The making of an icon

OCT 29, 2015
Chanel’s Little Black Jacket is one such piece. Designed in 1954 by Coco herself, it was more than just an antidote to the constricting fashions of the time – it was a revolution. Not only did it give women a whole new wardrobe to match their modern lives, it was also the embodiment of new techniques. The LBJ had no interfacing and was cut in a boxy shape, to allow as much movement as possible. And then there were the details – buttons embossed with lions (the designer’s own star sign), and later the interlocking Cs and a small weighted chain sewn into the hems to ensure they hung perfectly. These unmistakable elements allowed Chanel to “own” both the design and the look itself. As Karl Lagerfeld put it: “Coco Chanel invented a type of piece that had never before existed in this particular form, and no one can take this achievement away from her. It is an icon that embodies the essence of Chanel style. Some things never go out of fashion in the world of fashion: jeans, the white shirt and the Chanel jacket.”

“First and foremost it’s about provenance,” says Hong Kong fashion journalist Divia Harilela of what makes an item truly iconic. “And it’s also about style, in the sense that it is something that will transcend time.”

Travel from the Chanel Atelier on the Rue Cambon to the outskirts of Paris and you will find the birthplace of another icon of style. It was in 1859 in the sleepy rural town of Asnières-sur-Seine that trunk-maker Louis Vuitton built his workshop dedicated to making the most innovative luggage of the age, and it was there that he would go on to create one of the world’s most enduring symbols of luxury.

The first trunk produced by Vuitton came in grey Trianon canvas, which made it lighter, more durable and more waterproof than those made by his competitors. It was also the first to have a flat top instead of a dome, making it perfect for stacking in the baggage carriages of trains and in the holds of ships.

Fast-forward more than a century and you have a design that has been re-imagined by the likes of artists Takashi Murakami, Stephen Sprouse and Damien Hirst, and that has travelled with everyone from Joan Collins and Paris Hilton to the Maharaja Hari Singh (who in 1928 commissioned 38 pieces of Vuitton luggage, including one for his polo mallets). Among its most famous devotees have been Elizabeth Taylor and Diana Vreeland, both of whose sets of Vuitton cases were auctioned by Christie’s as part of their estates. Today, all of Vuitton’s trunks are still made by hand in Asnières, often to the exact same specifications as the originals and using the same techniques established all those years ago.

“It tends to be with most iconic designs that there is a story,” says Matthew Rubinger, international director of handbags at Christie’s. “Many of them are actually quite practical. Dior and its Lady Dior bag is a perfect example of this.”

While attending the opening of an exhibition celebrating the work of Cézanne in Paris in 1995, Princess Diana, so the story goes, was given the then unreleased bag as a gift by Bernadette Chirac, France’s First Lady. She instantly became a fan, ordering one in every available colour and carrying it on countless public engagements. Seizing on the opportunity, Dior renamed the bag Lady Dior in her honour. In a campaign fronted by actress Marion Cotillard it remains at the forefront of the brand’s offering today, the simple boxy style, complete with top handle, re-imagined in different colours and fabrications season after season.

At Fendi, the Baguette bag exploded onto the global fashion scene in 1997. Named for the French loaf it resembles, the bag has since been released in more than 700 iterations. “Many designers decided to go into accessories because they realised if you get the right bag you can really grow your business,” says Silvia Venturini Fendi, creative director of accessories at the fashion house and granddaughter of its founders. “But actually, the Baguette was the opposite of a mass-production strategy. They were all different, and some of them had many different components from all over the world, such as beads and Swarovski crystals and feathers. If one of those components doesn’t arrive on time, the chain stops.” For the designer, it was the bag’s scarcity that was the main draw. “People were not expecting to wait for a bag. This was the start of the famous waiting list; people were calling, trying to move from number 200 to be on the top. It was crazy!”

Equally crazy, perhaps, is the idea that something as ubiquitous as a colour could become so much a part of a brand’s DNA that one can hardly be imagined without the other. Yet that’s precisely the case with Valentino and his famous shade of red. “When I was young, I went to see the opera Carmen in Barcelona and the whole set was red – the flowers, the costumes – and I said to myself, ‘I want to keep this colour in my life’,” the designer explained on the eve of a 2012 retrospective of his work at Somerset House in London. “So I mixed a shade with the people who make fabrics – it contains a certain amount of orange – and Valentino Red became an official Pantone colour.”

First appearing in a strapless tulle cocktail dress as part of the designer’s 1959 collection, the red went on to feature in almost every collection he produced, and has been worn by everyone from Brooke Shields to Emma Watson, Jennifer Aniston and Anne Hathaway. It was a masterstroke that made Valentino the first telephone call for celebrities and VIPs on their way to the red carpet, and in his final appearance at the helm of the brand, at his 2008 haute couture show in Paris, the finale featured no fewer than 30 models wearing Valentino Rosso dresses.

All of these pieces might have been around for decades, but their cachet has never been higher. “Consumers today, more than at any other time in history, are really curious, and interested in how pieces are made,” says Rubinger, referring to a renewed emphasis on artisanal skill that – perhaps as an antidote to the rampant consumerism of the last decade – has reawakened a passion for iconic items of the past.

“Now it’s about timeless and unique items that will stand the test of time,” adds Harilela. “That is the legacy of these products. They are beautifully made, they are unique and they age well. Fashion isn’t made to last a lifetime, but heritage is.”

Words by Gemma Soames