The Designer COCO CHANEL

She was shrewd, chic and on the cutting edge. The clothes she created changed the way women looked and how they looked at themselves

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    Depending on the source, Chanel's return to the fashion world has been variously attributed to falling perfume sales, disgust at what she was seeing in the fashion of the day or simple boredom. All these explanations seem plausible, and so does Karl Lagerfeld's theory of why, this time around, the Chanel suit met such phenomenal success. Lagerfeld--who designs Chanel today and who has turned the company into an even bigger, more tuned-in business than it was before--points out, "By the '50s she had the benefit of distance, and so could truly distill the Chanel look. Time and culture had caught up with her."

    In Europe, her return to fashion was deemed an utter flop at first, but Americans couldn't buy her suits fast enough. Yet again Chanel had put herself into the yolk of the zeitgeist. By the time Katharine Hepburn played her on Broadway in 1969, Chanel had achieved first-name recognition and was simply Coco. Ingrid Sischy is editor in chief of Interview and a contributing editor to Vanity Fair

    The Century's Style File
    By Ginia Bellafante

    It isn't easy to sum up 100 years of fashion, but if we dared to, we might say that 20th century women's wear amounted to a war over the waist. It was constrained in the late 19th century, but designers loosened it in the teens and '20s; cinched it again in the '30s, '40s and '50s; and symbolically set it free once more in the '60s. From that point on, formality disappeared from daily dress. In the end, freedom conquered constriction.

    Deconstructed but never lax looking, suits from the Italian master came to signify spare elegance in the '80s and '90s, not to mention a quiet, confident sense of power.

    The hold-your-breath waists and long, flared skirts launched by Dior in Paris in 1947 came to be known as the New Look. De rigueur in the '50s, the style wound up as an Enduring Look.

    With bright, geometric designs, hemlines pioneeringly economical in length and a silhouette breezily loose, Londoner Quant set off the Youthquake look of the '60s.

    Just before World War I, Frenchman Poiret set about revolutionizing fashion with his introduction of the "straight line" dress. It would become the trademark of '20s flappers.

    Moguls make deals in them and we all run errands in them, even if we don't actually run. Nike's chief designer, Tinker Hatfield, gave us running-shoe chic — the ultimate in informality.

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