Transforming the concept of couture from stuffy and ornamental to accessible and functional was one of the many ways in which the legendary Gabrielle Chanel forever revolutionized the fashion industry. Her talent for seeing beauty in basics, and sophistication in simplicity changed women’s clothing forever; bringing in fabrics and cuts previously reserved for menswear, in which Gabrielle saw graceful, dynamic lines and freedom of movement. Her affinity for jersey is well-known; but the designer also breathed new life into knitwear; elevating the rough, chunky sweaters originally worn by fishermen into a new era of elegance.
Knits take their name from the fabric, cotton, silk, or wool, knitted from a single thread of yarn where stitches interlace. Gabrielle’s first love of the textile came in the form of borrowing the comfortable cardigans of her beloved, English businessman Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel, to curl up in or toss over her shoulders. In the 1920’s and 30’s, Chanel began work on her own refined version of knitwear, taking inspiration from her active lifestyle: sweaters and cardigans made from the finest Scottish Fair Isle cashmere that would complement her days spent sailing, hunting, and golfing with the Duke of Westminster.
Scotland has long been world renowned for its fine cashmere, and leading its way is Barrie: a Scottish cashmere producer that got its start in 1903 as a factory specializing in the production of stockings, followed by producing socks and undergarments for soldiers during World War I. The company’s tight collaboration with Chanel took roots in the 1920s, when they worked with Gabrielle to create sweaters and cardigans interpreted for ladies’ wear. In the 1930s, one of Chanel’s classic mainstays, the twin set featuring a cashmere shell and a cardigan, was born.
Today, Barrie has grown to a formidable workforce of nearly 300 employees; yet the brand maintains its artisan approach to cashmere production. Each garment requires over 40 steps to reach their exacting standards. The process starts with a supply of the world’s finest cashmere fibre, spun, then dyed by Scottish wool experts. The skeins have to be carefully catalogued: to ensure perfect color consistency, yarns from different batches cannot be mixed. The braiding then enters its first stage, where it is threaded onto the bars of the machine that will knit the garment before pieces of the garment are assembled.
The garment then gets a wash in the pure waters of the Scottish Borders region, where the factory sits, to lend the wool its signature softness. Finally, It is steamed back into shape and cut by artisan tailors. Details such as collars take eighteen months to bring to perfection. Each piece undergoes a series of rigorous quality checks before it is ready to be shipped off to Chanel, which has acquired Barrie in 2012 following nearly a century of collaboration.
Under direction of Virginie Viard, Chanel continues to use Barrie knits in its couture lines. For the Fall-Winter 2020/21 Ready-to-Wear show, models traipsed down the runway in eye-catching cardigans of fuchsia, camel, and blue, embellished with symbolic details dear to Gabrielle herself. Another look featured a wool sweater with a fine gold brass chain woven into the knit to add subtle shine. The final statement look showed a black cashmere cardigan with a dramatic shawl collar, paired with mini shorts.
Both rooted in fine tradition and exceeding standards of craftsmanship, the ateliers of Chanel and Barrie have formed a perfect partnership; supporting each other on the constant mission to open new horizons and propel their creations into new exciting directions.