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The Bag, The Myth, The Legend

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Chanel HandBag

The Bag, The Myth, The Legend

Delve behind the story, origins, and evolution of Chanel’s two most iconic handbags.

The tweed suit, the strand of pearls, the double-toned ballet flat: Chanel’s quintessential classics are a cornerstone of the fashion world, and the realm of handbags is no exception. We can’t think of the legendary brand without conjuring the softly structured shoulder bag, with its instantly recognizable quilting—the eternal 2.55, and its trusty sidekick, the 11.12, both of which reign supreme in their elegant appeal.

Chanel Handbag
Left: French model and face of Chanel Marie-Hélène Arnaud is the embodiment of impeccable elegance, with her 2.55 complementing a tweed ensemble from the Fall/Winter 1959/60 haute couture collection. Right: France’s beloved actress Elsa Zylberstein sports a jaunty multicoloured tweed version of the 2.55 at Chanel’s Fall/Winter 2020/21 show.

The famed 2.55 was conceived on its eponymous date of February 1955, in the practical manner of many of Gabrielle Chanel’s creations: necessitated by the demands of her own lifestyle. An active woman who enjoyed plenty of movement, she liked the ease of having her hands free, whether to hold up a pair of binoculars at the races or to slip them casually into her pockets. A strap bag provided freedom and convenience; thus, the concept of a small purse slung over the shoulder on a metal chain was born.

Chanel Handbag
Left: Mademoiselle Chanel and her trusty companion, a simple black 2.55 handbag. (Photograph by Mike de Dulmen) Right: The incomparable Jeanne Moreau, clad in an elegant suit, searches through her 2.55 bag at the Rome airport in 1961.

The 2.55 is defined, of course, by its signature quilting, with diamond stitching inspired by the equestrian jackets worn by the grooms at Gabrielle Chanel’s beloved racetracks. Originally, lambskin, jersey, and silk were used for the exterior; later, fresh takes on materials included aged or grained calfskin, tweed, denim, patent leather, velvet, and intricate embroidery by CHANEL’s Maisons d’art.

In 1983, Karl Lagerfeld, creative director of the fashion house at the time, came out with a reinterpreted successor to the original, the 11.12, that replaced the diamond quilting with a chevron pattern, quickly becoming a classic in its own right.

Chanel Handbag
Requiring up to 15 hours of work in the Ateliers de Verneuil-en-Halatte, the process of crafting the leather 2.55 begins with exceptional aged calfskin, quilted by needlework in a diamond pattern and cut according to a precise template.

Whether then or now, the one unchanging factor is the savoir faire and elaborate workmanship that goes into the making of each bag, an undertaking requiring over 180 operations and up to fifteen hours of production in the Ateliers de Verneuil-en-Halatte.

When leathers are used, the labour-intensive process begins with selecting the skins themselves: each perfect piece must be sourced from a vetted origin, prepared by highly skilled tanners, and cut precisely according to a template. The pieces are thinned out to prevent any roughness before being quilted by needle and assembled by hand.

Artisans begin with the pieces inside out, like a piece of ready-to-wear couture, creating two separate “bags”—one for the interior lining, and another for the exterior of the purse. The two are then stitched together at the sides to become one.

Chanel Handbag

Chanel Handbag
The making of the 11.12, here in captivating red leather, undergoes intricate assembly and moulding. In the final touches, a gold metal chain interlaced with a red leather ribbon is threaded through the eyelets.

The design itself has stayed true to its origins; every bag made to this day includes the seven essential pockets, including a rounded one at the back dubbed “Mona Lisa’s smile” and several hidden compartments. Garnet leather lines the inside, and the signature double C is overstitched on the inside of the flap, which is topped with a rectangular tourniquet clasp known as the “Mademoiselle.” The final detail is the hand-plaited chain made of flat metal links. Each step of the process requires precise manipulation, with meticulous quality control along the way.

Over the years, both the 2.55 and the 11.12 have reemerged in a multitude of new materials, with some of the latest incarnations seeing everything from multicoloured tweed and sequin-embroidered leather to ombre metallic leathers. Nevertheless, the timeless silhouette and the legendary savoir faire of these iconic pieces, passed down from mother to daughter for generations, remain unchanged in their enduring elegance, their legacy captured perfectly in the famous words of Gabrielle Chanel herself: “Fashion becomes unfashionable; style, never.”

Chanel Handbag
From left to right: The 2.55 in metallic gradated leather for Fall/ Winter 2020/21; Raspberry tweed embroidered by Montex for the Paris – 31 Rue Cambon 2019/20 Metiers d’Art collection; The 11.12 in multicoloured tweed for Spring/Summer 2020.

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