Cheat Sheet: Why Is the World Still Obsessed With ’90s Chanel?

Under the reign of Lagerfeld, Chanel went stratospheric, peaking in '90s collections which have earned their place in design textbooks for decades to come. We dissect the long-lasting appeal of a house in its prime.

When Karl Lagerfeld became Chanel’s creative director in 1983, he wasn’t walking into a particularly lucrative job. The fashion house was, in his own words, “old hat” —  only Parisian doctors’ wives were wearing Chanel. “Nobody wanted it, it was hopeless,” Lagerfeld affirmed. Nonetheless, he rose to the challenge, and transformed Chanel into the iconic and covetable brand it is today.

Under the reign of Lagerfeld, Chanel went stratospheric, peaking in 90s collections which have earned their place in design textbooks for decades to come. Although Lagerfeld might consider 90s fashion to be “tacky” and “démodé”, it was during this decade that he turned Chanel into a fashion powerhouse. So what are the key elements that make 90s Chanel so iconic?

Claudia Schiffer


In terms of Chanel’s muses, the eighties were all about Ines de La Fressange. However, she was disowned by Lagerfeld in 1989 after accepting an offer to lend her image to Marianne, the symbol of the French Republic. To Lagerfeld, this decision was the height of vulgarity, and was practically considered to be treason.

So in 1990, the Chanel throne was vacant. The throne found an unlikely occupant young German model Claudia Schiffer — with the blessing of Lagerfeld, naturally. It was Lagerfeld himself who persuaded nineteen-year-old Schiffer to make her runway debut for Chanel, making her the first untested runway model Chanel ever hired. Blonde, cheerful and bearing a resemblance to a young Brigitte Bardot, Schiffer was an instant success. She went on to open and close most of Chanel’s shows throughout the ’90s, often wearing one of the house’s couture wedding dresses.

If Schiffer wore it, it made sense. She brought life to the shortest skirts, the tiniest bikinis, and even the velour pink tracksuit covered in CC logos from the 1996 Spring/Summer collection. She was a perfect embodiment of Chanel’s attitude of the era: young, energetic, and undeniably beautiful.

Lagerfeld often downplays his role in Claudia Schiffer’s success, but he certainly had a hand in making her such a star. He mentored her from the very early days of her career, and they still get on very well. He recently claimed she is now “better than ever’, while she regularly posts their old pictures together in her Instagram and never stops praising him in her interviews. This perfect harmony between the designer and his favourite model was undoubtedly a key part of Chanel’s success in the ’90s.

The Spring/Summer 94 Collection

When it comes to the Chanel shows today, everyone expects over-the-top theatrical extravaganza. Think of the 265-tonne real iceberg imported from Scandinavia for the Fall/Winter 2010 show, or recent life-sized spaceship blasting off in the Grand Palais. But in the ’90s, it was way simpler: just a runway with beautiful models in fantastic clothes. Simple, but not plain: the models were all the creme de la creme, and the images from the shows are still perceived as strikingly modern. 

The most high-voltage and impactful show was, undeniably, Spring/Summer 94. Lagerfeld famously said that fashion in the’90s was “more about attitude than detailing” — and attitude was abundant when he presented this street-style inspired collection that, in many ways, would define the style of that period.

The SS94 collection perfectly encapsulated the street style of the day. Models wore bucket hats, crop tops, boxy shirts with suspenders, and rainbow hair extensions (Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell had purple, Helena Christensen and Carla Bruni rocked blue). Lagerfeld reimagined the classic Chanel staples to fit with the 90s “attitude-first” approach. Models wore oversized camelia hair clips, often in bold colours matching the outfits, and the tweed jackets were all candy pink and yellow. In one of the most memorable moments, Naomi Campbell stepped out wearing an ultra-short, cleavage-heavy purple tweed dress, accessorised with a massive chain belt.

