Most Australians are likely to be familiar with Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, or at least with the luxury fashion empire that bears her name. But the National Gallery of Victoria’s major summer exhibition for 2021, Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto, aims to throw that familiarity into doubt.
That is exactly what the show did last year when it made its debut at the Palais Galliera in Paris. Fashion Manifesto was the first pandemic-era exhibition for the venerable fashion museum, which had reopened after extensive renovations. It was also the first large-scale retrospective of Chanel’s work in the city she mostly called home.
The Melbourne iteration, opening 5 December, will be the exhibition’s first outside Paris – and also marks the first time the designer has received the museum treatment in Australia.
All these firsts, about such a well-known name, made pulling the show together a high-stakes proposition for Miren Arzalluz, director of the Palais Galliera and the exhibition’s co-curator. “It is a challenge … because it’s doing a retrospective about a legend,” she says. “We didn’t want to do just a spectacular.”
Whipping up a confection of pearls, pink tweed and white camellias would have been a disservice to a creator whose essential qualities were rigour, subtlety and practicality – not just beauty.
So instead the exhibition is about “really respecting the universe and the vision and the design … in the largest sense of the word”.
It will feature hundreds of garments, jewels and objects spanning Chanel’s work in the 1920s and 30s, her re-emergence in the 50s right through to her death in 1971.
Pieces include a jersey dress made in 1916 (a time when the comfortable and forgiving fabric was only being used for underwear), romantic 30s evening gowns, and plenty of the suits and black dresses for which she is best known.
What the exhibition does not touch on, says Arzalluz, is Coco Chanel’s life story.
“This is what everyone everybody knows about … I mean, there are over 100 biographies,” she says.
The only biographic detail included – a fact “too sensitive to not mention” – is Chanel’s 1944 arrest after the liberation of Paris, and her interrogation as a Nazi collaborator.
Chanel’s history with the Nazi party may surprise many Australian museum goers, but Arzalluz says: “In Paris we have been talking for six years only about the war and the occupation. As a public museum we thought we couldn’t ignore this fact. But this was the only exception.
“At the end of the day she invented different versions of herself and it is always difficult to get the right facts.”
Arzalluz says excluding all but that single detail of Chanel’s life, from her traumatic childhood to her many lovers, “was not a way to avoid problems, because we haven’t”.
Instead, the show “is really about her work”. It is the story of this work, not the woman, that Arzalluz hopes will yield the real surprises.
“We feel, even ourselves, that most people have a very superficial knowledge of her work. And we sort of repeat the same cliches … there is a black dress and suit. But it’s so much more than that, and so much more diverse and sophisticated and beautiful.”
Arzalluz expects the designer’s jewellery, for instance, to be particularly novel. Social media is littered with the Chanel quote, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off,” so to see that, as Arzalluz says, “even when she wore jewellery, there’s not one piece, it was like, five, you know, she wore it in accumulation” might raise eyebrows.
“She’s someone who’s not interested in history,” Arzalluz says. Unlike her 50s peers Christian Dior and Hubert de Givenchy, “she never looked back for inspiration … she was not inspired by the 18th century, the 19th century … But her jewellery pieces went completely the opposite way, with such a sharp contrast.”
They drew from the Byzantine empire, from medieval religious ornamentation: “She combined the austerity and the rigour of the black dresses with this almost baroque style of jewellery, which is very impressive.”
As for the clothes, a technical prowess “where every element has a function” comes through. Arzalluz gives the example of Chanel’s suits, which will be on ample display. Chanel laboured to ensure the cut was just-so, so that when the wearer raised her arm, the jacket would remain still.
“The idea of that focus on comfort and mobility, particularly in that very … early period of her work was really a radical departure for women’s wear, and sort of continued to be one.”
Chanel’s sharp adherence to codes throughout her career, in a fashion world obsessed with constant change, is also notable.
Those codes can be challenging to articulate, because many of her signatures have become commonplace. The designer established a language that persists, even dominates, to this day.
“This is always the hardest thing when you’re talking about an avant-garde designer who has made a radical, alternative way or proposition that has impacted fashion …it’s always difficult to convey this idea of practicality,” Arzalluz says.
Whether Chanel’s precision, pragmatism and futuristic outlook will be interpreted as an emancipatory project for women more used to clothes that confine; as a flirtation with fascist principles articulated in cloth; or something altogether more complex than either of those stories will be left to museum goers to decide.
In staging Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto, Arzalluz says: “It is the objects that tell the story.”