Gabrielle Chanel, All in the Detail

An unprecedented retrospective opening next month at the National Gallery of Victoria explores how Gabrielle Chanel’s famed perfectionism shaped her most enduring creation: her influence.

Article by Lucy E Cousins

Chanel garment being packed at the Palais Galliera, Paris, to travel to Melbourne for the Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto exhibition at NGV International, Melbourne. Photography by Pierre Antoine.

“I still dress as I always did, like a schoolgirl,” Gabrielle Chanel is reported to have once said — though, like many quotes attributed to the 20th-century French designer, it’s hard to fact-check. The embodiment of style and independence in her lifetime, she has, since her death in 1971, fallen victim to misquotation, with incorrect sayings repeated in books, websites and social media. Something she, no doubt, would have hated.

For Chanel, beauty was in the detail and her image was something she crafted meticulously. From the photographs she staged in her apartment to her mythologised childhood, she styled her personal brand in the same way she designed her couture: trimming off bits here and there until perfection was reached.

A new exhibition, “Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto”, opening on December 4 at Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria, investigates Chanel’s attention to detail, which was at the heart of everything she designed, from her early millinery work in the 1910s through to her couture dresses in the 1950s and ’60s. Presented by the gallery in partnership with the Palais Galliera in Paris, the retrospective includes more than 100 garments, many of which are on loan from the Patrimoine de Chanel, the house’s heritage division. Surprisingly, this is the first retrospective of this kind to solely focus on Gabrielle Chanel herself.

‘Coco’ Chanel in Paris, 1963, photograph by Michael Hardy. © Michael Hardy / Hulton Archive via Getty Images

“In this exhibition we’ve gathered a huge selection of amazing pieces from collections all over the world,” says Miren Arzalluz, the director of the Palais Galliera and the co-curator of the exhibition. “So while some of them, of course, are from our collection, a large part of this exhibition comes from the House of Chanel collection,” she says, referring to the maison’s comprehensive archive, which spans the 1910s to today. “They are the best of the best that we have come across,” she says. “We’ve never seen so many Chanel designs so representative of her whole body of work.”

Smart and confident, Chanel also had an innate understanding of women’s needs, as evidenced by the exhibition. Her ability to “read the room” in a world on the brink of enormous change led to some of her most iconic pieces. “Even before she started her career as a designer and as a couturier at the turn of the century, she created clothes for herself in order to understand what women wanted and what women needed during what was a very convulsive period in recent history,” says Arzalluz.

The experience of being a modern woman in a rapidly changing world informed the way Chanel approached fashion — and the way clients wore her clothes. In many ways, it was a revolution on a seemingly micro level that had a long-lasting impact. “Chanel helped change the relationship between clothing and the body,” says Danielle Whitfield, the gallery’s curator of fashion and textiles. “I wouldn’t say she’s the only designer to ever conceive of this concept but when we think of Chanel, we think of the principles of timelessness, simplicity and practicality.”

Suit 1970 spring–summer 1970 (detail) silk, wool, brass, metal. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Gift of Mavis Powell, 1986.
Suits spring–summer 1961 (detail) tweed, grosgrain with braid, gilded metal Patrimoine de CHANEL, Paris. Photography by Julien T. Hamon.

When Chanel introduced these modern concepts to haute couture in the early part of last century, it was novel; initially, she wanted to create a wardrobe for women that they could work and travel in. And while she did occasionally draw on existing designs (she took inspiration from menswear of the time, for example), her approach heralded a new era for women’s clothing, one free of the corsetry and restricted movement of the recent past. Along with this change in women’s silhouettes and their expectations of fashion, Chanel subtly challenged gender expectations. “She designed for a woman who, like her, had an active lifestyle, who was emancipated,” says Whitfield. “Chanel was self-made to an extent, she was independent, she had an incredibly successful business and she was the model for her own designs.”

Her work pushed couture to give women what they needed, says Whitfield: “Chanel brings a different set of principles about how clothing should look and how it should feel. She wanted to simplify the lines, making things comfortable and practical and serviceable.” Her modernist imperative for form and function reflected society’s general move away from the highly decorative landscape of Art Nouveau in favour of the clean lines and singularity of the Art Deco era. “She had quite an advanced, modern point of view, which continued to be very important and is still at the heart of the values of Chanel,” confirms Bruno Pavlovsky, the president of fashion at Chanel.

An eye for what was, at the time, an oxymoron — stylish, utilitarian clothes — led Chanel to experiment and pioneer design elements that still resonate today. Most famously and early on in her career, she began to work with fabrics such as jersey, traditionally used to make men’s underwear. It was hard-wearing and affordable, but Chanel also loved that it draped well and kept its form.

