Chanel by Karl Lagerfeld pink nylon spandex halter mini dress, c 2004
About the Item
Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel
More than a mere tastemaker, Karl Lagerfeld devoted himself to the continual pursuit of chic. “My life and my job,” the designer once said, “is to forget myself.” From his first collection at Chanel — after joining the brand in the early 1980s — he injected the venerable house with a frisson of modernity. Vintage Karl Lagerfeld designs for Chanel handbags, evening dresses, coats, jewelry and other clothing and accessories riffed on its iconography — tweed skirt suits, pearls, camellias — accenting a lexicon of Chanel-isms with tastes of the moment.
During his five-decade career as a designer for Chanel, Fendi, Chloé and many others, Lagerfeld was a quintessential chameleon, ever evolving to embody the times. An outsize, instantly recognizable personality — his ponytail powdered like an 18th-century viscount, his eyes perpetually shielded by dark glasses, wearing fistfuls of chunky silver jewels — Lagerfeld was, above all, an avatar of style.
Born in Hamburg (in 1933, ’35, or ’38 by varying accounts), Karl Lagerfeld packed his bags for Paris in 1954. His design for a coat won him the International Wool Secretariat and landed him a job with the celebrated couturier Pierre Balmain. He went on to become the designer of Jean Patou, eventually realizing that his seemingly endless ideas could fuel a career as a designer-for-hire. As such, Lagerfeld lent his vision to everyone from Loewe and Max Mara to Krizia and Charles Jourdan, nimbly moving among a diverse range of styles. It was an unprecedented way of working in the days when freelance was still a dirty word. During the late ’60s and ’70s, he refashioned Chloé to reflect the free spirit of the day and, beginning in 1965, joined forces with the Fendi family, taking it from sleepy furrier to fashion’s haute-est stratum.
Because of his track record for reviving and reimagining brands that had grown stagnant, in 1984 Lagerfeld was handed the reins at Chanel, which had been gathering dust since its founder’s heyday. Lagerfeld’s collections for the brand displayed his knack for synthesizing old and new, high and low. From Watteau (Spring/Summer 1985 couture) and Serge Roche (Spring/Summer 1990 ready-to-wear) to hip-hop fly girls (Fall/Winter 1991 ready-to-wear), surfers (Spring/Summer 2003 ready-to-wear) and ancient Egypt (Pre-Fall 2019), Lagerfeld used each season’s inspiration to conceive Chanel’s signatures anew. And despite producing eight collections a year for Chanel, as well as four to five for Fendi, Lagerfeld never faltered in proposing new ideas each time he put pencil to paper.
In the years following the opening of her modest millinery shop, Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel became a pivotal designer of both fashionable casual wear and Paris haute couture as well as an icon and arbiter of 20th-century style with her bob haircut and pearls. Today vintage Chanel handbags, jackets and evening dresses are among the most sought-after clothing and accessories for fashion lovers all over the world.
The first Chanel shop was established in 1910 in Paris on rue Cambon by the young milliner Gabrielle Chanel (1883–1971), who had picked up the nickname “Coco” while working as a club singer. The boutique drew the attention of the Parisian fashion elite who popularized her wide-brimmed Chanel Modes hats. Soon she added a sportswear store in the Normandy resort town of Deauville, where Coco set the tone for her defining sense of style — traditionally masculine garments reimagined for feminine shapes, made from simple jersey fabric.
Effortless and elegant, Chanel's designs promoted comfort and grace in women’s wear that had been dominated in the previous century by complicated layers of fabric and cumbersome corsets. She followed this success with a couture house, opened in 1915 in Biarritz.
But Chanel was not born into a life of glamour. Following the death of her mother, her father left her in an orphanage where she lived until the age of 18. It was there that she learned to sew as well as appreciate the classic pairing of black and white as worn by the nuns. In 1926, she introduced her first little black dress, reclaiming a color that had once been reserved for mourning and working-class women. That same decade, she debuted her perfume, Chanel No. 5, as well as the Chanel suit with a fitted skirt, inspired by the boxy lines of men’s clothing and employing a sporty tweed.
Chanel closed her fashion operations during World War II, then returned to the industry in 1954 to design for the functional needs of modern women. Structure and wearability endured in all of Chanel’s clothing and accessories, like the quilted leather 2.55 handbag introduced in 1955 with its gold-chain shoulder strap that freed up a woman’s hands. Chanel's collarless jacket reacted against the constricting styles of Christian Dior's New Look, replacing them with a design that was timeless, an instant classic. The 1957 two-tone slingback pumps had a practical heel height while offering a bold statement in the black tip of the shoes.
After Coco Chanel died in 1971, the brand underwent several changes in leadership, including fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, who took over as artistic director in 1983. Over the years, the company has continued to innovate, such as expanding into ready-to-wear fashion in 1978 and, in 2002, establishing a subsidiary company — Paraffection — dedicated to preserving the heritage skills of fashion artisan workshops. The House of Chanel still operates its flagship on rue Cambon in Paris, where it all began.
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