Brand (hi)Stories, Fashion History, Marketing of "Symbols", The Fashion Eras

Fashion History: From WW1 through WW2 – The Chanel Years

0 Comments 11 January 2009



The Social Effects of WW1 on the Fashion Industry

As far as fashion in concerned, WW1 produced a strong discontinuity in the way women dressed (of course, the men were wearing uniforms). The increasing employment of women in industrial activities had relaxed strict dress codes, and allowed women to wear cotton trousers for the first time. As women’s roles in Western society changed, modern fashion changed along with it.

Easy-to-wear clothing had diffused into mainstream society, and the use of “poor” materials proliferated. (Wool was necessary for uniforms and interwar unemployment created a further need for substitution and recycled materials.)

Paul Poiret‘s extravagantly-modeled business failed after WW1 erupted, as a result of his failure to understand the evolutionary landmark of the War and its impact on society and fashion. He failed to adapt to meet the modern needs of his clients, thus opening up a market for Coco Chanel.

The Revolutionary Chanel

Gabrielle Chanel best exemplified the discontinuities in fashion, brought on by WW1. Chanel began work in the major garrison town of Deauville, where she met an officer who provided the capital for her to start her own millinery.

Chanel believed that a woman could be active and still remain elegant. She put this philosophy into her designs, shortening skirts and using jersey in womenswear. Of course, jersey had previously only been used for men’s underwear and sportswear, so this was considered revolutionary at the time. Her dresses stressed the new social role played by women, incorporating simplicity and masculinity.

Chanel was among the first to validate the fashionable qualities of black, exemplified in her little black dress (beginning in the late 1930s). She felt that for daywear and eveningwear alike, that is was unnecessary to dress in a very opulent way.

In terms of a business model, Chanel ran the house and created the designs, but had her vendeuse in the shops for customer assistance. Assemblers were separated into workrooms by the piece of apparel or accessories being constructed, and further by function (weaving, embroidering, etc.). The work was seasonal and the company was completely hierarchical.

Chanel & Product Extension

Chanel began diversification of her brand through the production of perfumes and jewels. In the 1930s, the constructed pins made from stained glass. Chanel was the first designer to place great importance on bijoux. She maintained one symbol from her past among “doubtful” women- the camellia, trademark flower of high class prostitutes. She turned this symbol into a luxury accessory. Jewelry was an important decorative element upon the simple, clean Chanel dress.

She launched Chanel No. 5 for her 40th birthday in 1921, named so because it was the fifth perfume trial. However, this was developed in the days before licensing. Chanel accepted only 10% of the Parfum Chanel stock without royalty, and was only granted 2% sales royalty in 1947 by Pierre Wertheimer, owner of the manufacturing company. The unique bottle design of Chanel No. 5 was very simple, geometrical and linear, demonstrating the “essential” nature of the fragrance. Furthermore, it carried a simple, easy-to-remember name. Its scent was the first not to use a natural fragrance, but to incorporate an artificial one derived in a chemist’s laboratory.

Chanel’s Brand Power

Chanel No 5Chanel used her own name in all matters, on all products and campaigns. With No. 5, she was selling her look and lifestyle, and therefore her branded self. This branded marketing was so effective that Chanel No. 5 remains one of the top-selling perfumes today. (The company estimates that one bottle is sold every 55 seconds.) However, the next time you are at the perfume counter with a friend, try a blind sniff test putting No. 5 up against a more modern fragrance, like Chanel’s Mademoiselle. These days, 99% of the time, No. 5 will not be appreciated unless the person smelling it knows that it is Chanel’s classic fragrance. It’s nothing against the fragrance- it’s just a bit outdated for our modern noses, and a little heavier than what most consumers today are after. Yet it flies off the shelves. That is some serious brand power!

By the second half of the century, Chanel was making more money in accessories and perfume than in apparel itself. Chanel stopped her business during WW2 and immediately after, due to market shortage, supply shortage and her public affair with a Nazi officer. She finally came back in the 1960s with her infamous suit, which was confident and comfortable, and represented a counterplay to the New Look by Christian Dior.

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