Home Lifestyle Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel was the first superstar fashion designer, says V&A exhibition curator

Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel was the first superstar fashion designer, says V&A exhibition curator

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Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel was the first superstar fashion designer, says V&A exhibition curator

In addition to introducing revolutionary women’s clothing, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel embodied her brand in a way no other designer had before, a new exhibition highlights.

Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto – at the V&A Museum in London – traces the life and work of the famous French designer, born in the Loire Valley in 1883 and who was taught to sew by nuns in the orphanage where she was sent to at the age of 11, when his mother died.

“Before her, designers weren’t really known,” says Oriole Cullen, curator of modern textiles and fashion at the V&A. “Their names were known, but they were not visible figures within the company.”

Initially a dressmaker and cabaret singer, before establishing herself as a milliner, Chanel then turned to couture fashion and began creating casual clothing for women, inspired by the men’s fashion of the time.

“The Chanel brand as it is [today] is really based on these ideas that she introduced 100 years ago,” says Cullen, where the exhibition title comes from.

“The meaning of this is really about a model that Gabrielle Chanel defined at the very beginning of her career as a designer and to which she returned, reimagined and reinvented throughout her sixty-year long career.”

Bringing together nearly 200 outfits, the parade presents pieces from the opening of his first millinery boutique in Paris in 1910 until the presentation of his last collection, two weeks after his death in 1971.

Iconic designs on display include little black dresses, tweed suits and quilted leather handbags, the most iconic of which is the 2.55 bag.

“The 2.55 has never really gone out of fashion since she designed it in 1955,” says Cullen.

“It’s fascinating in terms of haute couture, that an object can hold its own for so long and still remain relevant.”

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Part of the upper echelons of French society, Chanel initially relied on wealthy lovers, such as former French cavalry officer Etienne Balsan and English polo player Arthur Edward “Boy” Capel, to finance her shops.

Later becoming a celebrity in her own right, she amassed a personal fortune, thanks to the success of her fashion, accessories and cosmetics lines.

“Chanel No5 perfume was introduced in 1921, but then introducing makeup in 1924 and skincare in 1927, she was really ahead of her time,” says Cullen.

“It was something she did because she was designing for herself.”

Chanel is credited with helping to free women from the corsets and long skirts that were de rigeur at the turn of the century, and for popularizing softer textiles, such as jersey.

“She cuts her clothes with high armholes, so you can raise your arms above your head,” Cullen continues. “She thinks about practical fabrics and skirt lengths that you can move in.”

The exhibition – originally held at the Palais Galliera in Paris in 2020 – highlights the brand’s links to the UK and Ireland through British Chanel Limited.

“This was an umbrella company established in 1932 to work with a wide range of British textile manufacturers,” Cullen explains. “Lace from Nottingham, cotton velvets from Manchester, wools from Huddersfield, but also sails and silks from Carlisle.

“One of the other companies she worked with was the Old Bleach Linen Company, based in Randalstown in Northern Ireland.”

Divided into 10 sections, the exhibition ends with a reconstruction of the mirrored staircase of Chanel’s Parisian workshop.

“Gabrielle Chanel used to sit at the top of the stairs when she gave presentations,” says Cullen.

“The models would come down and this faceted mirror would reflect the faces of the audience back to her, so she could read the mood of the room.”

Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto opens at the V&A Museum in London on September 16. Tickets available at vam.ac.uk/chanel.

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