Critics were divided over the show’s explosive sexuality. Many attacked the skirts that were “shorter than short”, and some were ill at ease with all the street culture references. Nonetheless, the show cemented Lagerfeld’s uncompromisingly modern view of Chanel’s future. 

The Interlocked Cs

Logomania was one of the dominant trends of the late ’90s, and Lagerfeld’s work with Chanel helped this trend rise to prominence. The interlocked Cs became one of the most recognisable and desirable logos, and its power spread well beyond the domain of fashion.

Obviously, the CC logo was not Karl Lagerfeld’s creation. It was invented by Coco Chanel herself back in 1925. According to a popular legend, Mademoiselle was inspired by a medallion in the vaulted arches of the Château de Crémat in Nice where she often attended parties held by her friend, American heiress Irène Bretz. The logo has remained unchanged since that time, but it achieved cult status under Lagerfeld’s tenure in the nineties.

Lagerfeld took branding to the max. Take the aforementioned pink tracksuit with CC’s scattered all over it, or the famous glasses from the Autumn/Winter 94 collection paired with an extravagant hat made entirely of interlocked black Cs. Lagerfeld also created hip-hop- and streetwear-inspired CC chains, as well as belt chains that paired perfectly with CC-branded bikinis. The brand name also found its way into 90s Chanel designs (see the white tops from SS96), but the interlocked Cs were the most memorable part of the ’90s Chanel look.

Mini-skirts and blue jeans

Lagerfeld stated multiple times that the founder of the brand, Coco Chanel, would have hated his work. His relationship with Mademoiselle’s legacy is complex. Lagerfeld often includes her lookalikes in his shows and campaigns, and her portrait has often been hung over the runway. Yet he’s also stated that Coco Chanel did not do “as much as people think”,  and criticised her for being sceptical about mini-skirts and blue jeans — trends he himself fully embraced. 

Mini-skirts were a crucial element of ’90s Chanel style. Lagerfeld brushed off the critics of his “shorter than short” designs, saying, “We don’t talk about sleeve length, so why should we talk about hem length?”. He never backed off from the use of short skirts, and a mini paired with a tweed jacket became one of the most recognisable Chanel looks.

Lagerfeld couldn’t stay away from the powerful denim trend in the ’90s either. In 1993, Claudia Schiffer walked the runway in high-waisted blue jeans, a sleeveless denim jacket and CC-branded cowgirl boots. SS94 featured a lot of denim: there were denim culottes with golden chain belts, and Cindy Crawford stunned everyone in wide blue jeans held up by CC suspenders. Some critics thought that the use of denim was too mainstream for a respectable fashion house like Chanel — but as we know, Lagerfeld was never afraid of the critics.

Accessories

Coco Chanel once famously said: “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off”. Karl Lagerfeld certainly didn’t see eye-to-eye with Chanel in this respect; in his 90s collections, there was no such thing as too much jewelry. In the AW91 show, for instance, models wore see-through tops with bunches of different necklaces partially covering their bodies. Linda Evangelista rocked an all-black ensemble adorned with immense faux-pearls, and huge black and white earrings.

Pearls in particular were everywhere: models wore long pearl necklaces, oversized pearl earrings and extravagant pearl sunglasses (Rihanna, a well-known vintage Chanel fan, wore a pair for her Victoria’s Secret show performance in 2012).

Chanel was also an early adopter of trainers as a trend. It’s difficult to fathom in the sneaker-obsessed present, but there was a time when the world wasn’t obsessed with trainers. In 1997, for instance, it was considered an oddity that Chanel would collaborate with Reebok; not in the least because collabs weren’t considered the norm then, either. But collaborate they did — and while Lagerfeld remains notoriously reluctant to collaborate with others, being an early adopter of both trainers and collabs cemented Chanel’s place reputation as a future-facing brand.

The bulky and somewhat kitschy ’90s Chanel accessories were considered by some to be over-the-top, but they have an undeniably timeless appeal. That is probably the main reason why they are still considered such a sought-after acquisition for vintage accessories lovers.

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