Suzy Menkes reports from London on an evocative and atmospheric exhibition that uncovers Coco
A figure drawn in a few pen strokes, a transparent body inside a delicate couture dress and an angry woman in tweed hat responding to Karl Lagerfeld’s jibes: there are many ghosts of Coco Chanel at the Saatchi Gallery in London. So many private secrets are unstitched that it’s no wonder that this exhibition is called “Mademoiselle Privé”.
Chanel has tried to capture the magic of its story in this show of wafting couture fabrics and a wall of topiary, shaped like the surface of tweed, created by the gardeners of Versailles.
Like the iconic Chanel No.5, presented for this show as vats of fragrance that automatically open their lids for visitors, this exhibition is ethereal, more like something in the air than objects plonked on the ground, although the Coromandel screens painted with flying cranes at the exhibition entrance look solid enough. And so do the diamonds — glittering pieces that buzz if you venture too near them or the mannequins’ couture dresses.
“It took a year,” said Bruno Pavlovsky, Chanel’s President of Fashion, who explained that the show’s concept will be taken to mainland China, Hong Kong, South Korea and the United States.
“The idea is to show the creativity of the house; a way to illustrate couture, making something very coherent and very strong,” said the executive, referring to Karl Lagerfeld’s sketch of Coco and other digitised images that have Mademoiselle in Scotland with dogs that “move”.
He underscored other immersive effects, from the transparent sculpted bodies under translucent dresses to the film dialogue between Coco, played by Geraldine Chaplin, and Lagerfeld, chiding her for not understanding that modernity is something that has to be constantly renewed. Mademoiselle prefers to re-visit her Paris studio in Rue Cambon, opening a historic cigarette box and dismissing the taste of the cigarettes she once loved.
A wall of topiary representing Chanel tweed, trimmed by the gardeners at Versailles
In a new departure for museum shows, visitors are encouraged to download an App that guides them through the show. This adds other frisson to the more familiar displays of Chanel dresses and the Lagerfeld portraits of actresses and models, from Lily-Rose Depp to Julianne Moore.
Karl Lagerfeld’s illustration of dresses from the Chanel archive
Pavlovsky underlines the originality of the approach, which might otherwise have been just another of many fashion exhibitions that are staged by designers across the world.
Karl Lagerfeld in conversation with “Coco Chanel” (played by Geraldine Chaplin, the daughter of Charlie Chaplin)
I wondered whether, even with the app, many of the visitors will understand the subtlety of a story that unfolds in dusky rooms and may mean more to those who understand the difference between textures of fine fabrics — or who already know the story of the young Gabrielle Chanel, who first spotted the now legendary double Cs in the stained-glass windows of the abbey at her childhood orphanage.
A shadow puppet of a Chanel petite main at work with a model
At least this museum fashion show, one among so many, is more about the dream than the reality of clothes.
“Mademoiselle Privé” is at the Saatchi Gallery, Duke of York Square, King’s Road, London SW3 from 13 October — 1 November (10am-6pm, every day; Wednesdays until 10pm)