Gabrielle Chanel at Galliera, a stark approach to fashion

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Dress and coat ensemble, Spring Summer 1963, multicolored mohair tweed by Linton Tweed, raspberry silk twill with navy print, Pari sPalais Galliera

I was incredibly lucky to be asked by Pierre Provoyeur, former director of the museum of fashion at MAD, to the opening of “Gabrielle Chanel, Manifeste de Mode“, the exhibition which inaugurates the new Chanel galleries at Palais Galliera. Olivier Saillard, the artistic director of the show who instigated this partnership with the Couture house a few years ago, started his career with Provoyeur. Life goes in a circle. Véronique Belloir, who did the in depth research in narrow collaboration with the Chanel curators, also worked with Provoyeur at MAD. As an art historian and specialist of fashion, he was the best guide to outline the fabrics, the influences in design and the intellectual approach to fashion that Chanel had. The show is the largest ever (1 500 sq m, 350 pieces including 167 clothes), realized on her life with the oldest piece dating from 1916. It is quite dark and disciplined.

Day dress, between 1926 and 1928, Ivory crepe de Chine with rust print Paris, Patrimoine de Chanel © Julien T. Hamon

We were so curious to see the new galleries under the courtyard (total cost for the works was over 8 million €) that we started with the end of the exhibition and discovered a true Ali Baba cave. A circular path (galerie courbe) takes you around  and each window is impeccably designed to fit the width of the passage. There, dresses, suits and coats are quietly aligned in the dark and when you have emerged from this tunnel-like gallery, you find a central room where glittering accessories and jewelry are exposed in a huge flat showcase. Often inspired by artifacts from the Louvre, they were designed by Robert Goossens, Fulco di Verdura, Madame Gripoix, François Hugo… and belong to the house of Chanel. The famous bag 2.55 and perfume N°5 each have a special space. I found the whole visit slightly claustrophobic and depressing but each model is fascinating in technique and style.

Dress, 1960, ivory cotton tulle embroidered with cotton and gold thread, gold lamé, white organdy, ivory silk crepe, gift from Chanel to Palais Galliera

Back to the first floor and the entrance to the exhibition with exceptional dresses from 1930. The refinement of the sewing around the fabric, the surimpression of lace and patterns, the lightness of silk chiffon, broderie anglaise, are fascinating. I particularly liked the green day dress and coat ensemble which mixes green wool and silk chiffon and was lent by Fundacion Museo de la Moda in Santiago de Chile. A little cotton handbag very inspired by cubism in the late 1920’s was lent by MAD. The different photographs of Gabrielle Chanel projected on fabric throughout the exhibition are difficult to see but I admired the fact that there are no videos nor fashion shows. I regret that the large space was not better used: you enter a sort of corridor and never have a view of the entire room. And everything is in the dark. The scientific research for this show took over the glitter of the fashion.

Afternoon dress, Spring summer 1930, white silk chiffon with pale rose and brown print, Palais Galliera, gift from Madame Bertin

In the 1930’s Chanel created dresses which discreetly accentuated the female form. Harmony of proportions and quest for simplicity. She drew an allure, encouraging freedom with a lightness of the fabric enriched by lace and tulle. There is an extreme dream quality in these early models, some of which are not behind glass, so you can see precisely the details in which  they were made. I wished suddenly that a lady from the Haute Couture studios could have been with us to explain the different stitches, cuts and pleats of each clothe. Two dresses from 1929, in pink and blue are especially striking. The silk tulle is embroidered with paillettes which gives it a fluid and glittering effect.

Cotton tricolor handbag, 1920-30, Musée des Arts Décoratifs

This large exhibition is another miracle produced at the moment in Paris but I have to admit that I found it very dark. The black decor and the dim light, an obligation for the preservation of fabric, make it stark and austere. We are far from the fun and glamour of the Fortuny or Ayala exhibitions produced by Olivier Saillard in his time. Is it due to Chanel? or to an extreme desire of sternness coming from the decorators of the show?

Jacket, blouse and skirt tailleur, Spring-Summer 1964, navy and white checked tweed, navy printed white silk twill, Paris, Palais Galliera © Julien T. Hamon

What is to be admired, are all the windows downstairs which will remain for the permanent collection, the labels and signs which are all perfectly designed. The huge research work made in common by Patrimoine Chanel and the curators of Galliera and the fantastic collaboration which they shared. But do not go there with light feet: it is quite hard work to try and understand the evolution of Gabrielle’s style and her “vision” is not an optimistic one.

Booking is mandatory, until March 14. Palais Galliera.

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4 Comments on “Gabrielle Chanel at Galliera, a stark approach to fashion”

  1. I also felt daunted by the extreme darkness. I wished I’d a flashlight. Yet the utter delicacy and complexity of her designs blew me away. Clearly she was a genius at gauging what was right for the times and creating wearable works of art of the utmost finesse. Particularly the 30’s dresses impress.

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