The story of the house of Chanel and its inimitable founder, Mlle Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, has to be one of the best and most frequently told in the history of fashion. It has everything – a penniless orphan makes good, and along the way there are romantic liaisons with playboys and dukes, the creation of an eminent couture house, the invention of new ways of dressing the modern woman, friendships with the major artists and notables of the day and considerable financial success. What a story, and nobody knows better than the House of Chanel that keeping these narratives alive is how the magic can be constantly renewed.
And while many of us are familiar with Chanel’s back story, there are whole new economies – China, Russia, Asia, Brazil, among others – where people have a great deal of money to spend and for whom the history and famous codes of the house are entirely new. The more they are bound into the romance of the story, I imagine goes the thinking, the more inviting will seem its offerings. It must be this train of thought that lies behind a series of ever-more ambitious exhibitions that in recent years Chanel has taken to staging around the world – and the fascinating one, Chanel Mademoiselle Privé, that is coming to London’s Saatchi Gallery this month.
Ask Bruno Pavlovsky, president of fashion, why the house is embarking on such a big (and inevitably very expensive) exercise, and he has a ready answer: “We believe in ‘creation, creation, creation’. It’s at the core of everything we do and it is more important than ever. With this exhibition, we want to take the visitor into the heart of the creative process. We want them to be able to enter into the world of les petites mains [the seamstresses] and to become immersed in their savoir faire, for without their skills and without continuous creation, the house dies.” And so, at Mademoiselle Privé, Chanel is going to offer visitors a chance to explore what Pavlovsky calls “the three pillars of the house – the ‘icons’, if you like – haute couture, high jewellery and No 5 perfume”. And while some aspects will be familiar to Chanel fans (can there be anybody who hasn’t sprayed on at least a sprinkling of No 5?), there are other experiences that will be entirely novel.
For instance, the general public will for the first time be able to see Chanel’s haute-couture clothes up close and personal. The collection has only ever been visible at the invitation-only shows in Paris (with the exception of a single collection that came to London last year for a carefully selected audience); here, though, at least 15 dresses from the couture catwalk in July will be exhibited, showcasing the quality of the workmanship, embroidery and fine details of these quite extraordinarily beautiful clothes. Each dress was designed by Karl Lagerfeld, resident genius at the house, for a particular Chanel ambassador – Julianne Moore, Rita Ora and Isabelle Huppert, to name just three. In Paris, they set the scene for the main show by sitting down at casino tables and playing poker, before the models began to parade around them.
On the second floor of the exhibition, the craft-based ateliers (embroiderers, beaders, saddle-stitchers), which Chanel has famously been buying up and without which there could be no haute couture, will hold a series of workshops for visitors to book into. Chanel staff will also be on hand to talk to any interested visitors.
On top of that, the house aims to bring haute-couture collections to privileged customers in London twice a year. It’s all part of a revival of interest in haute couture. Pavlovsky says that it is more than alive and well – it is thriving. “We have younger customers than ever – several in their 20s – and we are much more confident of the future of couture than we were even five years ago. Chanel without couture is unthinkable – it is part of our DNA. Chanel herself famously only ever did couture.” And the house is adapting to the demands of the new customer by sending its senior seamstresses to wherever she happens to be.
Even more exciting is that the house has created a precise re-edition of the only collection of haute joaillerie that Coco Chanel ever designed, the Bijoux de Diamants. Instigated by The Diamond Corporate, which back in 1932 decided that the industry needed reinvigorating, it asked the then-not-very-well-known Coco Chanel to come up with something fresh and scintillating. She certainly obliged. There were dazzling pieces with all the themes we are now so familiar with – the stars, moons, constellations, comets, bows, sunbursts – made from pearls, diamonds and gold. Shown on hairdressers’ mannequins with tiaras turned upside down, necklaces hung down the mannequins’ backs, brooches in the hair, rings that left the back of the finger exposed – it caused something of a sensation. But, curiously, while she became famous for her costume jewellery (“I started creating costume jewellery,” she said, “because I felt that it was refreshingly free of arrogance”), she never again designed another haute-joaillerie collection.
After the show, the 1932 Re-edition collection (price on request) will be touring the world, but can be ordered at the exhibition or any Chanel store. And in Chanel’s grand and splendid newly renovated London boutique (opening on November 5) for fine jewellery at 173 New Bond Street, the influence of these codes can be seen in the exceptional pieces from the latest haute-joaillerie collections.
Finally, there will be Chanel-themed gardens, taking visitors on a journey and helping them to understand the innovation and alchemy that turned Chanel into such an enduring and iconic fashion house.
As to why London is to be the first to have this insight into the secret creative world, Pavlovsky explains: “Mlle Chanel loved London, and though she wanted to bring her high-jewellery collection here, she was thwarted by the customs’ regulations of the day, but now – some 83 years later – the city will be able to see the unique re-edition of this extraordinary collection.”