Even those without an active interest in fashion will be familiar with some of Chanel’s motifs. The quilting, the crossed C’s, the pearls, the tweed, the No. 5 perfume bottle. They’ve become icons of the insouciant chic embodied by Coco Chanel herself, their enduring appeal reinforced by Karl Lagerfeld’s playful yet glamorous interpretations. Looking back through show photos from the last few years we see the Chanel checks enlarged or turned on their side, the classic suit’s proportions shrunk or exaggerated, the crossed C’s logo emblazoned on trainers and fruit machines. Chanel seems fascinated by its own image and heritage, and it’s not the only one: currently the brand is being celebrated with a show at the Saatchi Gallery in London, titled Mademoiselle Privé. The gallery describes it as, “a journey through the origins of CHANEL’s creations capturing the charismatic personality and irreverent spirit of Mademoiselle Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld”.
Inside, all the familiar Chanel icons were present and, just like in the runway shows, were combined and presented in fresh and appealing ways. Visitors could see an indoor garden inspired by the crossed C’s logo; an oversized rotating model of a diamond necklace designed by Chanel in 1932; a sculpture of a camellia, another of the house’s emblems, fashioned out of its signature tweeds. The Chanel suit was deconstructed into hanging strips of fabric which people could walk through, the sound of sewing machines whirring in the background. My favourite was the Chanel No. 5 room, containing vats of the fragrance’s component notes which opened and closed, sending sensuous wafts through the gallery. It was an immersive way of engaging with the brand and its products, full of glamour, beauty, and fun. I did feel however that by locating an object or an act in an art gallery you invite contemplation of it, and make a claim for some sort of profundity. Although attractive, the exhibits didn’t have a lot of substance to them, revealing nothing new about either Chanel or the visitors to the show.
But then, they weren’t intended to. It occurred to me that Lagerfeld reworks Chanel’s icons but never changes the essential building blocks. He may be “irreverent” in his presentations but he does seem to revere the imagery at the heart of the brand, playing with it but never dissolving or discarding it. Lagerfeld knows the power of Chanel’s classic icons and combines this with an understanding of how to make people look and remember in the 21st century.
For me the most interesting aspect was the involvement of smartphones. Photography was encouraged, and visitors could download an app which opened up new aspects of the displays. When viewed through a phone the exhibits became animated: a painted door on the wall swung open to reveal Mademoiselle at work, and sculptures writhed and refashioned themselves into new forms. Chanel well understands how smartphones and social media can help disseminate its message, staging incredible shows which combine grand spectacle with small Instagrammable details. Being urged to use our phones in an art gallery made me realise how integral they’ve become to our ordinary experiences of seeing and recollection, and how Chanel has harnessed this to strengthen its brand. I’m not convinced that Chanel belongs in an art gallery but I admire its genius for image, and for me and millions of others its witty, elegant designs remain the indisputable height of chic.