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Coco Chanel: her most enduring looks modelled by the designer herself

Lauretta Roberts
19 August 2016

One of the world's most influential fashion designers Coco Chanel was born on this day in 1883; to mark the occasion Chronicle Books in the US has released today a new illustrated biography of her life called simply Coco Chanel.

Chanel was responsible for some of fashion's most enduring looks that still form the cornerstones of modern women's wardrobes across the globe, here we take a look at some of them as worn by the designer herself.

Tweed jackets, quilted flap bags, flat ballet pumps, monochrome, costume jewellery, Breton striped sweaters - few women don't have at least one of these items in their wardrobe and many will have all of them. But the truth is today's wardrobe staples were yesterday's radical innovations and that they still appeal to this day, and indeed, that the fashion house that bore her name is still riding high, is down to the vision of Coco Chanel herself.

Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel was born in Saumur, France 136 years ago today to an unmarried mother (Jeanne Davolle) and an itinerant street vendor Albert Chanel. Her upbringing was tough and tragedy struck 12 years later when her mother died and Chanel was sent to a covent, Aubazine, which was to have a profound affect on her.

It's said that the nun's black and white habits informed Chanel's monochrome signature look and it was here that Chanel learnt to sew. Upon leaving the convent she gained work as a seamstress and tried her hand a performing. It was during this time that she gained her "Coco" nickname, reportedly since the song Ko Ko Ri Ko was one of her signature tunes when performing.

Shortly afterwards she met the heir to a textile empire Etienne Balsan and became his mistress (Coco's love life was to be complex and she would go on to have numerous affairs, including, most famously, a relationship with the Duke of Westminster who emblazoned Westminster lampposts in her honour with the CC emblem that can still be seen on some of them today).

She began designing hats while she was with Balsan and this hobby became a commercial entreprise and led to her opening a store on Paris' Rue Cambon (where Chanel HQ remains to this day) in 1910. Shortly after she opened a boutique in Deauville and expanded into clothing, which featured humble garments made from her signature tricot and jersey fabrics. The venture was funded by another lover Arthur "Boy" Capel, who later died in a car accident - an incident which devasted Chanel. A Boy bag forms part of the Chanel collection to this day.

Such was her success in clothing that by 1918 Chanel had acquired the entire building at 18 Rue Cambon and the empire was born. After a long life that was not without sadness and controversy (she was accused of collaborating with Nazis during WWII), Chanel passed away in 1971. In 1983 Karl Lagerfeld took over as creative director of the house she created and some of the looks pioneered by Chanel below still appear in collections season in season out.

Breton stripes

Chanel Breton Stripes

A young Chanel is pictured in a Breton stripe jersey that was one of the mainstay items in her first store in Deauville, opened in 1910. A shocking look at the time (until Chanel wore it, the Breton jersey was the preserve of fisherman) it has gone on to be a classic.

The 2.55 Bag


Launched in February 1955 (hence its name) this quilted flap bag with chain strap is still made today and is one of the most coveted handbags in the world.

Two-tone pumps

Chanel Two-tone flats

Chanel's designs have often been described as liberating since she was instrumental in freeing women from the tyranny of corsets and long dresses. She also made flat shoes chic and the two-tone style was her signature. Flat ballet pumps, often in two-tone and quilted designs, remain one of the brand's most sought after items to this day.

Costume jewellery

Chanel Pearls

That it's now OK to wear costume jewellery is down to Chanel. She particularly loved pearls and often wrapped several strands around her next mixing faux with real to achieve a chic, carefree look.

The Tweed Jacket

Chanel Tweed Jacket

Whether original Chanel or one of the many copies from the high street to the high end, the tweed jacket is a timeless classic. Chanel's were slim-fitting, often cropped to hit above the hip but long-line versions were equally favoured, and trimmed in a contrasting colour. They can be worn as part of a co-ordinating skirt or pantsuit, but are just as likely to be paired with jeans these days.

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