Closed since July 2018 for expansion works costing €8.1 million financed by the City of Paris and the house of Chanel, Palais Galliera – which has housed the first permanent fashion museum in the capital since 1977 – reopened with an exhibition paying homage to Gabrielle Chanel that runs until March 14, 2021. On the exterior, the renovations helped to refresh 5,000 sqm of façades and to consolidate 320 balusters that had been weakened by the elements. But the major changes are inside with the new Gabrielle Chanel vaulted basement galleries in red brick and stone, which extends the museum’s exhibition spaces to nearly 1,500 sqm – twice as much as before – to present its own collections and organize more ambitious temporary events. Now in tribute to one of the greatest designers in the history of fashion, it is holding Gabrielle Chanel, Fashion Manifesto, the first-ever retrospective dedicated to Coco Chanel in Paris. Through the prism of her creative process, it honors the great couturière who died in 1971, exploring the birth of a timeless signature style and the relationship between the designer and her brand – the two ultimately forming a single entity.
Divided into 10 chapters, the exhibition retraces more then a half-century of creation, from 1910 until the end of the 1960s. At a time when Paul Poiret dominated the world of women’s fashion, Gabrielle Chanel set up shop in Deauville in 1912, then in Biarritz and Paris, and resisted the prevailing trends, proposing her own brand of femininity that proved to be a radical departure from what had come before. She reinvented traditional tailoring, was inspired by sportswear and translated the comfort, practicality, sobriety and elegance of the male wardrobe for women. Miren Arzalluz, director of Palais Galliera and exhibition curator, says, “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.”
To highlight this major figure in couture who had started her career as a milliner, Arzalluz and co-curator Véronique Belloir, Palais Galliera’s collection curator, chose to focus on the specifics of Gabrielle Chanel’s work on clothing, which had never been fully addressed. While there has been a lot of talk about her life, the curators wished to reveal the woman and her work because when you study her pieces carefully, you understand their uniqueness. Visitors come face to face with clean, understated designs without excess, light and floating fabrics like chiffon, tulle, organza and georgette, dresses of incredible simplicity that focus on the purity of the line, and flowing garments that respect women’s bodies and allow them to move with ease. On one hand, there is the way Coco Chanel created for herself, and on the other hand, there is the way she embodied her own brand and image. Women wanted to be like her. What she exuded – in terms of independence, ambition, youth and freedom of movement – is very present in the exhibition. She invented a style for the modern woman and remained faithful to it throughout her life, going against the trends of the era like Christian Dior’s corseted New Look. With Gabrielle Chanel, it was all a question of mastery. The dress was not an end in itself; it was always a dress made for women.
Never have there been so many Chanel pieces in one location. A black braided straw hat with a silk satin ribbon and a loose-flowing ivory silk jersey blouse open a presentation of over 350 pieces, mainly from the archives of the house of Chanel, but also the Palais Galliera collections and loans from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the De Young Museum in San Francisco, the Museo de la Moda in Santiago and the MoMu in Antwerp and private collectors from around the world. From austere luxury gowns and exuberant costume jewelry placed on the back of a sleeve, on the hip, on the shoulder or even on the top of a hat to the little black dress in lace, velvet, silk voile or nylon, two-tone sling-back pumps and the 2.55 quilted bag, the designs on display express the characteristics of a new esthetic. The emblematic pieces of the house – the tweed suit, leather accessories, costume and fine jewelry, including a diamond and platinum Comet brooch from 1932, and an original angular, minimalist bottle of Chanel No. 5 from 1921 with a number for a name (accompanied by the voice of screen icon Marilyn Monroe who famously said in a 1952 interview that she wore the legendary fragrance and nothing else to bed) – occupy dedicated rooms on two floors.
From her early days, Gabrielle Chanel had a revolutionary vision of feminine elegance that was diametrically opposed to the designs of her time. She donned her own creations, which reflected notions of fluidity and movement. In the museum’s main salon are a succession of day ensembles – including pieces she wore herself – and evening outfits from the Roaring Twenties, presented on specially-designed mannequins adopting the nonchalant posture typical of the designer and her models. There’s even an audacious 1930’s evening pant suit owned by American journalist Diana Vreeland, who went on to become editor-in-chief of US Vogue, which echoes the quintessential Chanel codes: masculine inspiration, the contrast between black and white, the use of lace and the monochrome flow of sequins. Set against a scenography dominated by black, minimalism and mirrors, tones of white, beige, gold and sober cuts are sometimes punctuated by notes of vivid red and midnight blue, floral motifs, refined embroideries and embellishments like sequins, beads, fringes and pearls. We sit down with Miren Arzalluz to discover what to expect from the exhibition.
Q&A with Miren Arzalluz, Director of Palais Galliera and Exhibition Curator
How did the idea for the Gabrielle Chanel, Fashion Manifesto exhibition come about?
