Gabrielle Chanel was born 132 years ago today, on August 19, 1883. And while there’s no particularly momentous reason for remembering her this year, the fashion house which took her name—Chanel—is as strong a force as ever.
And for that matter, so are her clothes. Chanel—better recognized as Coco Chanel, for her stage name as a young café singer —completely changed women’s wardrobes. She created the little black dress, a style still so popular today that it’s often just referred to by the acronym, LBD. She made women’s clothing that was sporty, and was the first to use jersey, a material that had previously been relegated to humble garments such as men’s underwear.
Her simple, uncluttered clothes helped to liberate women from corsets, making it easier for them to move and actually do things. She pioneered androgyny, pulling influences from menswear and putting women in separates.
In fact, Chanel’s most iconic creation—her famed bouclé tweed suits—came directly from menswear, so much so that the style was deemed masculine. Even her use of tweed came from what guys were wearing—she started using it after borrowing garments from her beau at the time, the Duke of Westminster, and finding she liked the fabric.
Chanel died in 1971. Her legacy is undoubtedly mixed. She was not known for kindness, and she is said to have spied on behalf of the Nazis during World War II. But she was also incredibly driven and entirely self-made. Placed in a religious orphanage as a young girl, she learned to sew, and used the skill to eventually build a business that made her the richest woman in France in the 1930s.
But her personal history aside, there’s no doubt about her influence in fashion. Since Karl Lagerfeld took over Chanel in 1983, he’s again turned it into one of the industry’s most powerful and influential companies. His spectacular runway shows for Chanel have become the biggest events of the season, and he continues to draw on the company’s rich history, especially that bouclé tweed suit.