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A Major Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel Exhibition Just Opened In Paris


Opening on 1 October in Paris, for the first time ever the creations of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel herself feature in their very own exhibition. At Palais Galliera, Gabrielle Chanel: Manifeste de Mode gathers more than 300 designs from the couturier’s own hand – including full looks and costume jewellery – and celebrates the refurbishment of the museum by the city of Paris in collaboration with Chanel.

Lee Miller wearing a Chanel outfit with a hat by Caroline Reboux. Photo published in Vogue, July 1928, photographed by Edward Steichen.
© Edward Steichen, Vogue, Condé Nast

At a press preview during Paris Fashion Week, Bruno Pavlovsky, the brand’s Fashion President, discussed the project, which has been six years in the making. “We agreed with Karl on the principles of this exhibition. It’s something he wasn’t against,” Pavlosky recalled, referring to Lagerfeld, who died in February 2019. “It was not about him, but about what existed before him. For me it’s very meaningful to see how strong Karl is compared to what we see in this capacity; how he was able to re-interpret and modernise what [Gabrielle Chanel] did. But, also, to open a little bit the perimeter of what she did, if I may say. Karl was the first to understand how powerful it was, what she had done.”

Dorothy and Little Bara dressed as a priest. Published in Vogue Paris, October 1960, photographed by William Klein.
© William Klein


Entering the exhibition, each look gently spot-lit in blackened-out rooms, you’re inescapably hit with that realisation. Not only does every garment look as it if was sewn yesterday (the restoration efforts are impeccable) but nearly every silhouette in the work of Chanel’s founder – ranging from the 1920s to the early ’70s – feels as if it could have been designed for the contemporary age: cool and casual lines, sophisticated fabrications, and glamorous surface decorations that never feel fusty.

A red silk chiffon evening gown from the autumn/winter 1970 collection.
© Julien T. Hamon

It’s an extraordinary thing to see, and one that has to be experienced. Curated by Miren Arzalluz, director of Palais Galliera, it is testament to the timeless and everlasting genetics it takes for a brand like Chanel to become Chanel. “For me, it’s about how modern and contemporary her style is today, even if it took place between 1920 and 1970. I think it’s incredible,” said Pavlosky, who first visited the exhibition with Lagerfeld’s successor Virginie Viard.

Black cotton cloqué and black organza dress, autumn/winter 1964, and black chiffon and black silk satin dress with turquoise pâte de verre and rhinestone details, spring/summer 1959.
© Julien T. Hamon

“Some of the looks could have been designed by Virginie. You feel the proximity, if I may say. You see Karl, but also Virginie today. There’s a red thread between all these people that makes the brand as strong as it is today.”

Chanel contributed some seven million Euros to the refurbishment of the Palais Galliera, which now holds a salon with the name Gabrielle Chanel engraved into its wall, and becomes the first permanent fashion museum in the city. “As soon as we had decided to participate in the renovation, we wanted to have the exhibition. But first and foremost, it is quite important for Paris to get such medium for fashion, with such developed archives,” Pavlovsky said, referring to the museum’s collection of historical fashion.

Adding that this was the Galliera’s exhibition as opposed to Chanel’s, he explained that it was also the museum’s idea to focus solely on the Gabrielle Chanel. “She stopped in ’71, before Karl, before the Chanel you know today. I think that’s quite important to see. It’s very important for the brand to see its foundations. It’s the first time you see the consistency and the modernity of her style.”

Gabrielle Chanel and Suzy Parker dressed by Chanel, Paris, January 1959, photographed by Richard Avedon.
© Richard Avedon Foundation

Through the founder’s strict modernity, the exhibition provides a glimpse into the mind of a woman lightyears ahead of her time; a woman who freed the female body from corsets, adopted elements of menswear, and created a truly progressive look. From a present-day perspective, might you call her a feminist? “She garnered a lot of this value,” Pavlovsky said. “She could have been a woman of today: free. She said what she wanted, she did what she wanted. She was already quite autonomous in her way of building her life. She was a businesswoman, she was an artist, she was connected with all the people of her time. She was, in fact, before the time of social media, very modern in her way of interacting.”

Asked if there is anything he would like to ask Gabrielle Chanel given the chance, Pavlovsky smiled. “Any conversation you could have with her would be quite interesting! But in fact, it would be quite interesting to ask her about her goals in life.”

Marie-Hélène Arnaud in a Chanel suit. Published in Vogue US, March, 1958, photographed by Henry Clarke.
© Henry Clarke / Galliera / Rog


From British Vogue

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