Chanel Takes London With Major V&A Exhibition About the Designer’s Life

LONDON — In a grand cross-channel gesture that would have put a smile on Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel’s sun-kissed face, Chanel and the Victoria & Albert Museum have put on a show that explores the designer’s life, style and abiding love for Grande Bretagne.

“Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto” is the first U.K. exhibition dedicated entirely to the French fashion designer. It charts six decades of her career, starting with the opening of her first millinery boutique in Paris in 1910, and ending with her final show in 1971.

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On Tuesday night, the V&A welcomed VIP guests for a preview, with the exhibition opening to the public this Saturday and running until Feb. 25 at the museum’s Sainsbury Gallery.

“The V&A is probably one of the best institutions in the world and the exhibition offers a good direction. It’s easy to follow, and you don’t need to be an expert in Chanel to understand what’s happening,” said Bruno Pavlovsky president of fashion and president of Chanel SAS.

He added that Chanel would “benefit from the wider audience that the V&A attracts.”

Chanel has been digging deep into the U.K., transferring its global headquarters to London, and planning to show its next Métiers d’Art collection in Manchester on Dec. 7.

“The U.K., especially London, has always been a good partner to us as we continue to write the story of the brand,” he said in an interview ahead of the opening.

Pavlovsky declined to reveal any details about the Manchester show for now, but described the decision to show in the northern city as “audacious, interesting” and in keeping with creative director Virginie Viard’s creativity, and the house’s globetrotting strategy.

“We were in Los Angeles, we were in Dakar [Senegal], and this year we are in the U.K. We continue to engage our customers everywhere, and that’s the most important thing to me. A few weeks after the October show in Paris, we are going to Shenzhen for something very big. We try to be everywhere, but it always comes with a big focus on the local customers,” he said.

This year, the U.K. customer is front and center. “The fashion business in the U.K. after the pandemic has been performing quite strongly. We have seen a lot of locals back in the boutiques,” Pavlovsky said.

Chanel has also been investing heavily in the market. It is building an office, set to open in 2025, at 38 Berkeley Square to house its global headquarters, which it relocated to London from New York in 2018.

Designed by architects Piercy and Co. and to be constructed “to the highest standards of sustainability and accessibility,” the new building is more than double the size of the current Chanel headquarters in the Time & Life Building at 1 Bruton Street.

The Bruton Street headquarter is right next to the brand’s London flagship at 159 New Bond Street, for which it reportedly paid 310 million pounds in 2022.

During the interview, Pavlovsky also defended the brand’s decision to increase the price of its popular handbag styles multiple times since COVID-19 struck.

Most recently, the brand increased the prices of its Classic Flap bags by 6 percent to 8 percent in Australia, Japan and China on Sept 1. The bag is now being sold at $10,200.

Coco Chanel (1883-1971), the French fashion designer, ca. 1926. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel

“From a pricing position, we are at the top of the market for good reason, because of the material, and the sophistication. We have been very challenged over the past three years to be able to guarantee and supply the best materials.

“We also want to protect our customers. We don’t want to have the English or French prices being more or less expensive than in Japan or China. Our first and main target is our local customers. We don’t want people making money by buying in one country and selling in another,” Pavlovsky said.

Those looking to tap into Chanel’s style, however, don’t have to pay such a hefty price. Tickets for the exhibition cost 24 pounds, while the exhibition is free for V&A members.

The V&A show is based upon an exhibition of the same name, which took place at the Palais Galliera in Paris in 2020, although it’s different in several aspects, according to curator Oriole Cullen, head of modern textiles and fashion at the museum.

The show space is bigger and comes with a more elaborate set design, which took eight weeks to assemble. There is also an additional part that looks at Chanel’s personal and business connections to the U.K.; a section that showcases her luxurious cocktail suits, and a bigger space for the wide range of the brand’s custom jewelry.

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A Chanel Lambskin Double Flap Classic Shoulder Bag.

Some 100 new items have been added to the show, such as a painting of Chanel by Winston Churchill and a red evening gown made for Chanel by the Manchester Velvet Company. In total, the exhibition features more than 200 looks sourced from V&A’s own collection in addition to those from the Palais Galliera and the Patrimoine de Chanel, the heritage collections of the fashion house in Paris.

