Angela Cliffe steps into the world of Mademoiselle Privé, taking a private look at the Landmark Chanel exhibit at The Saatchi Gallery in London
She’s certainly a lady worth waiting for, and the queues stretching down the Kings Road day after day are testament to the magnetism that Chanel still holds. This counts for Julianne Moore, Vanessa Paradis, Stella Tennant and Kristin Stewart as much as it does for the rest of us who either have some connection with the fashion house, the lady herself or (and this is more than sufficient) a love for the clothes, accessories and style from the world of Chanel.
With each fresh incarnation that Karl Lagerfeld manifests, we are drawn into the world of Gabrielle Chanel from a different angle. Staying true to her legacy but illustrating the tapestry that made up her journey through fashion, the Saatchi Gallery exhibition presented visitors with a look inside Chanel’s personal world. Embracing the latest applications of social media, we were invited into an interactive experience on two levels where the rooms that we stood in were synched with the Mademoiselle Privé Ap to show a second layer of reality. We wound our way through fresh scented topiary gardens and past darkened pools of water to the doorway of the Saatchi Gallery – seemingly transformed into a country house in the middle of Sloane Square. Inside, the Coromandel screens of Gabrielle Chanel’s apartment eased guests into her world.
The entrance hall was a recreation of the original Chanel Salon, complete with mirrored staircase twinned with the sitting room of Mademoiselle Chanel in her apartment above the studio on the Rue Cambon in Paris. Hallowed ground for Chanel devotees and genuinely fascinating for anyone visiting with more than a passing interest in fashion.
It was something of a Chanel takeover with the exhibition covering all three floors of the gallery. Uniquely, Chanel offered a living glimpse into the world of their contemporary Atelier and Perfumery with bookable sessions by the specialist Metiers des Arts artisanal firms that they own including embroiderer Lesage; who since 2002 have been brought together to provide Chanel with specialist crafts. Not to be forbidding there was also a children’s perfume workshop reflecting the importance that the French place on bringing children up to appreciate fine fragrance.
This exhibition has a special resonance with Britain as it illustrates the close Gabrielle Chanel had to this country. Born and raised in the French Auvergne many British influences shaped her tastes in her early adult life and her relationship with Bendor Grosvenor, the second Duke of Westminster, was to bring her personally close to the textile producing areas of the north of England and Scotland as she gathered first-hand knowledge of technique and craft while moving between the Country Estates of friends. All of this inspiration made its way back to the Studio on the top floor of her building on the Rue Cambon with the infamous sign on the door ‘Mademoiselle Privé’.
The Place Vendome came to life in the form the of facetted jewel cut that inspired the Chanel No. 5 bottle and we were transported into the world of Chanel’s one and only Haute Joaillerie collection from 1932 that she created during her lifetime. One room contained a recreation Diamond necklace that was the same size as us guests! Once we had finally taken it all in, the dazzling play of light invited us to think more about the cut and techniques of the jewellery manufacture. Chanel today produce Haute Joaillerie in Paris twice a year – and as someone who’s seen their shows in past seasons, I can promise it’s a treat of genius craftsmanship.
Lions, numbers, textiles… Gabrielle Chanel’s interest in mysticism and symbols formed her code of style that has resonated and evolved in the years since her death. These ideas that she held precious now live on as key parts of the Chanel brand identity; reappearing from time to time within the new incarnations of the world of Gabrielle Chanel that Karl creates. Sculpture also had a prominent role in the exhibition and in a new expressive twist the hidden, often forgotten world, of the atelier was brought to life with a cavernous hall filled with beautifully woven white tweeds and light linens used for Toiles. It required us to muster maximum restraint not to touch and many of us didn’t quite manage it.
Cauldrons were simmering and bubbling away in an installation designed as a perfume laboratory with subtle reminders that many Chanel fragrances owe part of their origins to the French larder of herbs and flowers. Gabrielle Chanel travelled to the French heartland of perfume near Grasse to gather inspiration from the ancient perfume industry to formulate her early fragrances.
A fascinating and humorous part of the exhibition was a film in which Geraldine Chaplin played the ghost of Chanel, finding her way into the studio of Karl Lagerfeld. Many of us have wondered what Gabrielle Chanel would have made of the era of Karl Lagerfeld. To give form to these speculations Chanel presented a lively imagined dialogue between the two, at times funny, at times tense, with the dynamic of two very different personalities at work.
The scent of the indoor Privet Garden was like a breath of paradise that ushered you towards a beautiful gallery of Haute Couture evening-wear accessorised with Haute Joaillerie inspired by the classic 1932 collection. Stunning portraits of Chanel ambassadors bordered the walls showing the many guises of the house in its current incarnation under Karl Lagerfeld. With the models dressed for an evening out, the diamonds sparkled about the figures creating an aura of magic and mystery.
The opposite hall contained a gallery of the lightest translucent Haute Couture pieces lit up with neon light strips from inside. If ever there was an accidental metaphor for the power of beauty of women then surely this was it. Seeing fashion this way is to understand why many people view Haute Couture as a form of art.
Past, present and future combine in a smooth cocktail that was as effortlessly imbibed as the scent of the indoor topiary garden perfuming the air.
What a treat to see a contemporary window into Chanel’s inspirations referencing the life-long affection she had for the British Isles, and honouring her free-spirited sense of exploration and creative desire. Chanel’s energy lives on in the 21st century still looking for new worlds to conquer.