CHANEL's march forward: Lessons in Strategy

Photo by Giovanni Giannoni for Women's Wear Daily

Fashion criticism is much more complicated than one would think. It implies knowledge of each fashion brand’s historic trajectory, its changes in creative talent, contextual examples of popular culture, counter arguments by competitors and so on.


Haute Couture presents an even greater challenge for fashion critics. One needs to keep an open mind, quickly absorb and analyze a gamut of new visuals, grasp the overarching theme of the show, and observe the technical details of the garments all the while digesting the material and working on a final assessment of the show. Is fashion moving forward or back? What type of summary can be useful to the buying public, merchandizers, and fashion enthusiasts? How does the designer’s message get incorporated in a piece that is supposed to offer a point of view while also conveying neutrality? 


Bridget Foley’s solid writing for Women’s Wear Daily proves that precision of language is as important as precision of fashion technique. Her inviting piece of the CHANEL Couture Spring 2015 reached my mailbox a few minutes ago and made me think of CHANEL’s course as a brand, and specifically a luxury brand. If fashion is cyclical could luxury be cyclical as well?


CHANEL, the first fashion brand to be included in the Comité Colbert’s list of French luxury brands, has had a tumultuous past that we all know very well by now: A charismatic founder, Coco herself; an atypical approach to women's clothing; a strategic growth in categories that would not compete with the fashion (for example perfume and accessories). The brand was later faced with a couple of dark financial chapters, change of hands, and finally, under new leadership and with Karl Lagerfeld at the helm of creative direction, with a brilliant ascent to the top of the pyramid of all fashion brands. That is exactly the spot Coco herself had intended for her namesake and pioneer in luxury fashion branding.


The intriguing part is the cyclicality of CHANEL's presence in the market. At periods, CHANEL has stood for classicism, elegance, and even (inadvertently) conservatism all of which we tend to recognize as aspects of luxury. The steep price tags have helped. In fact, the aggressive pricing strategy that modern CHANEL has adopted in differentiating its accessories line from that of  competitors has reinforced the brand's status as the ultimate luxury fashion name that women desire. And while the prices have been steadily getting steeper, the brand's persona has adjusted to new givens about who the modern woman of 2015 is, how and where she spends her life, and what are her aspirations. Can we design a skirt suit that express these ideas? Karl Lagerfeld can.


Lagerfeld has done all this and now, as his Couture SP15 show proves, has also pushed the brand even further into fashion. Or we should say back into fashion. Fashion is an expression of the now. It grasps the pulse of the culture and quickly translates it through materials and technique to something new. Luxury brands tend to be anti-fashion because they usually strive to achieve clothing that is more timeless than 'of the moment,' more expressive than assertive, more 'an instance of continuity' rather than 'a moment of rupture.'


By pushing CHANEL towards fashion's playfulness and away from conservatism, Lagerfeld may disappoint those who like tradition but actually prepares the brand for growth. Admittedly, this show paraded too many ideas with too much potential. It seems that the difficult task is still ahead in editing all these ideas and holding on to the ones that promise longevity. This is how luxury brands renew themselves. Occasionally, a major push away from the familiar has to take place so as to make space for new ideas to come in. These will slowly settle and create an updated identity for CHANEL, a brand whose heritage makes it imperative to both preserve and innovate.


Other luxury brands should take note. The past can be marketed only so many times. A luxury brand has strategic advantages (brand equity, perception of quality etc.) that when combined with truly fast forward ideas can help shape the luxury of the future. 

Thomaï Serdari for .

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