The Allure of Chanel

“Genius is the ability to foresee the future,” Coco Chanel often said. But even Mademoiselle, as she was often called, could never have imagined that 26 years after her death, her small boutique at 31, rue Cambon would be the nucleus of a multinational business including a network of stores around the globe. One of the best known fashion names of the century, Chanel is unique. It is the only house that has remained faithful to the spirit of its namesake well after the founder’s death, without compromising the original image. Today, Chanel is the most powerful fashion firm in France.

Suits, watches, bags marked with golden intertwining double C’s, perfume inscribed with the number five – all have remained on the hit-parade of best-selling luxury items around the world for much of this century. Just how has this house survived the death of its founder, a woman who admitted to doing business without being a businesswoman?

Since 1924, the mysterious Wertheimer family, which owns the label, has guaranteed its continuity. Pierre Wertheimer, owner of Bourjois Cosmetics, collaborated with Chanel to form a perfume company in 1924. Thirty years later, Wertheimer bought the couture house, which his son Jacques inherited in 1965. By 1974, business was stagnating, till 25-year-old Alain ousted his father and took the reins. The brand owes much of its current success to this young French millionaire, whom Fortune magazine credits with the 30th largest fortune in Europe and who lives in New York on Fifth Avenue in virtual anonymity.

The company feels it must remain a myth to ensure its mystique. Nothing must alter the image of Chanel. Wertheimer, staying out of the limelight himself, has faithfully maintained the opulent image of Chanel despite the trend toward democratizing luxury goods. The company has no plans to launch a second line. Unlike other major fashion houses, it has no “junior” or “bridge” collections, no “Baby Chanel,” no discount outlets. Designer resale shops are the only places authentic Chanel products can be snapped up for less than their lofty retail price, and even then you’ll pay around $500 for a secondhand sweater.

The house makes money and lots of it. As Chanel is privately owned, it is not obligated to divulge its earnings. However, drawing on an audit by Swiss and Cayman Islands tax services, a recent article in Capital magazine estimates that Chanel has in the neighborhood of 8.5 billion francs in annual worldwide sales – twice the turnover of Dior and three times that of Saint Laurent.

In the hands of Alain Wertheimer, Chanel has undergone a veritable industrial revolution. The quaint and romantic artisanal fabrication has been replaced by state-of-the-art production methods carried out in modern factories in Compiègne, Pantin and Saint-Chamant. Each operation is controlled down to the most minute detail. With its own plants, Chanel can ensure that no outside manufacturer will omit some small but vital step and jeopardize the quality of the goods. The company also oversees all of its own sales and deals directly with foreign stores, thus holding onto more profits. From Tokyo to New York, Milan to Geneva, Chanel boutiques are situated in the most expensive streets, drawing an elite clientele. But this forms only part of the Chanel success story.

Another key element is the talent, taste and charm of Karl Lagerfeld, who in 1983 took over as designer at what was essentially a dowdy house, and gave it what Mademoiselle never did: a sense of humor. With music from “Ghostbusters” wailing in the background, Lagerfeld hiked up skirts, introduced denim, pulled on leggings, pulled in jackets, found a thousand different ways to reinterpret the house’s icons and archives and took the double C insignia places it had never been before.

Though there have been Chanel collections with items that made a few bourgeois women wince – Chanel pasties worn with oversized jeans, moon boots, baseball caps, sneakers, G-strings under dresses cut to the crotch – in an odd way, Lagerfeld has remained faithful to the spirit of Mademoiselle. Rebelling against ostentatious clothes at the turn of the century, Gabrielle Chanel was the first designer to incorporate “street style” into high fashion, borrowing sailor pants and cardigans from menswear. She is also credited with making fashionable such varied styles as tweed suits, jersey, short hair, suntans and costume jewelry.

She was born to a humble family, and after the death of her mother spent her youth in an orphanage, where she learned to sew. Ambitious and determined, she soon realized that men could be exploited. She sought out wealthy and powerful men who could provide the money and protection essential to gratify her social and creative needs. Her first boyfriend set her up in a hat shop, but it was an Englishman, Arthur “Boy” Capel, who took her to Paris, gave her a taste for the high life, and backed her when she wanted to open a millinery shop in Deauville.

Chanel focused her efforts on the world of high fashion, and introduced comfort, ease and practicality in clothes – concepts totally foreign to fashion at the time. Soon she opened a dress shop in Paris, but closed it at the onset of World War I. After the war, Capel was killed in a car crash. Though grief-stricken, Chanel concentrated her efforts as a designer, and was awarded with fame, wealth and importance. By 1928 she had launched her couture house at 31, rue Cambon. She was a major figure in fashion until the eve of World War II. By 1930, her annual turnover was 120 million old francs and she was said to have over £3 million on deposit in London banks. Her success was based on the simple observation, made very early in her career, that what she liked for herself would appeal to other women.

In 1954, at age 71, after years of Swiss retirement, Coco Chanel reopened her house. Heckled at first by the European press as someone out of touch with modern times, she regained her place in the world of style when her ladylike dresses became best sellers, particularly with Americans. At her death in 1971, her assistants, Yvonne Dudel and Jean Cazaubon, took over the direction of the house. Chanel Boutique was launched in 1976. The clothes were designed by Philippe Guibourgé until the German-born Lagerfeld arrived.

In the years since Lagerfeld has ruled the house, he has become the most important maker and shaker in the world of French fashion. This season, he created a mild panic in the industry by moving Chanel’s show time from the end of fashion week to the beginning. Because many foreign buyers and reporters leave town right after Chanel, the change of dates sent other houses scurrying for time slots early in the week.

Even where trends are concerned, Chanel sets the overall tone. For example, after years of short silhouettes dominating the runways, Lagerfeld showed long skirts for his winter 93-94 season during the March prêt-à-porter shows. Everyone agreed it was time for a change to help stimulate business. After Chanel featured lipstick-red leather suits slinking down to the ankles, everyone from other houses to magazine editors scurried to promote the new proportions. But four months later, Lagerfeld whacked off hemlines for his winter 93-94 couture collection, shown in July, and nearly rendered everyone’s undelivered merchandise obsolete. There was lots of grumbling, and yet almost everyone made an about-face and fell into line.

Even now, with all of the hoopla surrounding the arrival of British bad boys Alexander McQueen and John Galliano, “King Karl” has a way of maintaining his lead in the rag trade race. While the Brits went their outrageous way, Lagerfeld surprised everyone by turning the page on outrageousness and opting for sobriety. He sent out a collection of elegant fare for “the modern woman,” forcing the newcomers to play the same ball game or run the risk of looking terribly out of it.

Coco Chanel believed that “fashion doesn’t exist until it goes down into the streets.” Though she might be taken aback by some of Lagerfeld’s wild interpretations of her classic style, and squabbles over ownership with the Wertheimers would probably have persisted, still she’d be pleased to see that the house she founded 73 years ago has maintained its status as France’s premiere monument of style.