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Why Chanel would cease to exist without Karl Lagerfeld

Lagerfeld entered the Chanel's headquarters in 1983 and basically saved the brand as a fashion house, thus making Alain Wertheimer's hiring decision one of the most brilliant in modern fashion history.

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Chanel ad in Vogue magazine, 1991

Gabrielle Chanel died on January 10, 1971, and she kept working on her new collection until the very end. There's evidence that even prior death, she made corrections in her studio and almost worked with the scissors herself, the same scissors that always hung around her neck in all her studio pictures.

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Karl Lagerfeld, 1983

More than 10 years after she passed away Chanel's owner Alain Wertheimer hired Karl Lagerfeld who had previously worked for Fendi (he's also kept this job to this day) and Chloe. Lagerfeld stepped into Chanel's headquarters in 1983 and basically saved the brand as a fashion house, because after Chanel's death the company had focused on producing fragrances, earned most of the profits, and selling accessories. Its couture line meekly copied the late founder's designs showing the same famous Chanel suits with minor variations year after year, and the pret-a-porter line was launched only in 1978 when all the couture brands were already making profit from it. Chanel stood on the verge of sharing the fate of other legendary houses, like Balenciaga and others, that were in decline after their founders' deaths. Alain Wertheimer's personnel decision became one of the most brilliant in modern fashion history.

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Karl Lagerfeld and Gita Shilling in Paris. Photo by Regina Relang, 1959.

What did Karl Lagerfeld do to not only save Chanel from oblivion, but also to turn it into one of the fashion's biggest megabrands? First, he scrupulously restructured Gabrielle Chanel's heritage and defined distinct codes for the House to follow in each of its collections: tweed, gold, beige, pink, black. The key items from Chanel's heritage were reproduced on the regular basis: a little black dress (it does not matter who'd come up with it first, Lagerfeld managed to totally retain it for Chanel), a tweed jacket, Chanel 2.55 bag, bicolour ballerina shoes, massive gold fashion jewelry, large pearls, etc...

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Ines de la Fressange and Karl Lagerfeld, 1987.

Now it seems obvious how all historical fashion houses speak of their brand's DNA and keep working with recognizable historical items, but Lagerfeld was one of the first to understand the power of historical heritage and make this kind of cataloging. And no doubt this is what makes him not only a genius designer, but also a brilliant strategist and marketing visionary.

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Linda and Christy in Chanel jewelry ad, 1991.

Another reason why this was such a brilliant move is that Chanel was basically the first famous couturier who understood the power of uniform: she developed her own version of basic wardrobe, and her suit, for instance, was called "Chanel's uniform" back in the 1920s. After her comeback in the 1950s she did just the same, presented her own "uniform", a new Chanel suit. This is why Chanel's vintage pieces today look so contemporary — they reproduce the Coco Chanel gold standard. And considering the fact that prices for vintage Chanel are sky-rocketing all over the world, they might be one of the most shrewd investments, especially in times of crisis.

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Linda and Christy in Chanel ad, 1991.

Secondly, he took those codes and drastically rejuvenated them. He made grunge-styled items from tweed, placed the famous logo on the most unexpected objects that have nothing to do with the world of couture and luxury: moonboots, surf boards, or alpine skis. He understood both the rising power of the street culture and the power of rebranding, and joined them together. The result was incredible: Chanel boutiques started attracting not only their usual mature clientele, but also their clients' daughters. Chanel had suddenly changed from an expensive historical -- if bourgeois and quite dull -- brand into every girl's dream and something super hot. And this definitely defined the growth pattern of other historical brands for years to come.

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Karl surrounded by his favourite models during Chanel fashion show, 1990s.

Now the Chanel brand is so powerful that its logo can be placed on bags made of nylon, and the audience will still rush to buy them. Karl Lagerfeld gets full credit for that and though his personality and his leading role in Chanel's history are sometimes dubious, it seems like no one else would be able to firmly hold the reins and keep the Chanel empire on top. Lagerfeld sometimes makes an impression of an android rather than a man, impressing everybody with his working ability, but the day is inevitably getting closer when the subject of “Chanel's heir” will become one of the hottest in the fashion world.

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Author: Elena Stafyeva

11.09.2015

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Why Chanel would cease to exist without Karl Lagerfeld

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