High fashion and high art—the line between the two has always been a little blurry. In each discipline, the goals are similar: to push boundaries, show possibilities, challenge existing assumptions, and introduce wholly new ideas.
So it is with the new exhibition from the house of CHANEL, titled Gabrielle Chanel, Manifeste de Mode, or “Fashion Manifesto,” a retrospective look at the style, the work, the ideas, and the legacy of the founder of the famous fashion house, one of the most accomplished and influential designers the world has ever seen.
Open now until the end of March 2021, the exhibition is hosted by the Palais Galliera in Paris, the city’s official museum for both the items and the industry of haute couture. The exhibition features over 350 examples of Chanel’s oeuvre, or body of work, spanning the breadth of her career, from her early years establishing her house at 31 rue Cambon to her final designs before her passing in 1971. In addition to a number of pieces from the house’s own collection, the exhibition brings together pieces from a number of international museums, including London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, the de Young Museum in San Francisco, the Museo de la Moda in Santiago, Chile, and the MoMu in Antwerp, Belgium, as well as a number of private collections.
All the iconic examples of Chanel’s signature chic are there: the padded 2.55 bag (so named for the date of its creation, February 1955); the “little black dress” from the 1920s, a couture staple now considered so essential that it’s often referred to simply by acronym; a myriad of accessories, jewellery, and shoes, a good portion of it festooned with the ubiquitous interlocking double “C”; and the famous perfume formulation that redefined an entire industry when it was introduced in 1921, and remains one of the world’s top-selling scents fully 100 years later.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the Fashion Manifesto exhibition, however, is the ten photos of the designer herself. Arranged throughout the galleries, one for each chapter of the exhibition, the photos function as a chronicle of the designer’s developing style, capturing not only the fashion sense and personal mystique of Coco herself, but also the degree to which Chanel the designer and CHANEL the brand were one and the same, with the creator not only wearing her own creations, but fully embodying the spirit implicit within them.
Strolling through the exhibition, it’s hard not to get the sense that the key word here is “manifesto.” Taken as a whole, the exhibition makes clear that Madame Chanel intended not only to make exquisite clothes, but to make a statement. Perhaps more than any other designer, Chanel’s creations were informed not only by a sense of style and good taste (although she had plenty of both), but a kind of philosophy—a distinct vision of what women’s fashion was, what it should be, and the difference between the two.
While the free-flowing elegance in the various pieces seems classic today, it’s difficult to overstate how radical this vision of elegance was 70 years ago. Instead of the stuffy, button-down designs of the pre-war era, or the heavily embellished fussiness of Christian Dior’s post-war “New Look,” Chanel’s easy, free-flowing pieces presented women with distinctly different ideas: that a light, easy style could be seriously chic. That freedom and allure could indeed go hand in hand. That the clearest expression of luxury is simplicity.