Over the decades, Chanel’s handbags have become icons in their own right, an instantly recognisable symbol of style, a piece of history that will last for generations, and in many cases an investment piece that will long outlive its owner. The House’s iconic handbags represent style, sophistication and expert savoir-faire, instantly recognisable for their timelessness. While everyone surely knows the name, yet most will recognise the elegant quilting or the unique chain, or even the iconic Chanel “CC” clasp.
Two of the most iconic designs the Chanel 2.55 and the 11.12 have been reinvented time and time again. Season after season, generation after generation, women of all ages are captured by the feelings evoked by purchasing a Chanel handbag. These two styles in particular have become icons, the quintessence of dreams, history and symbols of meticulous luxury, fashioned step by step.
As she did with many of her designs, Gabrielle Chanel created the 2.55 bag because she needed it for herself. Always seeking innovative ways inspired by her own daily life, Gabrielle liked the ease and freedom of movement from a strap bag or a pair of binoculars that she would wear around her neck at the races; leaving her hands free to slip in her pockets or do whatever she might please.
In 1955 (the date that inspired the name of the 2.55), the designer imagined a bag of timeless beauty. Perfectly designed inside out, this bag could be carried on the shoulder using a chain made of flat metal links – a nod to the chain that Mademoiselle added to the hem of her suit jackets to ensure a perfect drop). Unique for its time, the 2.55 not only freed up the hands but also harmoniously followed every movement of the body. On the outside, lambskin, jersey and silk were over-stitched with “diamond” quilting in rhombus shapes to give it body, volume and bearing. The quilting was inspired by the equestrian world that Gabrielle Chanel loved so much, especially the jackets worn by the grooms at the races.
Today, the design of the 2.55 still follows the original dictated by Gabrielle in 1955. Seven pockets are strategically placed around the bag. The first, at the back, is rounded like the “MonaLisa’s smile”, hence its nickname. The six others were placed inside the bag: gusseted pockets for Gabrielle’s visiting cards and powder compact, a pocket case specifically designed for a lipstick, a zipped pocket called the “secret”, and two large pockets for letters.
Its garnet leather lining makes it easier to find objects against the bright colour. The double C is over-stitched on the inside of the flap. The final detail is a rectangular tourniquet clasp known as the “Mademoiselle”, which was joined, several years later, by a second clasp, the double C, equally legendary and that ultimately led to the creation of another bag the House calls the 11.12.
Every season the iconic bags are reinvented under the House’s Creative Director. The original materials are now joined by aged or grained calfskin, tweed, as well as precious embroidery by CHANEL’s Maisons d’art, Lesage or Montex, denim, patent leather and velvet. Chevron quilting has been added to the original diamond quilting. Timeless yet still completely relevant today this iconic bag features many of the same key elements as it did over sixty years ago.
For the Spring-Summer 2020 Ready-to-Wear runway show, the 11.12 bag was revisited in multicolour tweed and leather, embroidered with sequins and beads by the House of Lesage. For the Paris – 31 rue Cambon 2019/20 Métiers d’art collection, Virginie Viard reinterpreted both of the iconic bags as mini versions, in black or pink leather.
The 2.55 also comes in metallic leather with gradated hues, echoing certain silhouettes in the collection. At the Fall-Winter 2020/21 Ready-to-Wear show, the Artistic Director included the iconic Chanel bags in the same tweeds of the collection: a suit is thus accompanied with a 2.55 in raspberry tweed embroidered by Montex, while a coat, crop top and shorts ensemble is completed with an 11.12 bag in white tweed patchwork.
These iconic handbags are the result of meticulous handwork and the finest craftsmanship. Demanding over 180 manufacturing operations and just as many minute gestures – each step is overseen with strict quality control – and can take up to fifteen hours of production at the Ateliers de Verneuil-en-Halatte, belonging to CHANEL’s Métiers d’art.
It takes four to five years for an artisan to perfectly master the techniques necessary for the manufacture of an iconic Chanel handbag. Even selecting the skins requires the greatest of skill. The origin of each skin is rigorously controlled and the House only uses tanners whose outstanding savoir-faire reflects Chanel’s own values of excellence. Each skin must be perfect and of exceptional quality, according to a strict list of criteria. They are checked one by one and undergo multiple tests in the laboratory.
Once the skin is selected, production can begin. Each piece of the bag is cut using a template outlining the pattern. The cutter’s challenge is to find the ideal cutting points so that each piece can be perfectly placed and lined up together once assembled. The process can be particularly delicate for tweed (the patterns must be impeccably aligned). One by one, the pieces are then “pared down” or thinned out, to prevent any eventual roughness caused by the seams. Once prepared, the pieces are ready to be quilted using a needle and then assembled. Meanwhile, the double “C” will have been stitched onto the flap.
Initially mounted flat and inside out, like an item of Ready-to-Wear, the bag gradually takes on its volume. The body and base are brought together with the “bag in bag” technique: a first bag is mounted to constitute the interior and then a second for the exterior. Each one is assembled by hand. The artisan can then turn the bags inside out. Sewn with a “point de bride” stitch on the sides, the two bags are united to become one. The finishing touches (the hand plaiting of the chain, piercing the hook and eyes, the setting and placing of the clasp) require several precise manipulations before the final quality control and the wrapping, the ultimate ritual of delicate meticulousness.
Each iconic bag is part of a heritage transmitted from mother to daughter, passed down through generations as though they are family heirlooms. These iconic pieces become as valuable for their sentimental memories as they are for their price tag. A Chanel bag will never go out of fashion and as Gabrielle Chanel would often remark: “Fashion becomes unfashionable, style, never”.