At a time when Paul Poiret dominated the world of women’s fashion, Gabrielle Chanel went to Deauville in 1912, then to Biarritz and Paris, and revolutionized the world of Haute Couture, adorning the bodies of her contemporaries with what amounted to a fashion manifesto.
“Gabrielle Chanel devoted her long life to creating, perfecting and promoting a new kind of elegance based on freedom of movement, a natural, relaxed attitude, a subtle elegance free from extravagance, a timeless style for a new kind of woman. This was her ‘fashion manifesto’, an inescapable heritage that is more relevant than ever in today’s world, and which the Palais Galliera is presenting in this exhibition,“ says Miren Arzalluz, Director of the Palais Galliera.
The first part of the exhibition is chronological; it recounts Chanel’s early beginnings with a few emblematic pieces, including the famous 1916 marinière, the sailor blouse, in jersey. Visitors can trace the development of Chanel’s chic style: from the little black dresses and sporty models of the Roaring Twenties to the sophisticated dresses of the 1930s.
“From the beginning of her career, in the early years of the 20th century, right up to the end of her life, Gabrielle Chanel defied the prevailing fashions of her time. In her youth, she emerged as a female dandy, who switched from appropriating clothes to designing garments that adapted the comfort, the functionality, the restraint and the elegance of the male wardrobe for women. By dint of careful technical experimentation, reinterpreting traditional tailoring but using soft fabrics like jersey and tweed, she introduced her version of the suit and the little black dress, in the 1910s. In the 1950s, they became symbols of a new kind of femininity on both sides of the Atlantic. Chanel developed her own distinctive, timeless style, which has stood firm against the ephemeral trends that typify the fashion world,” explains Arzalluz.
One room is devoted entirely to N° 5, created in 1921 and quintessentially the spirit of “Coco Chanel”. This first compounded perfume was, just as Chanel had intended, radically different. Unlike the fragrances generally favored at the time, it has no specific scent. Her dresses were constructed and this is a constructed perfume, a mysterious, abstract fragrance. The master perfumer, Ernest Beaux, selected more than eighty components for it. The combination of rare flowers, including ylang-ylang, Royal jasmine and centifolia rose, woody and spicy notes, amplified by what was originally an accidental overdose of aldehydes (synthetic compounds), make the formula impossible to pin down. Its container and presentation were equally innovative. Unlike the ornate phials of the Roaring Twenties, Chanel’s bottle was square with restrained, angular lines. Her response to the floral, evocative names was the abstraction of a number, a lucky number. The white cardboard box with black borders was minimalist, and the purity of the graphic design was revolutionary for its time. The radical nature of those choices mirrored the radically of her approach to fashion. Conceived as an extension of the garment and corresponding point for point to her vision of modernity, Chanel made N° 5 her signature.
Already the world’s best-selling perfume, Marilyn Monroe added to its mystique with an intimate admission, which made it a legend forever.
Ten photo portraits of Gabrielle Chanel accompany the ten chapters of the exhibition and show the extent to which the couturière herself was the embodiment of her brand. Then came the war and the fashion house was closed; the only things still sold in Paris, at 31 rue Cambon, were perfume and accessories. Then the arrival of Christian Dior and the New Look – the corseted style that she so objected to; Gabrielle Chanel reacted by returning to couture in 1954 and, against the trend, reaffirmed her fashion manifesto.
The second part of the exhibition is themed and we are invited to decipher her dress codes: the braided tweed suit, two-tone pumps, the 2.55 quilted bag, black and beige naturally, but also red, white and gold... and, of course, the costume and the fine jewelry that were intrinsic to the Chanel look.
“Chanel’s style was based on the principles of comfort and respect for the female anatomy, but also on the details and chic elegance of her designs. Chanel avoided unnecessary colors, materials and techniques was always judicious and bold, with an emphasis on balance and a harmonious overall effect. Her garments had a sophisticated restraint that acted as a contrast to the opulence of her jewelry, which was inspired by ancient or distant civilizations and also her way of wearing an abundance of it. Her N° 5 perfume was a milestone in the history of perfumery, from the moment it was created in 1921. This iconic fragrance became the invisible but essential accessory for the modern woman,” says Arzalluz. “Gabrielle Chanel became a legend in her lifetime, a legend that she did much to foster and promote throughout her career. In the 1930s, both the French and the international press were already reporting versions of her biography that reinforced the confusion that she deliberately cultivated about her life and the fascination that her personality was already inspiring. decoration, and her choice of colors, materials and techniques was always judicious and bold, with an emphasis on balance and a harmonious overall effect. Her garments had a sophisticated restraint that acted as a contrast to the opulence of her jewelry, which was inspired by ancient or distant civilizations and also her way of wearing an abundance of it. Her N° 5 perfume was a milestone in the history of perfumery, from the moment it was created in 1921. This iconic fragrance became the invisible but essential accessory for the modern woman,” says Arzalluz. “Gabrielle Chanel became a legend in her lifetime, a legend that she did much to foster and promote throughout her career. In the 1930s, both the French and the international press were already reporting versions of her biography that reinforced the confusion that she deliberately cultivated about her life and the fascination that her personality was already inspiring.
Since her death in 1971, there have been many attempts to shed light on the different facets of her history and personality. These writings have sought to unravel the mystery of her origins, the keys to her success, her involvement with the arts scene, as well as her romantic relationships and, more recently, her conduct during historical events, particularly during the Second World War. All of which has contributed to a greater understanding of the complex personality of “Coco” Chanel, while at the same time generating much discussion and controversy.”
Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto, covers an area of nearly 1500 m2 – including the newly opened basement galleries. With more than 350 pieces from the Palais Galliera collections and Patrimoine de CHANEL, from international museums, including the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the De Young Museum in San Francisco, the Museo de la Moda in Santiago de Chile, the MoMu in Antwerp..., as well as from private collections, this exhibition is an invitation to discover a universe and a style that are truly timeless.
The exhibition has been organized with the support of CHANEL.
Miren Arzalluz, Director of the Palais Galliera; Véronique Belloir, Collection curator
With the curating team of the Palais Galliera
Olivier Saillard, fashion historian
Gabrielle Chanel - Fashion Manifesto
Palais Galliera, Paris
From October 1st, 2020 until March 14th, 2021
* This article by Tanja Beljanski first appeared in the December issue of L'Officiel Arabia.