Chanel: A Cultural Icon
A brand created by a woman at a time when women were just entering the workforce and its journey to becoming a part of the cultural fabric
As much as we humans like to believe we’re rational beings, when purchasing luxury, reason takes a backseat. This is illustrative of the fact that even during the pandemic, the luxury segment showed slow growth. What about a coveted purse or shoe cripples our ability to be objective about our purchases?
The key to luxury has always been centered around ‘exclusivity’. Through perceptions of quality, comfort and elegance, luxury brands set the bar high for aspirations and lifestyle goals. These products establish a sense of status, accomplishment, and individualism in the minds of their consumers.
Embodying people’s ideas and desires makes a brand culturally relevant in its time. Consumers’ ability to relate to the brand is solely dependent on the story the brand chooses to communicate. Its elevation to being a cultural icon is centered around the myth created around the brand. As time passes, the myth supersedes the brand, and the audience’s perception is based on the aspirations created along with the story woven around it.
Chanel is one such cultural icon.
Coco Chanel was a trailblazer in women’s fashion, introducing for the first time the outrageous notion that women could actually move in their clothing
Gabrielle Chanel, known to the world by the nickname “Coco”, was born into poverty in the French countryside. After her mother’s death, her father dropped her off at an orphanage at the age of 12. With the nuns at the orphanage, she learned how to sew. At the age of 18, she moved out of the orphanage and worked numerous jobs that included shop girl, waitress, and cafe singer. During this period she was associated with a few wealthy men, and in 1913, with financial assistance from Arthur Capel, she opened a shop in Deauville, France. Introduced to the jersey fabric by a French textile industrialist, Coco Chanel was enamored by the comfort, freedom, and movement that the fabric allowed; at a time when corsets and voluminous silhouettes were popular.
At the time of its introduction in 1913, her sporty silhouettes and casual knit dresses were considered shocking, but the first World War in 1914 took with it, the clothing extravagances that people enjoyed. Coco Chanel was inspired by the casual elegance of men’s clothing and often took inspiration from Capel’s wardrobe for her designs. Even her own personal style was influenced by comfort and style rather than restrictive items of clothing. Even in her early work, her luxury lay in simplicity and going against the grain. For the first time, women could move in their clothing without feeling confined in their outfits. Chanel stood for everything women aspired to be: independent, slim, and dynamic. Over the years, Coco Chanel has created numerous striking looks and accessories but there are four that have stood the test of time to stay iconic.
Chanel’s iconic products are a result of Coco Chanel’s rebellious nature with each item born out of a need to go against the grain
The Chanel Suit: Coco Chanel took a material that wasn’t well-known at the time, tweed, and crafted a suit out of it in 1925. This collarless jacket and slim skirt set became a symbol of liberation and sophistication and was worn by Princess Diana, Barbara Walters, and Jackie Kennedy. Considered avant-garde at the time of its inception, this suit was perfectly timed with the early 20th century first wave of feminism and women entering the workforce. Since then, the suit has been reinvented time and again to become a staple at the House of Chanel.
The Little Black Dress: The Roaring Twenties were in full swing when Vogue featured the “Little Back Dress” on its cover in 1926, and kicked off the long reign of this fashion staple. The dress was dubbed ‘Chanel’s Ford’ by the publication as a nod to Henry Ford who famously said “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants, so long as it is black.” The dress was inspired by three things: 1. Chanel recognized the need for mourning post the World War. 2. She wanted women to not look so downtrodden and strict and desired that they look chic, even as they were mourning. 3. The nuns at the orphanage she grew up in.
By the end of the 20th century, almost every major designer had an LBD in their collections, and the versions of the dress saw themselves to be a part of numerous important moments throughout history, whether it be Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast At Tiffany’s or Princess Diana’s ‘Revenge Dress’
“Thanks to me, they [non-wealthy] can walk around like millionaires." Coco Chanel
Chanel No.5: A blend of jasmine, rose, sandalwood, and vanilla, the timeless Chanel No.5 was the 5th one in 10 fragrances that was presented to Coco Chanel by Ernest Beaux, a perfumer. Interestingly, the 5th bottle was the result of a laboratory mistake as it contained aldehyde in a dosage never used before. Chanel later said, "It was what I was waiting for. A perfume like nothing else. A woman's perfume, with the scent of a woman." At a time when perfume bottles were usually ornate, Chanel No.5 came in a clear, transparent bottle that undeniably stood out from the rest.
