The Shock of Chopping Up a Chanel Bag

Not one of the women, though, acknowledges the reason for these limits on their luxury purchases: the war in Ukraine. And not one of them mentions the nationality-based discrimination underpinning Russia’s attack on Ukrainians. While millions of Ukrainian women are fleeing with barely the clothes on their backs, mourning the loss of their homes, their country and their dead loved ones, these Russian fashionistas are raging against a luxury company’s attempts to limit their wearing of posh handbags.

There is irony in the specific brand that spurred all this Instagram outrage. While the house of Chanel was born in France, it has come to represent a generalized European luxury and elegance. And so, to destroy a Chanel bag in the name of Mother Russia is to destroy, in a way, a symbol of Europe itself.

Chanel also has a particularly deep but little-known connection to Russia, specifically to pre-revolutionary, imperial Russia. Coco Chanel’s liaison with an exiled Romanov royal, Grand Duke Dmitri, a cousin to Czar Nicholas II, profoundly influenced her aesthetic during the early 1920s. Chanel No. 5, the cornerstone of the entire brand, was created by Ernst Beaux, former perfumer to the czars (to whom Dmitri introduced Chanel). Her famous costume jewelry — the ropes of pearls, the Byzantine crosses — was inspired by Russian imperial jewels.

Chanel even hired Duke Dmitri’s sister, Grand Duchess Marie, to create Russian embroidery patterns for textiles. To this day, many design elements considered quintessentially Chanel are in fact descended from imperial Russian motifs. To attack the house of Chanel as anti-Russian is to overlook the company’s longstanding Russian connections just as Russians attacking Ukrainians as traitors ignore the deep, often familial connections between the two groups.

The final ironic twist is that Vladimir Putin’s war seems to stem from his fantasy of restoring Russia’s imperial past — and of becoming the latter-day czar of an expanded empire — yet few luxury brands contain as much Russian imperial nostalgia as Chanel.

Perhaps, for wealthy and glamorous Russian women like these influencers, being deprived of full use of their handbags constitutes discrimination. Perhaps that alone drove them to make these angry videos. But consciously or not, their performances tapped into and replayed many of the deepest issues at stake in the current war started by their country.

Fashion does not exist removed from the world’s grim realities and serious politics. On the contrary, fashion and the events it inspires function as a kind of symptomatic dreamscape, a screen onto which society projects and replays its greatest fears and turmoil. Watching these members of the Russian elite rip apart their precious handbags, straining to push sharp blades through thick leather — which is, after all, the skin of once-living creatures — it’s hard to miss the analogy to the catastrophe unfolding in Ukraine. And it’s hard not to shudder.

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