The little black dress. Created by Coco Chanel in 1926, it is a timeless classic: basically a simple, straight, knee-length dress, neither extravagantly cut nor luxuriously decorated, that nevertheless ushered in the modern age of fashion.
Right from the start, it was considered revolutionary and stirred strong emotions. Because the fact that it was black broke a taboo. For a long time, black clothes had been deemed unseemly for a young woman. Black was the colour either of widows or of experienced married women. Young women, it was widely believed, ought to wear white, the colour of innocence.
The VOGUE that printed Coco Chanel’s design for the first time predicted that the unusual garment would be a resounding success: “It will become a sort of uniform for all woman of taste.” And English magazines came up with the name that was to make it famous: the “little black dress”.
Madame Chanel’s delightful design was born of her dislike of the fashions that had been popular up until that point: lots of lace and bodices. Later, she explained that the very sight of these overladen and – in her eyes – “elitist” clothes was enough to trigger feelings of “aversion”. She countered with her own taste, which was defined by sophisticated simplicity. At the time, the word minimalism wasn’t even being used in fashion, but that was the trend the little black dress set in motion. Its creator’s declared intention was not just to adapt it to the ladies of refined society as eveningwear; office girls, saleswomen and factory workers were to feel comfortable in it as well. That’s what Coco Chanel wanted – and so it came to pass.
“I’m sure Coco Chanel would have hated me.”
The little black dress has outlived every fashion. It was and is both simple and mysterious. Despite its lack of fancy details, or perhaps for that very reason, its design is incredibly seductive. Whether its wearer is sitting in an opera box or at the bar, the dress is never out of place. At exhibition openings, it puts many a work of art in the shade. And whether she’s throwing a party or serving dinner, the hostess almost always looks gorgeous in a little black dress. In fact, there are very few occasions when it makes a woman look under or overdressed.
And so this timeless textile rightly embarked on its triumphal procession through the world’s wardrobes, and it has just as rightly adorned countless enchanting goddesses of the silver screen as well. Somewhere in our collective memory, there will always be a picture of Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, walking along Fifth Avenue in a little black dress.
Lily Allen as the new CHANEL girl in an Audrey Hepburn-style pose, 2009.
KING KARL OF PARIS
Karl Lagerfeld and Chanel had their first encounter in the early 1980s. Coco Chanel had already been dead for nine years by then. The two are often said to have met, but that isn’t true. In 2013, on the Chanel company’s 100th birthday, “King Karl” coyly said that, if they had, he was sure she would have hated him.
It was Chanel boss Alain Wertheimer who signed Lagerfeld after the two met in Paris, initially as haute couture consultant.
In 1984 the owners appointed him head designer, responsible for the entire fashion division – a position he still holds today. Experts are full of praise not just for the fact that Lagerfeld restored the brand to its former glory, but for the way he did it. It is thanks to him, they say, that the Chanel label began setting the tone again – among young women too.
It is very probably unique in the fashion world for somebody to be given the kind of carte blanche “King Karl” has at Chanel. The management has never interfered, he has always been given free rein, even for the budget. And nobody at company headquarters in Neuilly-sur-Seine has never been the least bit bothered that Lagerfeld has so many other commitments in the luxury industry. On the contrary: it is seen as an asset.
Chanel was also the backdrop against which the relationship between top model Claudia Schiffer and Karl Lagerfeld unfolded. It was in 1988 – the same year she finished school, by the way – that he sent her down the runway for Chanel for the first time.
For years, he described her as his “muse”. The two of them made not just fashion history together, but successful photography books and films as well. For years they were considered not merely inseparable but indivisible. But then he is supposed to have said some not very nice things about her – that her time was over and things like that. For a while, they stopped speaking. She didn’t admit that she was hurt, but it’s probably safe to assume she was. He felt misunderstood and misinterpreted. But it can’t have been as bad as all that, because now they’re getting on just fine again.