Chanel Always, As Water Lillies, Feathers Flowers, and Sequin Strokes Paints an Haute Couture That’s Not Different But Not the Same
By Long Nguyen
It is not by chance that Chanel staged its first haute couture live show in the small hemicycle courtyard of the Palais Galliera, recently renovated as the museum of fashion by the Ville de Paris.
Inside the Palais Galliera on the first floor and in the new ground-level exhibition area is the final week of the Gabrielle Chanel Manifeste de Mode. This solo exhibition is the first extensive retrospective documentation on the work of the founding designer as the embodiment of the brand that bore her name and the counter-revolution of her ideas in clothes that lay the foundation for modern fashion.
That foundation was and is still how to dress an independent and active woman with inventive sartorial experimentation, creativity, and innovation deeply rooted in the reality of a mobile lifestyle fully immersive in the cultural events of the day.
Forms and functions were at the core of Gabrielle Chanel’s approach to the kinds of clothes she would make and wear herself. She combined the crudest jerseys to the most elegant silks and embroideries in silhouettes displaying both masculine and feminine tendencies in garments serving as counterpoints and holding a mirror to her era’s prevailing standards.
The models paraded out in the open courtyard in their new tweed suits – now rendered for this fall couture with slight shoulder structure, two buttons double breast in sparkle violet tweeds, or light grey fringy wool tweeds both paired with above the knee skirt. Downstairs inside the glass encasements of the museum were the original suits from starting in 1954 when the more rigid New Look was still the shape of suits considered the high fashion standard at the time.
“It was when I discovered these portraits of Gabrielle Chanel dressed up in black or white 1880s-style dresses that I immediately thought about tableaux. Works by Berthe Morisot, Marie Laurencin, and Édouard Manet. There are impressionist=inspired dresses, skirts that look like paintings and a long white satin dress punctuated with black bows like Morisot’s …” Virginie Viard, the creative director, said of the point of departure for this concise fall couture show with an excellent array of fine clothes. The live show had a tiny audience of fewer than 100 people in the courtyard of the Palais Galliera.
This idea of injecting a bit of colorful impressionist art into making the clothes allows Viard to break apart the Chanel classic suit and pair the new jackets with a variety of skirts, a few in the colors of the paintings of life scenes the late nineteenth-century Paris.
Making these impressionist paintings come to life meant mixing clothes with a turn for colors. Like light pale blue chiffon feather dress with colorful floral corset top, black coat with myriads of flowers embroidered all over paired with a pastel floral dress, or the bright yellow collared chiffon short sleeve long dress.
“Because I love seeing color in the greyness of the winter. Because I love seeing a colorful collection that was very embroidered, something warm. There are dresses embroidered with water lilies, a jacket in black tweed crafted from feathers with red and pink flowers. I was also thinking about English gardens. I like to mix a touch of England with a very French style,” Viard said.
The Chanel tweed jacket and coat still anchor this collection, but they are less formal than past seasons. The original suits meant to make women’s lives easier and more mobile, as demonstrated forcefully in the basement of the Galliera museum with the lineup of suits, these classic Chanel jackets, and the skirts as worn in real life. This time the designer suggests the skirt suits as separate garments and not always paired together as a skirt suit in this fall collection. This mixture allows for a more excellent range of looks combining the more structured jacket silhouette with the softer skirt like the grey tweed jacket with brown chiffon tiered floor-length skirt with multicolor plume layered trims.
Viard is demonstrating the versatility of the Chanel tweed jacket by pairing them with different bottoms – long tiered skirts, pants, A grey/white pattern tweed jacket with patch pockets has black organza short pants instead of a pair of matching tweed trousers. A red plaid tweed cardigan tweed lean jacket has a dark grey layered ruffle long skirt, and a dark olive stripe tweed skirt suit has a soft pink midriff tank underneath.
These stark minimalism of the jackets reminded the strong shoulder shapes from the Fall 2017 Haute Couture collection shown under the giant partial Tour Eiffel remake inside the Grand Palais. The classic jacket took on a more rigid structure, except that the jackets are not as skinny and lean as then. The present-day boxier shape signals a more comfortable mood today. These jackets are sturdy but not severe.
These mismatched outfits say that Chanel’s thinking about how women want to dress in this supposedly new era is one of the more quiet wardrobe choices, at least in haute couture. There is nothing in this fall collection that spells overt ostentatious; in fact, even the white evening dress is tiered ruffle and white embroidered flower sleeveless dress or white and black floral strappy long dress a white brim oversized fedora. The embroideries are subdued not loud.
Then, the soft and straightforward light pink chiffon dress seems as light as a nightgown rather than a day dress, and the series of pale celadon and black chiffon blouses with matching knee-length culottes. These reminded me from the museum show of how intimate the clothes were to the house founder, with so many images of her wearing the garments she created in this personal way.
But the three white pantsuits – a one-button long slim fitted long jacket, a dropped lapel front button, and an above-knee slight flare coat – seems at odds with the more rigid and structured jackets and coats in the rest of the collection. These shapes are radically different from the dominant broader shoulder boxier jackets and skirts or pants in the opening section.
These three pantsuits offer contrasting silhouettes against the more rigid ones. But this is a constant in Viard’s work, especially in haute couture, where she would have one or two odd looks in the show. For example, in the spring 2021 haute couture show, there was one pantsuit, officially labeled as look 20, with broad shoulder and a boxy fit shape that was not present in other looks of the collection that at the time looked odd, but this shape is now prevalent in this fall couture show.
Perhaps these three lean and straight shape is something Viard has been thinking about but not yet firm on them at this point. It may be interesting to see in January that these streamlined shapes will appear for Spring 2022. But, they continue the idea of Chanel each season as a not different but not the same collection.
These seasonal changes only reinforce the central idea and the central signature of Chanel.
I watched the digital broadcast that delayed until 15:00 Paris time instead of live streaming as in previous seasons, perhaps in acknowledgment of the fact that it would be 21:00 prime time in Shanghai and 9 AM in New York. At least in haute couture, there isn’t any comparison of seeing the clothes live than seeing them via a screen.
Missing in the digital presentation are the elements that make the clothes alive. The density of the fabrics, the softness of the chiffon, the vivid colors of the flowers embroidered on a cardigan jacket with a grey and black lace and tulle long skirt all of these details emanating from the garments cannot feel in any way on a flat-screen.
More critically are the models’ gestures, like the small movements of the models’ hands brushing against their tweed jacket and a long skirt that bring the clothes to life. One model nearly missed a step on the concrete staircase – the leading center entryway to the museum, but she gave the intimate audience a big smile and thus connecting on a human level with us sitting and watching her. These small human interactions did not look at the artfully done digital show broadcasted in the mid-afternoon. Fashion, especially haute couture, is a very human enterprise.