The Chanel Flap Bag: Before the 1950s, women used to carry bags in their hands. By then, Chanel had been making handbags for almost 25 years. The addition of straps in the Chanel Flap Bag revolutionized the way bags were made after it, and allowed women to carry their purses hands-free. Coco Chanel describes her innovation as such:
“I got fed up with holding my purses in my hands and losing them, so I added a strap and carried them over my shoulder.”
The bag was named Chanel 2.55, for its date of conception- February 1955. Recognizable through its turn lock, the ‘Mademoiselle’ lock, the interlocking chain strap, and the distressed calfskin, the purse also features a tiny pouch for your lipstick, as well as a hidden compartment behind the front flap.
Coco Chanel was a well-known Nazi sympathizer who made a comeback at age 71
Coco Chanel was plagued with her fair share of controversy. She was known for her anti-semitic outbursts and her dislike of the Jews wasn’t a secret. During the Second World War, she was living at the Ritz with Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage, a spy from the German embassy in Paris. This association has been brought up periodically, even today, along with a call to boycott Chanel. Once the war ended, she left France for Switzerland, where she lived till 1954.
On February 5th, 1954 she made a comeback and presented a new collection. The French press, still unforgiving of her behavior during the war, gave her a lukewarm reception, but her clothes were well received by the British. She was 71 when she made her comeback. She died aged 88 in 1971 on her bed at the Hotel Ritz. Her last words to her maid were, “You see, this is how you die.”
In 1983 Karl Lagerfeld took over Chanel as chief designer. Under his leadership, Chanel launched their first watch and skincare line. By the 1990s Chanel was the most profitable French fashion house with €570 million in revenue on their ready-to-wear clothes alone. By 2003, they launched Coco Mademoiselle to target a younger audience. After Karl Lagerfeld’s death in 2019, Virginie Viard took over as creative director to continue Chanel’s legacy.
Chanel was confident that their consumers will keep buying their products, which allowed them to experiment with their marketing decisions and aggressively increase their pricing
Chanel also plays the tricky game of playing hard to get. Scarcity marketing is one that is not employed by many brands, but Chanel revived product sales for their perfume in the 60s using this strategy. When Chanel No.5’s sales were down in the 1960s, the CEO at the time Alain Wertheimer removed the product from 6000 stores. Their confidence that their brand name would carry them through restricted availability to create more demand paid off and sales started picking up again.
Chanel’s products are available worldwide through various distribution channels such as exclusive stores, e-commerce sites, multi-brand stores, and high-end marketplaces. The brand’s popularity remains high despite the controversies that accompanied Coco Chanel. Its aggressive pricing strategy has heightened its air of exclusivity and made its products more desirable. Luxury brands usually adjust their prices once or twice a year, but Chanel has managed to raise its costs four times since the pandemic. It has also kept the distribution in check by restricting the purchase of their popular bags to one per customer per year in certain markets.
Conventional marketing doesn’t work for luxury brands and Chanel proved it with a host of unorthodox strategies
Even as the pandemic accelerated the need for brands to have an online marketplace presence, Chanel famously doesn’t sell their clothing online. In order to maintain exclusivity and the experience of a purchase that Chanel wishes to maintain in their physical stores, they’ve restricted their online presence to skincare and accessories. According to Bruno Pavlovsky, president of Chanel Fashion and Chanel SAS,
“Today, e-commerce is a few clicks and products that are flat on a screen. There’s no experience. No matter how hard we work, no matter how much we look at what we can do, the experience is not at the level of what we want to offer our clients.”
When it comes to luxury brand experience, Chanel set the standard with champagne flowing in their stores and personalized concierge services. Their digital marketing strategy is robust, with 51.5M Instagram followers- the most of any luxury brand, with a sole focus on their products and new collections.
With the advent of virtual reality and AI-powered tech, Chanel’s future in e-commerce is in question. In order to engage with Gen Z, they’ve already made an exception for their cosmetics range online, with virtual lip scanners on their app allowing consumers to scan their surroundings and match them to the closest Chanel shade. After a pandemic year that forced them to close down some of their stores and with advances in technology allowing brands to replicate luxury store experiences virtually, will Chanel relent?
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