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The success of the Chanel tweed suit

As Karl Lagerfeld loves to say, Chanel created the very idea of contemporary. This is why Chanel tweed suits are still so popular even today

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The fashion history of the twentieth century certainly knows much more talented couturiers than Gabrielle Chanel. There were those who created a unique aesthetic, like a cut, a silhouette or an image, such as the great Cristóbal Balenciaga, the forefather of all modern fashion; there were those who can be considered her contemporaries and rivals; Madeleine Vionnet, inventor of bias cut, or Madam Grès, the creator of magical drapings. However, it is unlikely that any one of them would have been able to compete with Chanel’s skill to feel and interpret the time she was living in through her work, to create the fashion codes of different eras. To come and change everything – so that these changes have not lost their meaning nowadays. As Karl Lagerfeld loves to say, Chanel created the very idea of contemporary.


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Coco Chanel wearing a tweed suit.

This idea was comprised of simplicity, ‘non-glamourous’ materials, clean lines of traditional male suit and concealed luxury; what Chanel referred to as ‘poverty deluxe’. Every aspect of this idea is somehow linked to her biography and represented the legendary aesthetic of the House of Chanel from day one. The men in her life; in particular Étienne Balsan, Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel, the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich of Russia and the Duke of Westminster had all influenced her taste. Chanel often said that she always used to borrow clothes from her lovers’ wardrobes. She emphasized that nothing highlights femininity better than menswear. And the overwelming success of this concept can be attributed to her spending time with Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor, the 2nd Duke of Westminster.


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Chanel with her friend near Lochmore.

These photographs were taken at the Duke’s Scottish estate near Lochmore, where Chanel was wearing his tweed jacket and cashmere cardigans while hunting, fishing and playing cricket. She discovered the classic outfits of the English gentleman, designed for every occasion: either fox hunting or boar hunting or sports like cricket, tennis or polo; all made from their respective fabric. It was there that she saw the diversity of tweed, most of which was manufactured at Scottish twill mills; and fell in love with it, just like she did with jersey, another masculine and not a glamorous fabric, which she discovered thanks to her first British lover Boy Capel about a decade ago. Discovering Scottish tweed was a milestone in her career, and thus began the story of the jacket that would become the most recognizable Chanel garment ever produced.


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Coco Chanel wearing a men's coat

The cardigan-jacket first appeared in her collection in 1925, immediately after Chanel’s meeting with the Duke. The October issue of American Vogue, 1927 featured an article entitled "Scottish Tweed is a New Godchild of French Couturiers", with Chanel’s collection of simple, practical and beautiful outfits. At first there were only several items in the spring collection and a few more in the autumn one, however, tweed would play its leading part in 1954, when a 70 year old Chanel decided to return to Paris and began making couture once more. Tweed became the basis of her new simple and minimalistic style consisting of a straight skirt and a jacket without collar or lapels.


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The fitting

Chanel was attracted to tweed due to its traditional nature and its practicality. Tweed is very supple because of its diagonal broken twill and loose texture. It is definitely lighter than broadcloth (for the same reasons) and it holds shape while hugging the body. It can be manufactured with a simple herringbone pattern, a plaid pattern; or a multi-coloured mélange effect. Real tweed is produced in Scotland, and in smaller amounts in Irelands and parts of northern England. The name comes from the word tweel, derived from "twill", the Scottish for herringbone; or at least that was written in the memoirs of the Duke of Windsor, who was a big fan of tweed (as well as his grandfather Edward VII and his father George V). The name was later connected with the River Tweed, which flows near the town of Hawick in Scottish Borders area where many textile manufacturers are located. Another important tweed making region is the Scottish archipelago of the Outer Hebrides, the large isles of Lewis and Harris (connected by a narrow causeway), Northern and Southern Uist, Benbecula, Barra and many other smaller ones

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Models showing Chanel tweed jackets

The most famous brand of tweed is Harris Tweed that is still manufactured entirely by hand using traditional techniques in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. The production of this tweed hasn’t changed for decades. The traditional tweed manufacturing technique is regulated by a special law just like  some other traditional artisanal industries, in 1993 a special Act of Parliament was adopted and the special supervisory body The Harris Tweed Authority was established. Raw sheep’s wool, partially from mainland sheep and partially from local stocks is washed and dyed at tweed factories, following strict proportions of dyed and undyed fibers for every shade of tweed. The wool is then processed by mechanical gear wheels to produce a mixture of filaments that is as homogeneous as possible, from which the fibres are spun (i.e. the wool is ‘combed’). Next the yarn is reeled onto bobbins using a special technique and then send to weavers. The tweed fabric is created by the weavers at their own home, at his or her own traditional loom which does not differ substantially from those used at the beginning of the 19th century (often they are identical), driven by a foot pedal. When the fabric is ready, it is sent back to the factory where it is processed by darners that repair minor defects and the fabric is then soaked in a soap and soda solution to remove dust and remains of animal fat and dirt; after which it is steamed and ironed.


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Coco Chanel in English tweed coat

It was from this very Harris Tweed that Chanel created the first tweed garments for her collections in the late 1920’s and the 1930’s. She also bought fabric made from the Irish Donegal Tweed. Fashion changed in the 1950’s, when silhouettes became looser. Chanel wanted a lighter tweed, an effect that can be achieved by soaking the tweed and beating the wet fabric with special wood hammers.



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Chanel jacket of 60s from Vintage Voyage collection

Modern tweed differs from vintage tweed only in its lightness, due to the advancements in wool cleaning process, whilst in every other way it is still the same and is protected by law. As it is the case with all luxury fashion houses, Chanel does not like to reveal its suppliers, and usually we can only speculate about them when Chanel buys another artisan company, for example with the purchase of Scottish cashmere producer Barrie Knitwear a couple of years ago. The manufacturers also don't like to publicly name their famous customers, but the unofficial wide-spread information says that tweed for Chanel jackets is made in Carlisle by Linton Tweed; and it is also said to be the favourite tweed of Karl Lagerfeld. Besides that, there is a rumour of the small family company in the North of England where sheep are bred and tweed produced from their wool for Chanel. According to therumour, Gabrielle Chanel visited the producer herself in order to control the whole process and make sure that she would get exactly what she wanted. There is something maniacal about this story; which is precisely what makes it believable because Chanel was known for her obsession with quality and details. Tweed, being more durable than other fabrics that Chanel favoured such as jersey, cotton pique, and sailcloth, became the main symbol of the House of Chanel; and thanks to her passion for tweed we have been wearing it for decades and will continue to do so for a long time to come.

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Author: Elena Stafyeva

23.09.2014

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The success of the Chanel tweed suit

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