Some people think luxury is the opposite of poverty," said Coco Chanel. "It is not. It is the opposite of vulgarity."
There can be few better representations of Chanel's vision of luxury than her tweed jacket, originally inspired, says Karl Lagerfeld, by "a Tyrolean jacket with four pockets and a braid trim" worn by staff at a smart Austrian hotel.
How many items of clothing are so instantly recognisable without bearing any trace of a logo? What is more understated, more luxurious, than the short, collarless, pocketed jacket that has ceased simply to be the sum of its parts and has come to represent everything that is quintessentially Chanel?
Lagerfeld, along with ex-editor in chief of French Vogue, Carine Roitfeld, has paid homage to this classic with a new book The Little Black Jacket: Chanel's Classic Revisited. A showcase for the jacket's versatility, the book features Lagerfeld's photographs of a roster of Chanel's friends and fans, all sporting the same black jacket.
"The model chosen for the book is the most classic one," says Lagerfeld, "which is closest to the original jacket Mademoiselle Chanel created." Says Carine Roitfeld: "It's like jeans or a T-shirt: it's something that belongs to everyone."
Stella Tennant accessorises hers with a leather pilot's helmet: "The LBJ is a kind of uniform," the model says, "that the individual can subvert into their own style".
Elle Fanning wears hers with a daisy-chain headpiece: "Sliding the jacket on for the first time caused an immediate chill. I felt like a piece of Coco Chanel was living inside of me."
Sofia Coppola goes bohemian with bare feet: "You can wear the Chanel little black jacket any time, day or night, casual or dressy." There's even a Chanel-style nun, courtesy of Danish model Freja Beha.
Chanel launched her short, boxy tweed jacket in 1954, as part of her postwar comeback collection (she was pitting herself against the acres of fabric and full skirts of Christian Dior's New Look, a look she felt was far too old-fashioned for the modern woman).
The jackets were a triumph of style and wearability.
Assembled without bust darts to make them supple, lined with silk, with sleeves with a slight curve for comfort, they were structured (a small brass chain was sewn inside the bottom of the hem to make sure it hung perfectly) but the wearer could still raise her arms above her head, "since a garment's elegance lies in the freedom of movement it allows", as Chanel put it.
Since then Karl Lagerfeld may have paired the jackets with jeans, swimming costumes, even sequined shorts, but at Chanel's workshops on Rue Cambon the jackets are still made the same way.
It is, says Lagerfeld, the item every designer dreams of inventing. "Some things never go out of fashion: jeans, the white shirt, and the Chanel jacket."
Visit The Little Black Jacket exhibition at Pier 2/3, Walsh Bay, Sydney. Entry is free. From Oct 27-Nov 10. Entry is free. Little Black Jacket by Karl Lagerfeld is published by Thames & Hudson. Read more information here.