In honour of the ‘little black jacket’

It began as a coffee table book — ex-Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld took photos of models, actors, and musicians, all wearing Chanel's classic coat. Now, the Little Black Jacket is a major exhibition, opening in London next month.

FORGET the haughty stereotypes; fashion is the only cultural pursuit that is truly universal. The most committed philistine has to dress in the morning and whatever s/he chooses will have some catwalk connection, however tangential.

There are even some garments with a place in every wardrobe: blue jeans, a white shirt or a simple black jacket. Karl Lagerfeld and former Vogue Paris editor Carine Roitfeld claim the Little Black Jacket for Chanel with a new book of photographs that celebrates her box-cut classic’s endless versatility.

“Coco Chanel invented a piece that had never before existed in this particular form, and no one can take this from her,” decrees Lagerfeld. An accompanying exhibition arrives at London’s Saatchi Gallery next month.

King Karl, whose arsenal of talents includes photography, snapped 113 portraits of “friends of the House” in a slim black quilted version of the jacket for the coffee-table tome. Like Mademoiselle Chanel in life, Karl has made the brand plenty of friends in high places over the years and it is interesting to see which make his selection.

Models and muses like Georgia May Jagger, Jane Birkin and Claudia Schiffer mingle with actors, musicians, directors and writers. The mix is a reflection of the creative types that surrounded the brand’s founder socially and professionally.

Had Chanel compiled a similar book in her day, Picasso and Jean Cocteau might have been among her choices.

Lagerfeld also demonstrates a shrewd awareness of the BRICs. If some of the faces aren’t familiar to you, they will be to a Chanel lover somewhere in the world (the travelling exhibition has already hit Tokyo, Taipei, Hong Kong and New York).

Carine’s irreverent (and frankly genius) styling crystallises how the LBJ goes with anything and on anyone, regardless of age, gender, political persuasion and time.

The wife of former French PM and Resistance hero Jacques Chaban-Delmas is perhaps the most mature subject. Virginie Ledoyen poses as Marie Antoinette. Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi wears hers over a vintage People’s Liberation Army shirt and hat (surely the ultimate contradiction in clothes).

The jacket looks perfect throughout. Like the magic jeans in Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants, the fabric shrinks to fit a four-year-old and expands to accommodate strapping artist Sandro Kopp. Truly, this is the staple that binds all wardrobes.

According to Justine Picardie’s Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life, the iconic tweed style was created in the 1920s, during Coco’s affair with the second Duke of Westminster, and was a beautiful blend of Parisian chic and aristocratic Anglo-style. A life-long gamine, Coco habitually borrowed from her lovers’ wardrobes, and the tweed she established as her signature fabric was inspired by the Duke’s Scottish-made gaming clothes.

The garment gained international popularity after WW2, as part of Chanel’s signature look (a streamlined suit, quilted 2.55 handbag and two-tone pumps). The March 1954 issue of US Vogue opened with three full pages of the designer’s “comeback” collection (the House was closed after the declaration of war), in which she revived and refined the piece.

The LBJ soon became as unmistakably Chanel as the great icons of the House: the lion’s head, camellias, stars, the interlocking “C”s and the number five.

The boxy shape is achieved without shoulder-pads or interfacing, which Chanel dismissed as too restrictive. She believed “a garment’s elegance lies in the freedom of movement it allows”.

Instead, the front is assembled on the straight-grain (without bust darts) and attached to the back panel, which has one central seam, using a side inset panel to maximise flexibility. The sleeves are set high on the shoulder and slightly curved for comfort and easy wear.

A chain concealed in the jacket’s silk lining is weighty enough to ensure it hangs perfectly, no matter what the wearer gets up to. Karl Lagerfeld has designed for Chanel since 1983. Almost 30 years of revising, rethinking and reinvigorating the founder’s work has bound him to her without usurping her memory.

Like a savvy political strategist, he pleases the Chanel faithful with her classic style while offering something new and inspired to tempt young or undecided customers. The jacket remains a key element of his collections. The choice of subjects, too, reflects how he loyally sustains Mademoiselle’s clientele.

Grace Kelly adored Chanel and her granddaughter Charlotte Casiraghi appears in the jacket and a necklace of camellias.

The LBJ’s enduring desirability makes it anti-fashion, but la mode is in the details. Coco brought the look bang up to date each season by playing with the buttons, fabric, hems or motifs.

Karl continues to keep it vital. He has separated it from the suit skirt and paired it with everything from jeans to couture. He has deconstructed and remade it in every conceivable fabric. He commissioned a 20-foot sculpture in its image for a 2008 couture show. And as models grew thinner, he narrowed the cut accordingly. The garment’s integrity as a style staple remains intact.

Fashion photography books of this size (particularly brand-specific books) tend to begin with a slightly sycophantic essay. This book includes no text at all, save for an apt quote from Argentinean poet Roberto Juarroz: “There are clothes that keep rejuvenating themselves instead of getting worn out.”

As much as Chanel’s spirit seems present on every page, cover girl Carine keeps herself in the pictures with the kind of provocative looks that kept her former magazine in the headlines.

“You know Karl, you have to surprise him,” she told Women’s Wear Daily at the exhibition’s Manhattan opening.

Model Freja Beha Erichson wears the jacket with a nun’s habit, knickers and fishnets. Another model poses as a corpse, naked but for the jacket and a net body-stocking. Actress Charlotte Gainsbourg leaves hers open, revealing a baby bump.

The LBJ acts as a uniform for younger designers, including Alexander Wang.

No matter how dramatically presented, the garment appears accessible, elegant and desperately desirable. Carine’s more creative looks are easily balanced out by portraits which show the jacket over regular street clothes or an LBD (another great staple attributed to Coco).

Of course, the glaring contradiction at the heart of the book is that, while a Little Black Jacket may be worn by anyone, a Chanel LBJ is a luxury most can only aspire to own. Fear not, you jacket-less few, this season’s trends favour you.

There are good quality takes on the classic at a variety of price points, from Iro and Diane von Furstenberg (see Net-a-Porter.com and MatchesFashion.com) right down the high street to Zara. Seek and ye shall find.

¦ The Little Black Jacket: CHANEL’s classic revisited by Karl Lagerfeld and Carine Roitfeld, Steidl, is available in selected bookstores. The exhibition will be open at the Saatchi Gallery, London from Friday, Oct 12 to Sunday, Oct 28.

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