Challenging the Gender Binary, One Bag at a Time: Pharrell Williams, the first Male Model in a Chanel Bag Campaign

On 31 Rue Cambon, in Paris, France, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel opened her first boutique and challenged fashion’s status quo. Now, over a century later, Chanel, still synonymous with luxury, continues to break down barriers with its latest video in the ‘Gabrielle’ bag campaign, which debuted Monday, April 24.

‘Gabrielle’ Bag by Chanel. See for details.

‘Gabrielle’ Bag by Chanel. See for details.

In the latest addition, music and style icon, Pharrell Williams, 44, escapades around in an emptied concert hall, playfully riding on trunks of equipment, and engaging in a balancing act along a beam of lights. However, the novelty in this video lies in that Williams is the first male model to be used in a Chanel bag campaign.

Creative director, Karl Lagerfeld, shared with Women’s Wear Daily, that his choice to cast Williams is meant to highlight the versatility of the ‘Gabrielle’ bag and how it can be worn in, “many different circumstances.” Williams follows, Kristen Stewart, Cara Delevingne, and Caroline de Maigret in this campaign, and it seems only fitting to see Williams as he appeared on the runway of Chanel’s Metiers d’Art runway show in Decemeber.

However, when looking deeper, one can appreciate the sort of irony of Williams’ presence.

Coco Chanel challenged the expectations of women’s fashion by borrowing from menswear. She reimagined waistcoats and blazers for the female body, repurposed jersey fabric into functional, simple separates, took the men’s messenger bag, and found a way to marry construction with comfort in innovative ways using chains and quilting. Her designs borrowed from men’s nautical wear, used pearls to embellish and accessorize, and made black the color of fashion for a clean, elegant, look that became the ideal of sophistication.

Pharrell Williams as he appears in the ‘Gabrielle’ video campaign.

Pharrell Williams as he appears in the campaign video. Image borrowed from Harpers Bazaar UK.

In the ‘Gabrielle’ video, Williams is dressed in pieces that speak to the DNA of the Chanel label: black, chains and pearls, and a messenger bag, with the iconic interlocking C’s, slung over his shoulders; all reinterpreted for a man’s aesthetic. With this in mind, it would seem that Chanel has come full circle in a way, with women’s wear now being reinterpreted for men.

However, one could see this as a reflection of our current times, when gender fluidity and androgyny are becoming a part of the mainstream of fashion. H&M’s unisex denim line, which debuted in March is just one more example of this ideal becoming an accepted norm of younger generations. To add to this, Lagerfeld is quoted describing the ‘Gabrielle’ bag as, “not very feminine,” in a article, suggesting it has a unisex appeal.

Yet, unlike Coco, who took from men to give to women’s apparel, Chanel’s choice to go with Williams does not appear to take from what is, traditionally, seen as only for women, but seems to be reinterpreting it to be inclusive of women and men. Further blurring the lines of the gender binary.

Overall, it adds to the greater social conversation, and appears to, at the very least, speak to the argument that fashion is not male or female, but inclusive, fluid, and open to interpretation.

Take a look at Williams in the video on the official Chanel website.

Disclaimer: While this is my own original writing, images were borrowed from other sources and have been credited. This is part of an assignment for my graduate studies, and I do not make any monetary compensation for this work. It is strictly for educational purposes.

Feature Image: Screenshot from the website.
1) Gabrielle Bag image borrowed from official Chanel website.
2) Image of Pharrell Borrowed from Harpers Bazaar UK.