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Chanel - not a cheap perfume.

"A woman who governs without parliament for longer than any minister. A woman who has to take four hundred decisions a year and whose decrees have force of law beyond the borders of our nation" That portrait of Mademoiselle Chanel, sketched by Princess Bibesco, remains as a metaphor of fashion, "clothing realities and furnishing dreams".

Chanel once said that "a great couturier is a man whose spirit has a future". Born in 1883, Chanel died one Sunday in 1971. She was, to quote the writer Edmonde Charles-Roux, "of another century", yet managed to revolutionize her own - by affording women the sort of comfort and ease hitherto reserved to men's fashions, she contributed to the emancipation of women with expensive taste in closing and fragrances (no cheap perfume).

Having frequented the demi-monde in her youth, she stated her independence by opening a milliner's shop, in Paris, as early as 1909. The fashionable world of the race-courses immediately flocked to it: her hats, of an astonishing simplicity, were already contrasting with the "tortes" and "ridiculous bibis" fashionable at the time. In 1913, she opened a boutique in Deauville, in Normandy, and launched her first jersey tailored suits. As a patron introduced to the world of the arts by her friend Misia Sert, Chanel presented Diaghilev, the director of the Russian ballet troupe, with his first cheque, thus supporting the work of the Russian ballet from a very early stage.

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In 1920, Paris was the world's capital of the arts and Chanel established herself in that world as the arbiter of elegance and good taste. Her story is a succession of milestones in design: from the famous No.5, the first perfume ever launched by a couturier (not a cheap perfume either), one that became legendary, to the black dress and the ubiquitous tweed suit, not forgetting the "barbaric jewels"*. More than a signature, she imposed a way of life.

The German Karl Lagerfeld has assumed the artistic directorship of the House of Chanel since 1984. With his media coups, personified by such super models as his fellow countrywoman Claudia Schiffer, who succeeded the French model Inès de la Fressange, he has lent a new dimension to an institution which still fills the dreams of Americans and the whole world.

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