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Contemporary Role for Chanel’s Classics Stirs Up Controversy

Times Staff Writer

Coco Chanel--the French couturiere whose every fashion invention created controversy first, progress second--is at the center of another storm.

Her classic braid-trimmed cardigan jacket is now turning up with jeans. Her chains are being worn over T-shirts. And her two-tone pumps are being passed over in favor of ballet slippers and boots.

This is the eye of the storm.

At odds are the women who say you can’t tamper with Chanel and those who say they are “reinventing” Chanel for the ‘80s by wearing it in a way it was never intended.

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The Chanel purists say you can’t improve or update the quintessential Chanel look any more than you can take a Beethoven concerto and update it for MTV.

The Chanel modernists say they’re rethinking Chanel for a contemporary life style.

The purists point out that even long after Chanel’s death in 1971, it was considered sacrilege not to wear one of her ensembles coordinated in the classic vein, as if Mademoiselle herself were standing in the fitting room, puffing on a cigarette and instructing a customer so.

Now cut to 1985. A young band of Chanel fans who weren’t yet born when the grande mademoiselle of couture was in her glory days of the ‘20s and ‘30s are wearing Chanels their own way. They are stockpiling their closets with the suits, but taking them apart and putting them back

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together much like other women do with Calvin Kleins--wearing them as sportswear separates liberally mixed with other pieces in their wardrobes. Some of them are even wearing Chanel with Calvin Klein.

Explains Kelli Questrom, who is married to Bullock’s and Bullocks Wilshire chairman and chief executive Allen Questrom: “When I wear jeans with Chanel, I’m combining two remarkably classic things--classic jeans with a classic jacket.”

Tina Chow, a regular on the best-dressed lists and wife of restaurateur Michael Chow, concurs. She may take a pair of black velvet trousers from Chanel couture and wear them with an oversize man’s polo shirt. After all, Chow reasons, “Chanel was the first one who raided the men’s cupboard.”

True. Chanel did poke through her lovers’ closets for ties, boots, shirts and, ultimately, the ideas that were behind all of her innovations. It was Chanel’s tailored suits, trousers and the concept of loose-fitting, comfortable clothes that freed women from the bustles and corsets of the day.

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Chanel was the original borrower.

Paradoxically, the idea of making a modern fashion statement by using elements of the past is perhaps one of today’s most advanced concepts.

At a time when there is little new in design, savvy women who understand fashion are taking matters into their own hands, creating a look from what is available.

But there are people like Stella Hanania, former Chanel buyer for I. Magnin, who seriously doubt whether Chanel’s cardigan jacket, first introduced in 1924, can survive another 60 years if it’s accompanied by Jordache jeans.

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Furthermore, Hanania maintains that the authoritative designer believed that there was only one way to wear Chanel--her way.

“She’d scream from here to Brooklyn” if she knew women were reinterpreting her clothes, Hanania says. “It’s wrong.”

Two years ago, when Karl Lagerfeld took over as Chanel’s house designer, there were those in the fashion industry who believed that was wrong too. A man as distinctive as Lagerfeld, they felt, would never be able to sublimate his own design instincts for the greater good of Chanel. And, of course, the reverse came true. Under Lagerfeld and Chanel president Kitty D’Alessio, the Chanel mystique has been reborn.

And with the rebirth . . . something new is in the air.

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Young Milanese designer Moschino showed a collection last March that was his own ‘80s homage to the late couturiere. First he sent models out wearing the Chanel suits accessorized in the classic vein--with the correct pumps, shoulder bag and masses of faux pearls and chains. And then the suits came out broken up, teamed with jeans, flat shoes and outlandish accessories as a young person might wear them.

How do the keepers of the Chanel flame feel about this sort of fashion pastiche?

For years Chanel Inc. has fought to protect the Chanel trademark, admonishing fashion editors and advertising copywriters against using terms like “Chanel-like,” “Chanel-esque,” “a la Chanel” and “the Chanel look.”

But they don’t seem to be fighting too hard to protect the look.

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Indeed, with the company’s blessing, the house of Chanel’s own star model, Ines de la Fressange, is shown sporting the Chanel-and-jeans look in a layout of the current issue of Elle magazine.

Chanel’s D’Alessio suggests that one explanation for the introduction of ready-to-wear in 1978 was to enable women to buy one portion--a blazer, a skirt, a blouse--as a “starter set.” Before then, Chanels were restricted to the wealthiest of women who could afford the entire ensembles.

Although D’Alessio won’t go so far as to encourage breaking apart the components (and it’s doubtful that sales personnel in Chanel’s boutiques are suggesting that their customers do so either), she acknowledges that it’s “modern” to wear a Chanel jacket over “beautifully pressed jeans, perhaps with a camellia.

“Chanel,” D’Alessio says, “can be used totally, a la carte, as the entre or just dessert.”

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Even Nancy Epstein, a faithful customer since the ‘50s who has donated many of her Chanels to the Chicago Historical Society, says today she may wear the total look or she may just wear pieces.

“I wear anything with anything,” she says. “You don’t necessarily have to do it all at one time any more than you would with any other designer.”

“I think Chanel would have loved it,” D’Alessio says. “It seems so right for the moment we live in.”

To customers like Kelli Questrom, it doesn’t matter how or what Chanel would have thought of the new dress code.

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“Although I think Chanel was a very open-minded person,” Questrom says, “the truth is that decades have gone by. Chanel is designed by another person. It would be foolish for Karl Lagerfeld to try to be Chanel. It would be foolish for me to try to be Chanel. He’s Karl. I’m Kelli. She’s Coco--and I think we all complement each other.”


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