

 For Chanel devotees, there is one handbag that outshines them all… the flap. The iconic handbag was first issued in February 1955, and is often referred to as the 255 or 2.55 as a result.

 Every design element of the original had a purpose behind its inclusion — the lining’s color represented the convent’s uniforms, where Coco spent part of her youth; the chains of the shoulder straps represent the waist chain belts which the nuns kept their keys upon; the leather’s quilting references racetrack boys’ quilted uniforms, and her love of horse racing; she hid love letters in the zippered, interior compartment inside the bag’s outer flap; she kept money in the exterior pocket, and even the “Mademoiselle lock” was named after the unmarried Coco, called “Mademoiselle” until the day she died.

In 1983, Karl Lagerfeld took over as Chanel’s Chief Designer, and introduced the interlocking CC turnlock to the bag’s design. By the mid 80’s, Chanel bags were produced with serial numbers included inside each bag, as a way to discourage counterfeiters. Other major changes during this era were the change from double flap to a single flap, as well as the inclusion of leather woven into the chain links of the shoulder straps. New sizes, and new leathers and fabrics were introduced in subsequent seasons as well.

 In February 2005, Lagerfeld reissued the classic flap design with all of Coco’s original detailing to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the handbag’s debut. In handbag parlance, these bags are referred to as “Reissues,” while Lagerfeld’s CC turnlock versions are known as “Classic Flaps.”

To this day, the Chanel flap remains one of the most recognizable handbags in the world, and is synonymous with timeless elegance and pratical luxury.

Chanel bags, Jacqueline Kennedy, Mia Farrow

A classic then, and now.

Published in: on October 24, 2009 at 11:56 am  Leave a Comment  
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How Gabrielle became ‘Coco’

In 1904, a bit of entertainment for the average working class to indulge in were the cafe-concerts, or caf’concs as they were known, where small orchestras entertained in the evening. There were no cover charges, but were primarily supported “by collection only.” After meeting lieutenants in the alteration shop she worked in, 19-year-old Gabrielle Chanel was invited to La Rotonde to take in a show.

Coco Chanel, age 19Had Gabrielle boasted of her own singing ability? For whatever reason, the director allowed her to take the stage, and even landed her a recurrent spot at the establishment. Her nightly rendition about a young lady who lost her dog at the Trocadero amusement park gained her the nickname she would carry with her for the rest of her life.

I’ve lost my poor Coco / Coco, my lovable dog / Lost him, close to the Trocadero / He’s far away, if he’s still running. / I admit my biggest regret is that the more my man cheated me / the more Coco remained faithful.

But, Chanel delighted in obscuring the facts of her life during a lifetime of interviews, and there is one more song that she sang at the caf’concs which also gets the credit for the famous nickname. “Ko ko ri ko” was a title song of a revue by playwright Robert de Flers that was a smash hit in Paris in 1897.

In any case, the audience named her ‘la petite Coco’ and the legend was born.

Published in: on August 1, 2009 at 6:46 am  Comments (1)  
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Chanel’s beginnings

Did you know Coco Chanel began her career as a milliner? C’est vrai, her first business venture which began at the now legendary 21 Rue Cambon location (just behind the Ritz) was to sell hats to the wealthy nobles and elite upper class. Her style became known after she began buying straw boater hats and decorating them in a simpler manner than current fashion dictated. Always the shrewd businesswoman, even from the beginning, she saw the opportunity to gain her highly desired financial independence by capitalizing on her millinery talents.

P4300392   Chanel in one of her boaters at the race track, 1910

What drove her to open this shop? She had to be highly motivated as she called in many favors from the men in her web of lovers to make it happen, borrowing money to lease the commercial space from her current beau, Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel, as well as living in an abandoned apartment that belonged her previous protector, Etienne Balsan, who had kept Chanel as his mistress for over half a dozen years, before Boy Capel became the man Chanel would later call “the love of my life.” Her first move towards independance came when she took up her own residence at 31 Rue Cambon in an apartment she would keep for the rest of her life.

Whether her business acumen hinged on her desire to be self-sufficient, or her burgeoning love of fashion, she had found a niche in the market, and clientele responded eagerly to the young woman’s vision. A century ago, the on-trend fashion for hat wear amongst ladies were huge, overblown hats that appeared to have an entire bird atop the wearer’s head.

             edwardian hats            1901hats

Chanel’s hats scaled back in the use of feathers, but kept them in her designs in smaller number… sometimes just a few and sometimes just one lone plume, as the hat’s primary adornment. Pictured below left, this hat is thought to be one of the earliest Chanel hats on record, pictured in Les Modes in 1912. To the right is actress Gabrielle Dorziat in a Chanel hat of the same period.

chanel hat 1912  P4290380

Published in: on July 26, 2009 at 3:20 pm  Comments (1)  
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