Chanel’s Mademoiselle Prive exhibition, currently at London’s Saatchi Gallery (until 1 November) is a total Chanel immersion. Those who are already fans will revel in it but there’s also something here for the uninitiated. This show gives us the woman behind the brand. Though never explicitly shown, the orphanage of Obazine lurks in every gilded room. Chanel created herself and she created a myth, driven by the extreme hardship of her childhood. Her defiance, her uncompromising vision and her appreciation of art and artisans come across in every room.
The show also highlights the work of two of Chanel’s Metiers d’Art artisans – Lesage the embroiderer and Lemarie, provider of feathers and flowers. Two more posts will follow, focusing on their extraordinary work.
The whole show has been beautifully staged. You enter by a small hallway whose walls depict Chanel’s Coromandel screens – the lacquered black and gold opulence with which she surrounded herself in her Ritz apartment.
We are reminded that, like her fellow female couturier Jeanne Lanvin, Chanel started as a milliner. This was tantamount to being an all-round stylist in today’s terms. In the early twentieth century hats were an essential item, around which one built an outfit, as well as being a status item rather like handbags today.
After hats, came the clothes and the famous jersey suits and little black dresses. Then on 1 November 1932, Chanel presented her first (and only) fine jewellery collection in her own apartment. The diamond-encrusted ‘afternoon’ jewellery was shown on wax models and pinned on berets, fur hats and capes. Over the course of the month, 30,000 visitors came and went, mesmerised and somewhat scandalised by the glitz and the total estimated value of 93 million francs.
The stones had come from the International Diamond Guild, keen to promote sales. Chanel had worked on the designs with the illustrator Paul Irbe (her lover as well as design collaborator) and had drawn inspiration from the night skies and her own world of couture: star-bursts, comets, bows, feathers.
Re-created by Chanel’s modern-day fine jewellery artisans, we see them here, tantalisingly close. Mannequins in Haute Couture wear the jewels and stand on a raised podium, protected by an elaborate alarm system and an array of black-clad men that emerge from the shadows if it is set off (and it is – no one can resist moving in for a close-up photo).
The Haute Couture is displayed to magnificent effect. Translucent lace dresses on crystal mannequins lit from within show us inside and outside simultaneously. Don’t they say that an Haute Couture garment is as beautiful on the inside as on the outside? Here is the chance to see for ourselves. These dresses seem to hover in mid-air like supernatural beings, a breed apart from the mortal visitors surrounding them. Black lace, tulle, gold chains, embroidered and embellished surfaces combine to exceptional effect.
This is a breath-taking show, not to be missed so if you are in London, be sure to see it at the Saatchi Gallery before 1 November. If not, you can still catch some of the sense of it online here.
Coming next – posts on Lesage, supplier of Chanel embroidery, and Lemarie, creator of feathers and the famous Chanel camellias. What is it like to work behind the scenes creating Haute Couture and how do they survive in the 21st century?