“Working, creating incessantly, always inventing, doing, in a few words, our craft that has nothing to do with eternity,” Gabrielle Chanel, Marianne 1933
Ten million USD went into the two-year-long renovation of Paris’s fashion museum, the Palais Galliera, located in the upscale 16th arrondissement. Both the city and the maison Chanel funded the work, which saw the museum double in size. It reopens to the public today, and with a “Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto” temporary exhibition covering nearly 1500m2 to welcome visitors. With over 350 pieces curated from the Palais Galliera collections and Patrimoine de Chanel from international museums around the world and private collections it features an incomparable fashion vocabulary where jersey daywear, silk evening gowns, tweed suits, jewelry, and of course, original flacons of Chanel Number 5 speak the language of timeless style.
In an exclusive conversation with Bruno Pavlovsky, president of Chanel fashion, he conceded that though Chanel could very well open its own dedicated showspace in Paris, “we are stronger together and I prefer to let the Chanel specialists play with the patrimony rather than look at ourselves.” And so, it is in the rooms christened Gabrielle Chanel, and in the newly opened vaulted cellars that pieces spanning the twenties and thirties, but also the fifties and sixties, have been curated by Miren Arzalluz, director of the Palais Galliera and Véronique Belloir, collection curator. “It’s a Chanel vision, to be a part of something rather than to be isolated,” Pavolvsky affirms. “I had a chance two weeks ago, to have a long visit of the exhibition with Miren and Virginie [Virginie Viard, creative director Chanel]. Miren is a historian, and to listen to how she talks about Chanel, what she sees and how she perceives it is very interesting.” Pavolvsky states that remaining relevant to future generations is down to “creation, creation, creation. What fashion does well is play with the codes of the past in a way that is meaningful to the generations of the future,” he says. Here, what you see, is that what Chanel created is a style. It’s a chance, and an honor to have such a history and for its designers to nourish the myth.”
Monochrome colors, particularly white, black, beige, navy, gold, and sometimes red, allow for the eye to peruse the construction of the garments, which always allowed for movement. Chanel made “casual” couture daywear with light, noble fabrics but also common ones, like wool and tweed. She infused her clothes with freshness by splashing them with an abundance of flowers, which, along with jewelry were her only sartorial excess. There is an uncanny similarity in the simplicity of Chanel’s designs from the Twenties and Thirties and Viard’s designs of today. Pavlovsky remarks that during these uncertain times, ready-to-wear is what women are gravitating towards at Chanel.
On the subject of jewels, guests at the exhibition will be invited to descend into the vaulted cellars of the Palais Galliera where tray after tray overflow with jewels that served as the perfect contrast to the simplicity of her clothing designs. Strings of pearls, brooches, and bracelets, a blend of real and faux, feature her special codes—the lion, an ear of wheat, the star, sun, or cross. In another room, the brooches are pinned in unfamiliar places, boldly drawing the eye to the waist, hip, or a shoulder. Chanel called on a skilled network of jewelers, from Count Etienne de Beaumont to Fulco di Verdura, Maison Gripoix, François Hugo, and Robert Goossens to create her pieces that she used to joke came from under the ground of rue Cambon.
“I willingly cover myself in jewelry because on me they always look fake. The folly of wanting to dazzle makes me sick; a piece of jewelry should cause astonishment at most, not envy. It should remain an ornament and an amusement,” Gabrielle Chanel, L’allure de Chanel 1976
There are plenty of surprises to be discovered throughout the exhibition—a suit belonging to Princess Grace of Monaco and another belonging to Marlene Dietrich. There is a sparkling, little black dress worn by Romy Schneider, and its androgynous trouser counterpart worn by Vogue editor Diana Vreeland. In another room, the voice of Marilyn Monroe fills the air as she proclaims that “it’s the truth” that she sleeps in Chanel No. 5 perfume.
And yet, it’s the timelessness of the dresses that remains in the memory long after the names of celebrities’ fade. A woman on the move is forever elegant. Chanel, who worked until the last days of her life, when she bid the world adieu from her apartment at the Ritz, knew it better than anyone. Karl Lagerfeld, her predecessor, worked every day of his life until the very end. This ethos of “doing” lives on today at Chanel. “The way to do business this year is like nothing we have ever seen before. We had many discussions about what we should do—should we go ahead with the exhibition or not?” recalls Pavlovsky. “Of course, we will not have as many people enjoy it as we would have liked,” he concedes. “Although, we do hope that in time, it will travel. What we decided, ultimately, is that what is important is that we do something. Let’s not wait another day to live.”
Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto. Palais Galliera, Paris opens today