Chanel, Balmain and Saint Laurent are three of the most iconic fashion houses of today.

Founded in 1909, 1945 and 1961 respectively, they are revered for initiating the most iconic of silhouettes, ideas and fabrications into the fashion forum— inevitably to be taken up as inspiration by contemporary houses.

With their influence transcending decades, the Parisian houses still conduct the fashion waves of today. In the current era of fashion, it is commonplace to catch a glimpse of one (or more) leggy reality TV heirs at Karl Lagerfeld’s latest Chanel production or Olivier Rousteing’s Balmain Army. But how do these millennial faces of fashion differ from that of the fashion houses’ first rise to prominence?

Coco Chanel with model preparing for the new collection. Paris, France 1962. Photography by Douglas Kirkland

Coco Chanel with model preparing for the new collection. Paris, France 1962. Photography by Douglas Kirkland

Chanel and Aristocratic Cool

Although Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel is often cited as using lovers as muses, like polo-player Boy Chapel and the Duke of Westminster, Chanel’s own personal style and taste played the pivotal role in the creation of the fashion house’s aesthetic. Founded in 1909, the fashion house un-pinned the restrictive corsetry of late-nineteenth to early-twentieth century womenswear, making comfortability fashionable. Chanel revolutionised the use of jersey - then almost exclusively used for men’s underwear - elevating the fabric’s status to construct loosened silhouettes that have become an integral strand of the house’s DNA. Tweed, assimilated from Coco’s many trips to Scotland with the Duke of Westminster, is another fabric that has become inseparable from the established nonchalant luxury aesthetic.

In the era of the Big Screen Siren, Coco dressed Italian actress Gina Lollobrigida, transformed Romy Schneider and was lured over to Hollywood by iconic film producer Samuel Goldwyn. The 1960s saw the most notable style icons, Grace Kelly, Jackie Kennedy and Elizabeth Taylor, wear Chanel designs. When Gabrielle Chanel died in 1971 the house stood still until 1983 when Karl Lagerfeld was tasked with re-energising the house and re-working Coco’s established codes.

 Front row at Chanel ready-to-wear collection show in Paris on January 30, 1979. Source AFP

 Front row at Chanel ready-to-wear collection show in Paris on January 30, 1979. Source AFP

Setting the blueprint for fashion house revivals, Lagerfeld made Chanel the first haute couture house to sign an exclusive contract with a fashion model, Inès de la Fressange. The move saw the dawn of the ‘model who speaks’ as Fressange became the 1980s face of Chanel, embodying ‘aristocratic cool’. The 1990s saw supermodels Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista front Chanel by Lagerfeld advertising campaigns and catwalk shows. In the late-90s, the aristocrat model returned as Stella Tennant frequented Chanel shows and campaigns well into the 2000s. The persistent idea that the face of Chanel must embody aristocratic cool, is upheld in recent years with the signing of Cara Delevingne - whose maternal grandmother happens to be none other than Princess Margaret.

However, as aristocrats become less noble among millennials, the faces of fashion are changing to suit. The generation Chanel, Balmain and Saint Laurent are speaking to care less about historic lineages and more about self-made celebrities and reality television royalty à la the Kardashian-Jenners. So, it comes as no surprise to see the set of social media savvy, new age aristocrats front Chanel’s campaigns and shows. (This last sentence is a bit confusing – can you be specific about who are these new age aristocrats?)

Balmain and the #BalmainArmy

As Paris reclaimed itself from Nazi occupation, Pierre Balmain founded his namesake house in 1945. Known for the cinched-waist and bell-shaped skirt - which was later popularised by Dior as ‘The New Look’ - Balmain dressed a jet-set crowd of aristocrats and Hollywood stars such as Josephine Baker, Audrey Hepburn and Brigitte Bardot.

Kim Kardashian and Kanye West in Balmain Srping/Summer 2015 ad campaign. Photography by Mario Sorrenti.

Kim Kardashian and Kanye West in Balmain Srping/Summer 2015 ad campaign. Photography by Mario Sorrenti.

Following Pierre Balmain’s death in 1982, the house was guided by many hands, but revival came in 1993 when Oscar de la Renta took the helm. Reworking Pierre Balmain’s Jolie Madame looks, de la Renta streamlined silhouettes for the era of 90s minimalism. Christophe Decarnin’s appointment brought about a tough-chic sensibility, embodying the party girl of the 2000s Kate Moss.

Balmain’s youth-infusion came with the appointment of Olivier Rousteing in 2011. Incorporating the established codes of tailoring and embroidery, reimagining it for his contemporary muse Rihanna. Speaking to the Independent, Rousteing stated: “Today people are looking at Rihanna like they were looking at Naomi Campbell or Claudia... nobody wants to be a model, everybody wants to be a singer. That's the new dream. I think having Rihanna in the campaign is like having Cindy Crawford or Christy Turlington, but for my generation.”

Oscar De La Renta's sketches for Pierre Balmain's Haute Couture Spring/Summer 1997 collection.

Oscar De La Renta's sketches for Pierre Balmain's Haute Couture Spring/Summer 1997 collection.

Rousteing struck gold by embracing social media, amassing over two million followers and forming the ever-expanding #BalmainArmy - full of A-listers including supermodels, singers and, of course, the Kardashian-Jenners. The contemporary consortium of models and muses are to today’s audience, what Brigitte Bardot and Josephine Baker were to Pierre Balmain in the brand’s inaugural years.

Saint Laurent and the Left Bank

Prior to launching his namesake fashion house, Algerian-born Yves Saint Laurent was Christian Dior’s assistant from 1955 and then prodigious successor after Monsieur Dior’s death in 1957. As the first couturier to open a standalone ready-to-wear store, Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, Saint Laurent democratised the fashion scene, presenting collections inspired by the eclecticism of Paris’ Left Bank. Le Smoking, the menswear-inspired tailored tuxedo worn by the likes of Bianca Jagger and Betty Catroux, is one of Saint Laurent’s most iconic looks.

The fashion house had many faces over the years, from Catherine Deneuve and Betty Catroux to Mounia Orosemane and Katoucha Niane, championing diversity along the way by casting Iman and Saint Laurent himself orchestrating Naomi Campbell’s historic 1988 cover of Vogue Paris.

Yves Saint-Laurent using chalk to sketch fashion designs for Christian Dior. Paris, France 1957

Yves Saint-Laurent using chalk to sketch fashion designs for Christian Dior. Paris, France 1957

However, the collections presented today by the fashion house, now simply Saint Laurent Paris under the helm of Hedi Slimane, scarcely feature a diverse array of models. But what the Saint Laurent of today does continue to uphold is the 1960s and 1970s Left Bank rocker sensibility and dedication to tailoring that sparked the house’s rise to prominence — with Betty Catroux still serving as a muse, among other musical muses.

The threads, frames and faces of these three iconic houses may be evolving overtime, but it is clear that Chanel, Balmain and Saint Laurent will never fully betray nor stray from the origins from which they were born.

Words: Jamal George–Sharpe