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Cultural branding and Coco Chanel

Who does not know one of the most famous Fashion House in all the world? Coco Chanel speaks to everyone. Who does not know the story behind the creator Gabrielle Chanel, mostly known as Coco Chanel? Gabrielle was a fashion designer, a powerful business woman but most of all, she was a revolutionary and visionary that changed the fashion tendency for women all over the world. Coco Chanel was popular between the 1920s and the end of 1960s, however, still today, Chanel is one of the highest regarded fashion house. What was the secret of her success?

Douglas Holt explains that cultural icons are a major part of our world, they dominate it. Cultural icons can be real or fictional people (e.g. James Dean and Superman, universities such as Harvard or Oxford, NGO’s like Greenpeace organization, places as Paris or Silicon Valley and objects such as Corona and Coke. Holt declares that icons serve as “society’s strongest compass points” (Holt, 2004, p.1-2), they are anchors of meaning continually referenced in entertainment, journalism, politics and advertising.

A cultural icon is a person or a thing regarded as a representative symbol, especially of a culture or a movement, this person or institution is considered ‘worthy’ of respect and admiration since Holt says that cultural icons are “exemplary symbols that people accept as a shorthand to represent important ideas” (Holt, 2004, p.1).  In order to first become a cultural icon, a brand needs to be an icon brand, they express and embody people’s ideas and desires of what they admire. Therefore, Holt refers to Cultural Branding which are identity brands that become cultural icons.

For Holt, there are three types of branding that build identity values of the brands. The mind-share branding like Corona beer as a symbol of relaxation in the American culture: doing nothing on a faraway Mexican beach, the emotional branding with the Coke commercials with a famous sports star and a kid, and viral branding with public influence such as Snapple.

A brand can only become iconic according to him, when there is an identity myth constructed around it.  After some time, the myth around the brand grows stronger, the audience eventually perceives that the myth resides in the brand’s markets (logo, name, design elements), therefore, this brand becomes a symbol, a material embodiment of the myth. Identity myths are usually separated from everyday life, the realms of commerce and elite control. Indeed, the myth is the answer to a problem that society faces. Holt uses Coke to demonstrate it, I choose the example of Coco Chanel as she is a perfect example of what the process of cultural branding is.

Coco Chanel, the story of a visionary

Gabrielle Chanel lost her mother at a very young age and at 12 years old was send to an orphanage with her sisters. Learning the art of sewing during her six years in the orphanage in the center of France, when she was not sewing, Chanel found a job as a seamstress, making her debut singing at a café-concert, her nickname ‘Coco’ was based on one of the songs she often performed “Qui qu’a vu Coco?”. Becoming the mistress of a young French ex-cavalry officer and wealthy heir textile Etienne Balsan, it was said that she became more and more liberated and started to design her own clothes that would allow her to move comfortably within them.

In 1908, Chanel had an affair with Captain Arthur Edward Capel, mostly known as Boy Capel. Her love affair with Capel is part of the myth constructed around the House Chanel since he was the one who pushed Chanel to pursue her dream and financed her fist shops. Capel was Chanel’s muse; it is said that his sartorial’s style influenced the conception of the Chanel look. Capel’s death in a car accident in 1919 was a terrible blow for Chanel, it was after his death that the famous little black dress was designed.

Chanel first started her career by making hats, first in Balsan’s house and then in her small Parisian boutique, stripping them from the “unnecessary” and heavy feathers, hers was simple, practical and elegant.

Gabrielle Dorizat modeling a Chanel Hat, May 1912. Published in Les Modes.

It was Chanel’s eye for simplistic elegance that brought her recognition from the rich and famous French actress Gabrielle Dorziat, she wore Chanel’s design and spread her style amongst Paris’ elite. As her reputation grow, as the ambitious woman Chanel was, she saw the opportunity to get into womenswear. In 1910, The House of Chanel was created, taking away corsets that were seen as a restriction of women’s life, Chanel’s style was everything a woman strove to be: independent, dynamic, slim and sporty. Cropped hair, boyish figure soon became the ideal for young women.

One of Coco Chanel most iconic look that is still considered as a classic today is the women suit created in 1916, it was described as being the “fashion statement of the century”.  The timeless suit is still adored today and was worn by Jackie Kennedy the day her husband John F Kennedy was killed by her side.

A model in the classic Chanel suit

In 1921, another legend of the House of Chanel was on the market, Chanel No. 5. The famous rectangular perfume was portrayed by another myth and cultural icon Marilyn Monroe. This perfume is still sold every 55 seconds around the world.

Another iconic piece of womenswear that is still considered as a classic today it the “Little Black Dress” (LBD). The Little Black dress was accessible to women of all social classes, it is undisputedly stood the test of time and the element of one’s wardrobe that transcends age, sizes and occasion. Chanel’s timeless little black dress remains the most dependable, go-to item.

Last but not least, Coco Chanel had designed pieces that freed women from convention, both in style and in life and her bag launched in 1955 was no exception. Featuring a hand-stitched quilted leather exterior and a burgundy interior lining, the revolutionary feature of the original 2.55 Chanel bag was its lengthy gold chain, which allowed women to wear it over the shoulder, freeing their two hands. The classic bag has remained one of the most popular Chanel products of all time; seen over the shoulders of the most stylish women in the world, including Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Princess Diana and Alexa Chung. It was subtly redesigned in the 1980s by Karl Lagerfeld to include the interlocking House of Chanel CC logo on the twist lock.

As you can see, Coco Chanel’s most famous and iconic design are still present both in the brand Chanel, that is today directed by another iconic man Karl Lagerfeld, and the fashion industry. The Chanel’s looks are timeless; many other designers still inspire themselves from her work. What made Coco Chanel an identity myth for both her brand and society is the fashion revolution she brought within herself. She freed women from themselves with her fashion, it was simple (heavy pearls, unnecessary decoration was gone, heavy feathers on hats were gone too), women were free to move as she got rid of corset liberating the women’s elegant silhouette by creating designs that will embrace it instead of hiding it. Coco Chanel herself was an icon, always represented with a cigarette in her mouth, she was an elegant and strong woman that empowered society making her brand iconic and world famous.



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