Gabrielle Chanel Fashion Manifesto: A retrospective on Coco, not the brand
Few designers in history have been as written about as Coco Chanel, who founded the single largest luxury fashion house in the world and whose name is an international byword for elegance and style. Remarkably, however, in an era when the best attended exhibitions in the world’s greatest museums are devoted to fashion, and fashion designers, there has never been an exposition solely devoted to Coco’s work.
That changed on Wednesday night, with the opening of "Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto" in the Palais Galliera, one of the great fashion temples of Paris. A truly comprehensive consideration of Chanel’s 60-year career, from her boutique in Deauville that opened before World War II to her final show in 1971, "Fashion Manifesto" encompasses over 350 of Chanel’s designs: including 164 fashion looks; along with beauty, rare accessories and jewelry.
There are no sketches or illustrations by Coco in this show, since she couldn’t draw. There is a film of her pretending to sketch on prints prepared for her by the great illustrators of her time, like Christian Bérard, five of whose drawings are displayed. Instead, Chanel worked with her hands, as black and white footage proves; kneeling down and sternly clipping with scissors or the pinning the hem of a dress worn by a live model. The opening artifact is actually a handprint and signature of Chanel, and they are clearly very hard-working hands.
The key theme of this show is how Chanel liberated women in a new century from the strictures, stays and petticoats of the 19th century. By firstly liberating herself, by initially appropriating men’s clothes that allowed her to freely move and look more distinguished.
“Chanel became a female dandy, switching from borrowing clothes to designing them,” argues the curator of the exhibition Miren Arzalluz.
The exhibition is full of neat touches: like the all-white chamber, at whose center we find an original flacon of Chanel No 5, the world’s most famous scent and the first that carried a designer’s name. A quiet space gently interrupted by an interview with Marilyn Monroe whispering the immortal line, “the only thing I sleep in is Chanel No 5.”
The museum had been closed since a Martin Margiela exhibition in June 2018. The exhibition inaugurates the new basement floor of Galliera, part of a major renovation of the museum underwritten by Chanel to the tune of €7 million.
The extensive new downstairs galleries now contain 50 of Coco’s famed suits. Chanel first worked on tweed ensembles in the '20s, but codified her invention from the 1950s when she made her comeback to Paris, synthesizing it as a highly identifiable four-pocket jacket with an interior gold chain to make it hang more neatly.
From a ladylike cream and blue trim 1961 suit for Princess Grace to a rare tailleur for Marlene Dietrich, a great friend, who like Coco made Paris her home. This section actually begins with a personal suit of Coco’s, where revealingly she cut out all the interior lining to make it feel even more like a cardigan.
Chanel’s archive also boasts two splendid dresses: a little black lace dress and a golden gown, which Delphine Seyrig wore in the legendary French art movie Last Year in Marienbad, shown in a video installation.
“Previous exhibitions have focused on certain aspects Coco’s life. We wanted a retrospective on her work, which has never been done. A classic retrospective that covers her professional career. It is not a history of the house,” stressed Arzalluz, who carefully crafts a balance between Chanel’s beginnings in the '20s and '30s and her second period of activity starting in 1954, when she returned to Paris from exile in Switzerland. Back in 2005, the Met in New York did stage a large scale show on Chanel, though it blended designs by both Coco and Karl Lagerfeld.
“Coco is such an important designer as she worked on timeless principles, very clear ideas of comfort, liberty of movement and ease; integrating that into haute couture which was unheard of in the 1920s. And, she had this mastery of simplicity, even while doing the most sophisticated fashion,” opines the curator.
Discussions about the show began six years ago, when Olivier Saillard was director of the Galliera, and Chanel immediately decided to support the museum’s renovation.
“This is not Chanel's exhibition; it’s the Galliera’s exhibition. That’s important. We are very happy to have such an exhibition just about Mademoiselle’s work, where everything stops in 1971, which is when this exhibition ends. I think it is very important for the house, for the brand to see its foundations, and see the consistency and modernity of her style,” explained Chanel CEO Bruno Pavlovsky.
Impressively, the ideas often look very contemporary. Whether the dazzling golden cocktails; the remarkable Russian-embroidered fur coats; or the striking minimalist perfumes and scent bottles.
“Some of the looks could have been designed by Virginie Viard today,” insisted Pavlovsky, referring the successor of the late Karl Lagerfeld, who has designed Chanel since spring 2019.
The show is not a biographical approach, but Chanel was clearly a uniquely driven figure, who understood that the only way to achieve freedom in her day was to be successful economically. She was part of a group of a remarkable generation of women who emerged in Paris that included Jeanne Lanvin, Madeleine Vionnet, and her greatest rival Elsa Schiaparelli. Underlining her drive, the catalogue’s opening image of Coco by André Kertész captures her far from the glamorous movie star photography of Horst P Horst, seen deep in thought and showing off her working hands.
‘Coco clearly designed for herself, She was at the center of what she did. She embodied her own style more than the others. And women worldwide wanted to look like her, even in the 1920s,” insisted the curator.
Yet the simplicity that Arzalluz stresses is in marked contrast to the opulence of the jewelry, both costume and fine jewelry, all 120 pieces. Chanel always wore precious stones. Yet a brilliant display of necklaces, bracelets and diadems she developed with Goossens, all looking remarkably real, are in fact made of brass, metallic pearls or cut glass. One dazzling brooch from Goossens, very clearly based on a medieval brooch from the Museum of the Middle Ages in Cluny, is displayed beside the original. A great example of Coco’s Barbarian Byzantine aesthetic, leading to the famous remark that the source of Chanel jewelry can be found in the ruins of its headquarters on rue Cambon.
Of the fashion silhouettes, 96 are from Chanel’s archives, and 46 from Galliera; while Fashion Manifesto borrowed items from museums and private collectors in New York, Sydney and Berlin. Other houses even lent a hand - a suit from Max Mara, a painting from Balenciaga.
Asked what she hoped people would think after seeing Fashion Manifesto, Arzalluz replied: “I want them to think they have rediscovered Chanel. That they learned so much they didn’t know about Chanel. Which is what happened to me.”
Asked the same, question Pavlovsky replied: “Wow!”
Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto Exhibition
Palais Galliera, Paris, France
From Sept. 30, 2020 until March 14, 2021
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