Luxury, said Coco Chanel, "must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury." And so she applied that philosophy to her clothes, tearing the linings out of tweed suits and giving them a kinder silhouette with boxy jackets. Corsets and padding were consigned to history.
The designer's views on fashion and luxury still form the underpinnings of those global businesses today. In an era in which clothes often wore the wearer and frequently constricted her Chanel's ideas were nothing short of radical. From the day she opened her famous Rue Cambon shop in Paris in 1910, she was tearing down any and all existing notions of fashion. Where others saw couture as strictly the preserve of the élite, Chanel declared, "fashion is not simply a matter of clothes. Fashion is in the air, borne upon the wind. One intuits it. It is in the sky and on the road. Fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening."
That may sound like a declaration that style can't be bought, but with the Chanel trademark now associated with such fashion staples besides the tweed suit as the little black dress and ropes of pearls, it's not an idea that worries devotees of the brand. Its strength derives from her ability to invent classics. She also reached beyond fashion, enlisting the artist Sonia Delaunay to draw prints for her and turning to unlikely sources like men's riding clothes for inspiration.
She understood packaging and marketing and exploited the cult of her own personality. Chanel No. 5 was the first perfume to bear a designer's name. She recognized early on the allure of perfume she recommended its use "wherever one wants to be kissed."
Some attribute her famously pared-down style to the influence of the nuns who raised her as an orphan in the small French village of Aubazine. If so, their influence was less visible in her private life. Christened Gabrielle, she acquired the nickname Coco during a stint as a cabaret singer, and acquired a wide circle of friends including artists like Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso and Igor Stravinsky. And there was a string of affairs, some with aristocrats, and one scandalous liaison with a Nazi officer during the war. Her passion for life, and work, was undimmed by the passing years. A 1954 relaunch, though deemed a flop in Parisian couture circles, unleashed a period of innovation that produced many of her signature looks.
Her creativity wasn't just restricted to design. Until her death in 1971 at the age of 87, Chanel refused any kind of categorization and often reinvented her own story to maintain an air of mystique she deliberately cultivated. Yet there's no mystery to the enduring appeal of her brand. She proved that style can be bought.