Chanel garment being packed at the Palais Galliera, Paris to travel to Melbourne for the Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto exhibition at NGV International, Melbourne Photography by Pierre Antoine.

In the same vein, she discovered the wearability and versatility of tweed (she held a fascination for the English countryside). In the early 1900s, tweed was used mainly for hunting jackets and men’s sportswear, and was considered too heavy and masculine for women’s clothing. By working with individual material manufacturers, Chanel created a softer tweed that was extremely comfortable yet still felt luxurious. Over the years she would experiment with colour and design, but tweed and jersey would retain hallowed status in her collections. “Mademoiselle Chanel was audacious in the way she mixed and matched her fabrics,” says Pavlovsky. “Not only was her style much more free but, on top of that, she was able to take all these new fabrics at that time and create something very special. She was not stuck. She was open and she was always trying something new in her designs.”

This outlook extended to dreaming up inventive ways to ensure garments hung well on the feminine form, but also felt comfortable. She managed to walk the line between ready-to- wear and couture with exquisite construction and hand-sewn elements. So, while there may be a “simplification of the line”, as Arzalluz calls it, and ease of use, the construction of her clothing is very sophisticated.

Having addressed some of the barriers to wearability, Chanel also began to revolutionise the way couture clothes related to the body. Of the classic Chanel suit, Arzalluz says, “One very specific technique she created was to build the shoulder in a way that you can raise your hand and your jacket stays in place, so you have absolute freedom to move as you wish.”

Other deceptively small tweaks that add up to a revolution in construction include cutting the sleeves just before the wrist in order to show off jewellery while retaining ease of movement. Chanel also designed the waistline of her dresses to sit lower on the hips, imparting a sense of liberation, while the length of the skirt, falling just below the knees, assured modesty and flattering lines. An added detail was chain-weighted hems that ensured the material hung perfectly with every wear. “There’s so many technical details that she masters precisely in order to offer women this ease, naturalness and freedom,” says Arzalluz. “That was really her priority when designing.”

This experimentalist tendency also led to Chanel pioneering a maximalist approach to embellishments including embroidery, sequins and feathers, using them in a way that didn’t compromise the simplicity of the silhouette. “In this exhibition you can see that even when she uses decorative elements, she does so in a very unique way. For example, with sequins, she covers a dress completely,” says Arzalluz. It’s never purely decorative. “She always adds another dimension to the way she uses traditional decorative elements.”

‘Coco’ Chanel at the Ritz Hotel (drawings by Christian Bérard and Jean Cocteau), 1937. Photography by François Kollar. Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine. © Jean Cocteau / ADAGP. Copyright Agency, 2021. Photo © Ministère de la Culture – Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / François Kollar. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Victoria.

Working with local artisans, or métiers d’art, Chanel produced her own knitwear and designed exclusive fabrics, overseeing the entire process from print to production. While Chanel wasn’t the only designer who had this kind of relationship with the métiers, she was the first to make sure their skills were preserved by supporting them and featuring their work prominently.

It is a symbiotic relationship that still exists today. The house has just opened the Rudy Ricciotti-designed le19M, a dedicated, purpose-built space in Paris’ 19th Arrondissement for the 11 maisons d’art the brand has acquired since the 1980s. Chanel will present its 2021/22 Métiers d’art collection at the new site on December 7. “Mademoiselle Chanel was one of the very first to partner with all the métiers to nourish this creative process,” says Pavlovsky. “And while this started with Mademoiselle Chanel, it continued to exist with Mr [Karl] Lagerfeld and still continues today with Virginie [Viard]. So, they are part of our ecosystem. We need their contribution. We need their know-how, we need their participation to be able to develop eight collections a year.”

Familiarity with the métiers allowed Chanel to innovate and create work that exemplified her point of view as a designer — something that evolved but never wavered, according to Arzalluz. She says of Chanel’s design journey: “All these principles were there from the very beginning, in the 1910s, and they were present throughout her career. She faithfully kept her work to the principles of elegance and style, as well as comfort, freedom of movement and the ability for a woman to be herself.”

That’s why, she says, this exhibition will excite fashion lovers; not only does it feature Chanel’s well-known designs, it also includes a range of early work, jewellery and accessories. “I think people will be shocked to discover the first period of Chanel’s life, because we all identify her work with the 1950s and ’60s, with the suit and the iconic designs of that time,” says Arzalluz, “but what I find fascinating are those early designs from the 1910s through to the 1930s. They are so beautiful and sophisticated.” Adds Pavlovsky, “We believe that this exhibition is quite important in Chanel history because, 50 years later, Mademoiselle Chanel and her vision of fashion is still at the heart of what we do today.”

A version of this article appears in print in our fourth edition, Page 36 of T Australia with the headline:
“All in the Detail”
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