You know the bag, even if you do not know you know the bag. It has been a wardrobe staple for decades, admired by red carpet and real-life royalty alike, from Demi Lovato and Bella Hadid to the late Princess Diana and Duchess of Cambridge Catherine Middleton.
Chanel’s illustrious 11.12 handbag continues to exert its pull on the masses with its ever classic lines and timeless appeal. Trends have come and gone, yet the 11.12 bag remains, staying true to itself. A tall order, but it carries within it the legacy of Chanel and the vision of its founder, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. She, after all, created the famed 2.55 handbag in 1955, a rectangular leather bag that worked its way into contemporary wardrobes courtesy of its flawless craftsmanship and versatile applications.
The 2.55 bag is still a designer staple, used by everyone from Lauren Conrad to Beyoncé, but it took on a new lease of life when the late Karl Lagerfeld joined Chanel as creative director in the early 1980s. His take on the 2.55 revealed itself in the 11.12 bag, distinguished from its predecessor by its double C turn-style lock and a metal chain interlaced with leather.
Alongside Lagerfeld’s updates, the 11.12 bag inherited many of its predecessor’s genes, bearing the same flair and expertise that verify it, too, as a couturière’s bag. When Coco Chanel embarked on a project to create her first bag, women’s accessories were traditionally made by leather workers and saddlers, but the designer sought in her bag an accomplice, rather than an accessory. She wanted a bag that celebrated freedom of movement and everyday extravagance, and turned instead to the savoir faire of couture to create a timeless staple.
A rectangular shape was dressed in soft lambskin, typically the preserve of glove makers, and decorated with a diamond-shaped lozenge quilting inspired by riding jackets and saddles seen in stables. This was later alternated with chevron quilting, which expanded her lexicon of graphic motifs and the two designs have become iconic of the 2.55. They transposed well onto the 11.12 bag, and both bags now mine their bases from a wider source of materials. While the 2.55 is known for its use of aged calfskin today and the 11.12 for grained calfskin known as “caviar”, they have also found occasions to don coats of jersey, tweed, velvet, denim, silk and metallic leather.
More importantly, Coco Chanel was a woman who was at once of and ahead of her time, and part of her vision was a bag that could accommodate her many roles and needs. She executed this through the creation of seven pockets cleverly sewn into the 2.55 bag, answering a then-unspoken demand that continues to be relevant to the modern woman.
Each 11.12 bag begins its life as a large piece of leather. Cutting has been refined to a meticulous operation, with ideal cutting points determined to ensure the seamless harmony of each piece. This is particularly crucial when working with tweed, whose motifs have to be impeccably aligned for visual symmetry.
Quilting the leather follows, with the diamond-shape quilting topstitched with the point droit de couturière technique, among Chanel’s most recognisable signatures. Inspired by the equestrian world, Coco Chanel introduced overstitched quilting into the house’s vocabulary as it possessed a natural éclat and worked in a durability that could withstand the test of time. The diamond motif tempered the aesthetic for increased femininity and was a personal favourite — it even swathed the cushions of a suede sofa in her apartment at 31 rue Cambon, Paris. The double C is then stitched under the flap.
First-time buyers might be amazed to discover that the 11.12 owes its gratifying voluptuousness to its bag-in-a-bag technique. The first handbag is mounted to construct the interior, or base, while the second forms the exterior, or body. They are mounted by hand for assembly, and then turned inside out using the piqué retourné (“turn and stitch”) method, also commonly used in the label’s ready-to-wear collections. The artisan employs the point de bride loop stitch to sew the components together and then swivels the bag back into place, now as a single, incredibly secure structure. Coco Chanel believed that “the inside should match the outside” so a garnet-hued leather lining clads the interior. This serves to also provide a pop of contrast to ease searching for items within the bag.
Pockets, all seven of them, are then added. Users will never again struggle to find a lipstick, kept in a specially designed case compartment, or cards or a compact, kept in two gusseted pockets. Little notes can be discreetly secured in a zippered compartment known as “the secret” while two large pockets for documents impose practicality. Finally, look out for the “smile pocket”, so nicknamed by the atelier for its resemblance to the Mona Lisa’s smile, on the back of the bag.
The founder’s pragmatism continues in the exterior — as she liked to keep her hands in her pockets, Coco Chanel outfitted her bag with an adjustable metal chain. The 11.12 continues this proud tradition, but weaves a leather ribbon through the links by hand.
Such savoir faire is built into the very codes of the luxury house, and its application in the enduring 11.12 bag in particular spurred the recent The Chanel Iconic campaign. Shot by Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, it features Anna Mouglalis, Rianne van Rompaey, Imaan Hammam, Louise de Chevigny and Zoé Adjani outside Parisian institutions or within everyday contexts in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighbourhood.
Whether slung on their shoulders or resting by their side as they go about their day, the 11.12 bag acts as a natural companion, ready for any occasion or location. The images are at once fresh and familiar — after all, this is how the bag has resonated among women for decades.
This article first appeared on Apr 19, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.