My predecessor Olivier Saillard had already programmed an exhibition about Chanel back in 2016. It seemed absolutely relevant to present a retrospective about one of the most influential designers of the 20th century, which had never been done in Paris before. The idea of the exhibition is to analyze the work of the couturière to try to understand what this famous Chanel style is and why she is still today a reference in terms of fashion, a symbol of chic, allure, style, something indefinable but essential for fashion in Paris. “Fashion manifesto” refers to two significant moments when Gabrielle took a radical stand against the fashion of her time. First in the 1910s when she offered a new vision of feminine elegance based on principles such as comfort, simplicity, freedom of movement and naturalness. The second moment corresponds to her return in 1954 when she proposed her suit, which is the synthesis of the principles that she had established during the first part of her career.
Describe the quintessential Chanel style and how has it managed to remain relevant for over a century.
We believe that the enduring significance of Gabrielle Chanel’s work lies in the timeless premises that were inherent to her esthetic: ideas of comfort, naturalness, distinction and refinement that were perfectly balanced in her creations. Her designs intimately linked function and form, avoiding all unnecessary adornment. This resulted in the legendary allure of Chanel.
How did Gabrielle Chanel get the idea to draw inspiration from sportswear and the codes of masculine elegance?
By balancing comfort and distinction. This notion of comfort had never really been taken into account outside of so-called sportswear. She extended this notion to all times of the day. In fact, a principle of creation is where every detail is thought out to bring this comfort, a feeling of freedom while remaining elegant.
Tell me about the importance of the Chanel suit and how Gabrielle Chanel rejected a stereotyped expression of femininity, liberating women’s bodies.
The suit as she created it in 1954 is a synthesis of the great principles that guided her work from the beginning of her career. The general idea was always the same, and certain details and finishes, such as the assembly of the armhole, were developed by Chanel in the 1920s and 1930s. Conceived almost as design objects where form and function were intimately linked, nothing was left to chance. Everything was thought out in the smallest details to bring comfort, naturalness and distinction – notions not linked to fashion phenomena that are essentially ephemeral.
What is the significance of Chanel No. 5 that you devoted an entire room to it?
Chanel’s vision of women’s beauty was an extension of the principles that characterized her fashion designs. No. 5 was equally radical in terms of the simplicity of the bottle design, the fragrance and even the name. Once again, she opposed the fashion of her time with this radically different proposal.
Why did Gabrielle Chanel’s clothes show restraint, yet her jewelry was opulent?
Chanel as a free woman was not afraid of paradoxes. She used to mix precious jewelry and costume jewelry. Her creations often integrated a principle based on the opposition of one thing and its opposite. This principle is valid in all fields.
As a woman living in the early 20th century, how did Gabrielle Chanel manage to carve out a place for herself in a man’s world and have the courage to go against the existing fashion trends of her time?
She holds a special place in the world of haute couture: she had a radical vision of the way women dressed, understanding the needs and aspirations of the women of her time. She conceived garments that ensured freedom of movement and sophisticated elegance. She promoted her own idea of luxury for women, which resided in subtle and often unseen details. Her manifesto was particularly significant both in the 1910s and in the 1950s, when she chose an alternative way, opposed to the predominant fashions of the time.
What are some of the highlights presented in this exhibition?
Our choice was focused on iconic pieces, such as the jersey sweater or suit, and her Russia-inspired dresses and coats, but also on her lesser-known work, such as the chiffon dresses printed with floral motifs or her particular use of embroidery. We have also tried through our choices to show the continuity of her style in the spirit of freedom and comfort, the cut and construction, or even the range of colors she favored. For the first period, a highlight is perhaps a dress in silk crepe and matching stole entirely covered with long fringes in shades of blue from autumn-winter 1926. The idea might seem exuberant, but the balance of proportions, the movement induced by the material and the color give the whole something very special. In the 1920s, dresses were often covered with sequins and decorations, but in her case, her designs acquired the movement of a material. For the second period, a coat made in a soft ivory woolen fabric from the spring-summer 1954 collection. It was immortalized in a photo by Henry Clarke, which appeared in French Vogue. Suzy Parker wore it belted over a sports outfit. It has two large patch pockets with flaps, like the sleeves, and looks extremely comfortable, but is equally chic. And then how can we not talk about the suit that belonged to Mademoiselle Chanel. This is the very archetype of the tweed suit: the very supple jacket, two pockets, all structured by a small border in a contrasting color on the edge of the fabric – a detail that no fashion designer would dare to use in his day.
What were the main challenges of making this exhibition?
To measure how much Chanel’s creations formed a whole and participated in the unity of her style. The first thing to do was to understand her work, identify the axes that would allow us to grasp its specificity and then find pieces that illustrated this. We hope that the exhibition will provide a better understanding of what the famous Chanel style represents and why it is timeless. To grasp how special her position in the fashion world was: she never ceded to current trends, and the consistency of her vision and the relevance of her esthetics were always based on the same principle of balance between function and form.