Ballpark Estimate: $5,000 for a new ready-to-wear suit
The life of legendary fashion designer Gabrielle Chanel – most commonly known as “Coco Chanel” — has all of the intrigue and drama of a best-selling novel. There is poverty, risk, luck, love, success, disappointment and riches. And then there’s the classic Chanel suit she created back in the 1920s, which started as a haute couture item. This timeless piece has survived the generations and now, available as luxury ready-to-wear in Chanel boutiques, continues to be a must-have on the lists of many celebrities and fashionistas alike.
The Chanel Reputation
The House of Chanel, which is headquartered in Paris, is known today throughout the world for its beautiful and well-crafted fashionable clothes. In addition to its traditional suits, over the years Chanel has become recognized for its version of the little black dress, Chanel No. 5 Perfume, its costume jewelry and its quilted handbags and shoes.
The fashion House of Chanel first came into being close to a century ago, when in 1909, Coco Chanel opened a small shop selling ladies hats. She had been raised in a French orphanage and was inspired by the simple lines of the nuns’ clothes. Before long, she had incorporated her take on fashion to design comfortable and elegant pieces for women, many of whom were growing tired of the restrictions inherent in wearing corsets and long dresses with petticoats, which were in style at the time. Chanel’s innovation took and she quickly gained a reputation among wealthy and fashionable Europeans. By the 1920s, with the financial support of a male suitor, she was able to grow her business and to open her now-famous couture house at 31 rue Cambon in Paris in the midst of the great depression. This is where Chanel maintains its headquarters today.
The business has grown over the years to incorporate elegant and easy-to-wear women’s clothing that became popular among women in Europe and the United States. In the 1950s and 60s, Coco Chanel was commissioned by various Hollywood studios to dress celebrities like Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor.
As Chanel’s reputation grew, so did her following. In fact, in 1957, Chanel’s spring collection received the Fashion Oscar and she honored by the fashion world as “the most influential designer of the twentieth century.”
Changing With the Times
Coco Chanel’s death in 1971 at the age of 87 was far from the end of her fashion empire. In fact, in 1977, the Chanel label took a dramatic step in launching its ready-to-wear line. In addition, in 1983, designer Karl Lagerfeld (formerly with the French fashion house Chloë) was brought on board to give the classic Chanel look a makeover to bring it more in sync with modern times. As a result of Lagerfeld’s influence, Chanel suits were recreated in shorter silhouettes with slimmer lines and incorporated a bolder range of fabrics, including denim. Lagerfeld continues to lead Chanel’s design today.
Another change worth noting under Lagerfeld’s presence is a blending of the lines between custom-made suits and ready-wear items. Today, Chanel customers can buy exquisite Chanel suits right off of the racks of Chanel boutiques or high-end retailers who carry Chanel, but can still get the luxurious fabrics, cuts and fine detailing that in the past was exclusively available in custom items.
The Chanel “Look”
The signature suit, introduced in the mid 1920s, is based on a simple, men’s style that has been softened and updated to make it more feminine and wearable for women of different sizes and body shapes. The look typically consists of a boxy wool (or tweed) jacket that has no collar and is lined in silk. It usually features contrasting trim and gold buttons and patch pockets, paired with a sleek, knee-length skirt. The suit is often worn with a strand of large costume pearls.
What’s in a Suit
There is an easy elegance that accompanies a Chanel suit that is difficult to duplicate in other clothes. The secret is in Chanel’s complicated construction of the garment, which includes weighting down the hems with a gold chain inside the seam. This helps the clothing to hang well and move well. In addition, a ribbon is sewn in the waistband of the skirt to help keep a blouse neatly tucked in. Finally, the skirt’s zipper is placed on the side for maximum comfort. All of these special details ensure the best fit and look for the wearer of a Chanel suit, and also contribute to the high price tag.
What It Costs
You don’t have to be wealthy to be able to appreciate the fine lines and beauty of a Chanel suit. But you do have to have enough disposable income (or have the desire to save and scrimp for a while) to cover the high price tag, though. While many celebrities and wealthy women have closets jam packed with Chanel suits, some women of more limited means have been known to go to great lengths, even taking on second jobs, until they have saved enough to invest in this classic and highly-desirable item.
Today you can purchase a Chanel suits right off the rack from one of its exclusive boutiques. There are a handful of them carrying clothing located in big cities around the world. (Note that some Chanel boutiques carry only accessories.) Or, if you can’t get to a Chanel boutique, you can also shop in the Chanel department at some of the high-end department stores. You can expect to spend about $5,000 for a new Chanel suit off the rack. While this may sound like a high price, Chanel salespeople are known for providing exceptional service for their customers, so except the royalty treatment. Alterations are usually provided at no charge.
If you are one of the lucky few, you might also be able to arrange to have a Chanel suit made-to-order for you. Keep in mind, though, that Chanel haute couture is usually reserved for celebrities and other notables with very large wallets. There is no set price available for a made-to-order suit, as the price depends on the fabric, details and extras you select. But you can assume that the privilege of having a suit custom made for you could run in the $20,000 range.
If you appreciate clothing with a history, you could also consider buying a vintage Chanel suit. In this way you can get the fine detailing you desire without the high price tag. You can find them at high-end vintage and consignment shops, designer depots (the name for French upscale resale stores) and also on Ebay. Some of the older haute couture suits from before Coco Chanel’s death today sell in the $2,000 range.
Finally, if you are lucky enough to own (or buy) an older Chanel suit, keep in mind that the cut of the jacket could be different from today’s proportions and there may be an issue of large shoulder pads or other outdated detailing. Fashioner insiders suggest taking an outdated Chanel suit to a Chanel boutique and asking their seamstress to remake it for you. One customer reports that she recently brought in an 80s suit and had the tailor reshape the jacket and add new style buttons to make the suit fresh again, at a cost of only a few hundred dollars.
If you love Chanel but can’t afford to wear the real thing, there is another option. Many tailors and dressmakers will custom-make you a Chanel look-alike. Depending on the level of expertise the tailor brings and the expense of the fabric you select and the detailing, a Chanel-inspired suit can cost anywhere from about $500 to $2,000.
While Chanel is known for its classic and timeless lines, fashionable women today want to express their individuality through their clothes, so many and match pieces of Chanel (or Chanel-inspired items) with a variety of other designer and non-designer items, truly creating their own unique style.