A legendary name in fashion, Chanel is today synonymous both with its founder, Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel and its artistic director since 1983, Karl Lagerfeld. Chanel herself - who was born in an orphanage, was self-taught and who first established her house in 1913 - is perhaps the most important fashion designer of the 20th century. Her pioneering use of sportswear for high fashion in the '20s, her little black dresses, her costume jewellery, taste for suntanning and appropriation of male dress are the stuff of fashion legend. Her Chanel No. 5 perfume (invented in 1921), is a confirmed 'classic', as are her softly-structured tweed suit and quilted leather handbags (both developed in the '50s).
When Chanel died in 1971 she left a rich legacy of house codes which are today boldly reinvented by Karl Lagerfeld. Mademoiselle's favourite pearls turn up, outsized, as little evening bags; tweed is transformed into fluffy leggings and matching berets; a love of the sporty, outdoors life is expressed via Chanel-branded snowboards and surfboards. At Chanel, Lagerfeld heads up one of Paris' few remaining haute couture salons; in July 2002 the company, which is owned by the Wertheimer family, secured the future of its couture business by acquiring five specialist workshops, including Lesage, the prestigious embroidery com¬pany.
Chanel is today nothing if not a commercial powerhouse and in December 2004 the company opened a multi-floored new store in the Ginza shopping
district of Tokyo that includes a restaurant, Beige Tokyo, and a glassy facade
fitted with twinkling lights that resemble the brand's famous tweed. In May
2005 the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York opened an exhibition devoted
to Chanel's historic innovations, featuring designs by both the house founder
and its present incumbent. Despite this grand heritage, what Coco and
Lagerfeld have in common above all is relish for the present times and for the
future. As Chanel herself once said, "I am neither in the past nor avant-garde.
My style follows life."