Coco Chanel once remarked, "I don't do fashion, I am fashion." Few designers could have gotten away with such singular self-aggrandizement, but Chanel had earned the right—with her little black dresses, her perfumes and, of course, her handbags. Of these, there's a petit, quilted little number called the 2.55 that has managed to be one of fashion's impossibilities. It's 60 years old and still entirely of the moment.
"No other bag has been able to compete with this timeless piece of fashion," said Evelyn Fox, founder of Baghunter.com, a luxury handbag resale site. "It provides a simple type of elegance," she added. "Not too flashy, yet it displays status, wealth and a powerful fashion statement."
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As Chanel aficionados will tell you, the 2.55 is a very specific handbag, but the 2.55 has also become shorthand for any of Chanel's so-called "classic flap" bags. And today, you're as liable to see them on Park Avenue doyennes as on Hollywood starlets in white Ts and torn jeans. "Those bags elevate what you have on—they have the power to do that," said Stellene Volandes, executive style director for Town & Country. The Chanel bag, she added, "means that you have taste, means you have money and that you got the bag everyone wanted."
It's hard to explain how these became the bags everyone wanted, but it's probably a combination of style, story and utility. Chanel spent her childhood in an orphanage run by nuns who taught her to sew (and a good thing, that). Chanel designed her first handbag in 1929, causing a near scandal for sewing on a shoulder strap, considered lowbrow at the time. "I got fed up with holding my purses in my hands and losing them," the ever-practical Chanel said. "So I added a strap." Madame redesigned this bag late in her career (at 71), releasing it in February 1955—hence the name 2.55—and it became an instant hit.
Coco Chanel died in 1971, and by 1983 her design house passed to Karl Lagerfeld. It was he who introduced the interlocking "CC" clasps and other details—the leather threading the chain, for example—that developed into the Chanel bags we know now. (Lagerfeld also reissued the original 2.55 in 2005.)
Modified and updated though they've been, the bags remain highly evocative of Chanel's childhood—from the wine-red interior lining (an allusion to the color of orphanage uniforms) to the equestrian-style outer quilting (a reference to Chanel's love of horses, or jockeys, or both). They also remain practical, which Volandes believes is a critical ingredient. "For a bag that was made in 1955, it is amazingly adaptable to modern technology," she said. "You can fit sunglasses, a Kindle, makeup—it's like a magic bag. The thing about Coco Chanel was she was wildly inventive, but very sensitive to a modern woman's life and, amazingly, this bag still works."
This story first appeared in the Nov. 30 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.