I know we all love a juicy story, and that is what made the Chanel-with-a-Nazi-lover tale so great. But sometimes we just need pure fashion, and that is what Amy de la Haye delivers in her book, Chanel. In spite of the portrait of Coco Chanel on the cover, this book is not a biography. It is a detailed overview of Chanel’s creations, and by Chanel it means both the woman and the company.
Of course it is pretty much impossible to explain Chanel’s work without examining her life to some extent. More so than many designers, Chanel’s designs reflected what she experienced and lived and loved. For instance, it is impossible to grasp her love of tweed without telling about her happy years in Scotland with the Duke of Westminster. And you can see her religious training at the convent reflected in the symbols she used for her jewelry.
Chanel surveys the various stages of Coco Chanel’s career, from milliner to maker of jersey clothes to couture house in Paris to her comeback in 1954. Her style and inspirations are broken down into segments of time, with each development building upon the last.
Today when many people think of Chanel, they think of the suit that she developed in the early 1950s. But de la Haye points out that Chanel was making similar suits in the 1920s. Above you see an example from 1928.
The classic Chanel suit of the 1950s and 60s often came with a coordinating blouse. The fabric of the blouse was often used as accents of trim on the suit. Again, this coat and dress ensemble shows that Chanel was already using this technique in 1929.
De la Haye writes about how the company became stagnant after the death of Chanel in 1971. It was not until Karl Lagerfeld showed his first collection for Chanel in 1983 that the house began to regain what it had lost. From the beginning Lagerfeld made strong references to the signature designes that were associated with Chanel for so many years. He took her love of camellias to a new level, and he took the famous chain from the strap of the 2.55 bag and the hem of the jacket to make it a prominent design feature.
Sometimes Lagerfeld will reference an entire collection from the past. On the left you see a dress from Coco Chanel’s Tricolor collection of 1939. Lagerfeld used that collection as the inspiration for his 2010 spring ready-to-wear showing, seen on the right.
There has been so much written about Chanel that it is hard to pick just one book on the topic. For the person who is serious in the designs and the influences, this is the one I’d recommend. For photos of Chanel and Lagerfeld’s work, then the catalog from the Met’s 2005 show is beautifully done. And as for a pure biography, there are so many, that I really can’t suggest one. Feel free to make a recommendation in the comments.