The origins of Chanel’s classic flap handbags can be traced back to February 1955, when the house’s founder, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, created her first pocketbook with a shoulder strap. Like most of her ideas, that purse, dubbed the 2.55 (to commemorate the month and year it was introduced), had feminist underpinnings: The strap allowed women to keep their hands free instead of clutching a handle. In 1983, Karl Lagerfeld, the label’s longtime creative director, subtly updated the 2.55, replacing the simple twist Mademoiselle clasp with interlocking C’s, and would go on to make other modifications. The reinterpreted bag was named the 11.12, evoking the internal style code of Lagerfeld’s medium-size version, the A01112. But while the shape of the purse has remained consistent through the decades, Chanel continues to iterate its embellishments, capitalizing on the house’s small specialist craft ateliers, called Métiers d’art.
This latest iteration of the 11.12, beaded with an abstract bouquet of camellias — Coco Chanel’s favorite flower — is among its most complex and lush. Beginning life in the 200-person factory in Verneuil-en-Halatte, 90 minutes north of Paris, the handbag’s lambskin components are cut by a subset of artisans — trained for at least six years — who specialize in ultradecorated versions. The pieces then travel to the Lesage embroidery workshop in Paris, established in 1858 and acquired by Chanel in 1990. Here, two embroiderers spend more than a week on each bag — 120 hours or so in total — attaching a tapestry of beads and Swarovski crystals in shades of strawberry, fuchsia and navy, in shapes resembling tiny cups and minute rosettes. They use a tambour hook technique called Lunéville, named after the town in Lorraine where it emerged around 1810, having traveled the Silk Road from Asia. The design was created by Virginie Viard, 59, who took over after Lagerfeld’s death in 2019 at age 85, but the embroiderers, who work on couture gowns, as well, adapt each slightly, so no two bags are quite the same. After the embroidery is complete, the pieces return to Verneuil so the craftspeople there can assemble the bag into its iconic rectangular silhouette, creating elaborate piping and squared-off edges that accommodate the complex beading. Almost all the work is done by hand, and even those small sections sewn by machine are worked on with an old-fashioned manual contraption straight out of Coco Chanel’s time. In an era when robots roam the factory floor, the meticulously conceived, densely adorned handbags that emerge from this laborious process remain far beyond the hungry grasp of industrialization.