Inside the spectacular Gabrielle Chanel – Manifeste de la mode, a retrospective of the work and heritage of the visionary French designer


Illuminated light frames lead guests down a long, track-like corridor in the monumental NGV Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion manifesto exposure. The panels are marked with important dates in the dressmaker’s life – 1909, when Chanel first opened a milliner’s shop; 1921, creation date of the Chanel N ° 5 perfume; 1955, when she made a quilted lambskin handbag and named it the 2.55 bag. The only thing missing from the timeline is December 4, 2021 – the opening date of this blockbuster exhibition in Melbourne.

Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion manifesto is the first exhibition in Australia to focus exclusively on the significant contribution of famous French fashion designer Gabrielle Chanel to 20th century fashion. The large exhibition comes straight from the Palais Galliera – the largest fashion museum in Paris, where it premiered in October 2020 – making its international debut.

“No one has presented an exhibition on Chanel’s work before [in Australia]Said Danielle Whitfield, curator of NGV. Large format sheet. “To be able to do it with [such] incredible depth and [encompassing all] the different practices of his career – beyond the iconic clothes that people know, to really look at his philosophy, his incredible sewing techniques, craftsmanship and approach from 1916 to 1971 – is a very big opportunity.

Minimalist lines lead guests through the space – an important element in the flow of the exhibition, as was the case in Chanel’s craft. “The design of the exhibition really echoes this language of understated, elegant and austere luxury,” says Whitfield. “For Chanel, fashion was the beauty of the line. But in the exhibition space, we use the line as architecture… and in the way visitors follow the story through the gallery spaces. Things are very clean and bare. We play with the house code, the colors black and ivory, and we refer to the stairs of rue Cambon by reflective panels and mirrors.

Rue Cambon in Paris is not only the address of Chanel’s flagship store and the street where Chanel opened its first hat shop, Chanel Modes, in 1910; it is also the address of his apartment. In large-scale looping videos, the designer can be seen surveying the catwalks from the mirrored staircase – a visual device that has become an icon in itself.

A 1939 evening gown – with vibrant appliquéd feather patterns – stands alone in an elevated display case. It is the centerpiece of a piece that has video footage revealing Chanel in the workshop during the process of draping the garment. We see her tweaking the design before it’s cut. Her seamstress sews feathers. Chanel has scissors and cloth hanging from the back of her neck, and she tears off pieces of feathers. It’s a pure example of the designer’s “less is more” approach and dedication to modern elegance, avoiding unnecessary extravagance in favor of subtle sophistication.

A white-tiled exhibit – like a life-size bathroom medicine cabinet – contains archival pieces from Chanel’s beauty line. Wooden soap boxes, travel cases for perfumes, cases for scented lipsticks or even empty tanning liquid bottles from the Pour L’Été collection from 1932, intended to promote the acquisition of tanned skin.

Chanel’s creative work has been influenced by her lifestyle. She was a pioneer who freed women’s bodies from the physical constraints of mainstream fashion, encouraging them to move more freely in their clothes. “When you look at some of Chanel’s clothes, [you see] these are clothes for doing things, ”says Whitfield. “When women wear these costumes, they have their hands on their hips, they are in motion and in motion. It is not this staged romantic setting. You can also see the marketing, the idea of ​​who it is for. It’s not just 70-year-old Chanel herself; it is for hollywood stars, first ladies and french movie stars.

The main part of the exhibition is a two-part set room. The models, lined up like the models would for a runway, wear dark curly woolen suit jackets and pants, cropped coats and skirts in pastel peach. A bright pink outfit attracts attention. An example of Chanel’s radical approach to materials, it is crafted in slub wool with an openwork weave that mimics the texture of tweed, but with a dynamic fuchsia and raspberry pattern. The costume belonged to Ms Mavis Powell, a loyal Melbourne-based Chanel customer who, for more than 40 years, stocked three wardrobes with Chanel clothing.

“When people think of Chanel… it’s either a little black dress, chic and understatement [or] the tweed suit, ”says Whitfield. “But much of the exhibit is incredibly feminine and romantic, with stunning lace dresses that use complicated construction techniques and piece panels, yet have a very airy and light quality. While browsing the exhibition [you see] nothing is ever heavy or bulky. There is such a level of refinement in the work, [and] you can trace that throughout his career.

Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion manifesto opens at the NGV on Saturday December 4. An audio guide, narrated by Tilda Swinton, is also available. See more details and buy tickets here.

Broadsheet is a proud media partner of NGV International.


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