Chanel had strong links with Britain through her relationships with Arthur “Boy” Capel and subsequently Hugh Grosvenor, the second Duke of Westminster. The show also reveals that the designer had been sourcing cloth from Britain since the early 1920s, and by 1927 had set up a salon in London, offering garments tailored to a British audience.

In 1932, Chanel established British Chanel Ltd to work directly with U.K. textile manufacturers. She worked with Broadhead and Graves of Huddersfield to produce jerseys, wools and silks; Ellaness, the production division of the Lyle and Scott, on knitwear, and David Moseley on rainwear.

“We also added a section on stage and screen, because we have original costumes from ‘Le Train Bleu,'” Cullen said. The one-act ballet made its U.K. debut at the Coliseum Theatre London in 1924 and starred Lydia Sokolova, Anton Dolin, Bronislava Nijinska and Leon Woizikowsky.

Cullen said the V&A show also targets a much boarder audience than the original version.

“The Palais Galliera is a fashion museum in Paris. Their audience is very clued up about fashion. The V&A has quite a general audience, and people will go to all different types of shows. A lot of the feedback we had early on was who is Gabrielle Chanel? Is she related to Coco?” Cullen said.

“When you come into the show, there is a big timeline. Although this show is not biographical, it tells you who Gabrielle Chanel is, and puts her within her own timeline. We also try to create a sense of movement through the space. Because it’s a big exhibition, there’s a lot to see. And it’s important there is a bit of a rhythm. A lot of consideration went into [offering] the visitor a different experience,” she added.

The showstopper is the suit room, where 54 Chanel tweed suits are on display on a curved wall with two levels.

“It runs from a very muted neutral palette all the way through to incredibly bright colors, and it really reflects fashion in the ’60s and what Chanel was doing at the time,” Cullen noted.

Another V&A show highlight is the recreation of the mirror stairs in Chanel’s Rue Cambon haute couture salons at the end of the exhibition.

That part of the show focuses on Chanel’s eveningwear offering toward the end of her career, and there is one dress from the last collection she designed in 1971. The collection was presented two weeks after she died at the age of 87.

The exhibition doesn’t shy away from Chanel’s connection to the Nazis, and the role she played during World War II. It provides context and evidence from this period and acknowledges that Chanel’s activity during the war cast a shadow over her legacy. It has been the subject of a number of articles and publications for the past 70 years.

An underlying theme that Cullen hopes the professional audience will notice is how Chanel created the formula for the brand early on, and kept revisiting and reinventing key elements in order to keep up with the times. Those elements and house codes remain the backbone of the Chanel brand’s success.

In 2022, the company reported revenues gained 17 percent to $17.22 billion while operating profits rose 5.8 percent to $5.78 billion. Chanel ended the year with 32,116 employees and 565 boutiques worldwide, of which 262 were dedicated to fashion.

“The name Chanel is so known globally. It’s such a strong brand, but we would just like people to know a bit more about who was behind that name, and why her name is still relevant today,” Cullen said.

“What’s fascinating to see is that she’s the person who comes up with all of these codes and subsequently, there have been fantastic people like Karl Lagerfeld and Virginie Viard who would take that forward.

“If you look at the suits from her later career, you can see they are based on the tweed suits from the early times. There is this idea of being able to move in your clothing, and the fact that the jackets are cut very high in the arms,” Cullen said.

She added that the shoe prototype in the exhibition is “very recognizably ‘Chanel’ throughout the decades. The heel might get thicker, and the toe might get rounder, but it’s always visibly a Chanel shoe.”

Cullen was also the curator of the 2019 “Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams” exhibition, one of the most successful in the museum’s history. She anticipates that the Chanel exhibition will also be a great hit.

“They’re the two great names in French fashion, and it’s so lovely to have a comparison. But they are different types of shows. We’ve had a really nice response so far. We’ve sold the most pre-sales tickets that the museum has ever sold in history,” Cullen said.

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