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(Published: 2010-03-14)

Mademoiselle Chanel was the ultimate paradox. Born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, the woman we know as Coco Chanel rose from a childhood of poverty and obscurity to create a global fashion empire that reigns supreme today. Her success was driven by her unwavering, unique and personal vision of what it meant to be a modern woman. All her life she zigged when everyone else zagged. Her philosophy in her own words: “Fashion says ‘me too.’ Style, ‘only me.’”

At a time when the fashionable women of the day were wearing opulent, feathered, overdone Edwardian fashions, she threw aside propriety and excess and ushered in an era of luxe austerity. She liberated women from corsets and created the first sportswear that could be worn pursuing an active athletic lifestyle.

Her inspiration came from every day working class models: French school girl uniforms, Deauville fishermen, and male haberdashers. Whenever you wear a comfortable jacket, a crisp white blouse, a navy pea coat, or your favorite little black dress, remember to whisper a note of thanks to Mademoiselle Chanel.

Her famous “little black dress” was introduced between the wars when bright colors, prints, and heavy embroideries dominated fashion. It was made of simple material, wool jersey, and made elegant through superior tailoring technique and couture details. The writer Aldous Huxley described this iconic fashion statement as having “a rich and sumptuous simplicity”—a lovely paradox.

The “”little black dress” was hailed by American Vogue as “a Ford,” referring to its well-constructed simplicity and it’s potential for enormous and long-lasting success. It also inspired the famous remark by fellow couturier Paul Poiret: “What has Chanel invented? De luxe poverty.” (Personally, I think the guy was a little jealous.)

Chanel’s vision clearly focused on the undoing of the overdone woman. Ironically, she adorned her simple style statements with an abundance of costume jewelry—another of her enduring signature looks. Her jewelry was bold and theatrical, contrasting in a powerful way with her trim, tidy, elegant clothing. She felt a woman should mix fake and real jewelry—a total contradiction of the style mores of the day. She became known for her ropes of pearls, both faux and real. She once commented: “the point of jewelry shouldn’t be to make a woman look rich, but to adorn her.” That idea is as relevant today as it was 90 years ago.

What I love most about Coco though was her quiet self-assuredness. Although she ended up leaving a powerful imprint on the world of fashion, she did so not as a statement, but by staying true to herself.

It’s a good lesson any brand aspiring to stay relevant in today’s marketplace would do well to remember.

Coco Chanel, 1913

Chanel + pearls

Robyn Waters is president and founder of RW Trend, LLC. She is the author of The Trendmaster’s Guide: Get a Jump on What Your Customer Wants Next, and The Hummer and the Mini: Navigating the Contradictions of the New Trend Landscape. Learn more about Robyn at All Rights Reserved.

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