The V&A’s new Chanel show, a reimagining of an exhibition originally staged at the Palais Galliera in Paris in 2020, begins and ends with utmost simplicity. The first thing the visitor sees, its ivory folds radiant in the dark, is a blouse of silk jersey with a sailor collar; the last is a rather severe black worsted suit and hat. Neither of these garments is especially stunning: the former is simply one of the earliest extant Chanel pieces, dating from 1916; the latter, designed in 1969, was bought by the V&A at a Christie’s sale of Chanel’s personal collection in 1978, seven years after her death. But together they bookend the displays stupendously. If the blouse speaks of inception – here is Chanel falling on the unadorned ease that would become her trademark – the suit brings to mind a priest racing to a bedside. Its long, dark jacket worked on me like smelling salts after a deep swoon.
What was Chanel like? How did this creature – “a peasant and a genius”, as her friend Diana Vreeland had it – come to make such a success of her life, let alone to enact such an enduring influence on women’s wardrobes? At Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto, you won’t find complete answers to these questions. Sensing, perhaps, that too much investigation will break the spell it wishes to cast, biographical details are at a minimum . It is equivocal about everything from Chanel’s activities during the second world war to her relationship with Hugh Grosvenor, the then Duke of Westminster (and a notorious antisemite, though the show prefers to emphasise the link between his shooting parties and her fondness for tweed). About the work, however, it is unstinting. Here are more than 200 suits, dresses and quilted handbags, a display of sartorial good taste so protracted, it left me – even after I’d breathed in that stern, clerical coat – quite stupid with covetousness.
Gabrielle Chanel (she took the nickname Coco as a young woman) was born in 1883, poor and illegitimate, in the Loire. Her father was a travelling salesman; her mother died when she was 11, after which, Gabrielle was placed in a convent, where the nuns taught her to sew (as a designer, her palette always favoured the beige, black and white of their habits). Competent enough to work as a seamstress, on leaving school she found employment alongside her aunt in Moulins. But having caught the eye of a textile heir, Étienne Balsan, she soon moved to Royallieu, northern France, where he had a chateau and she could sell her hats to his friends.
In 1910, backed now by her English lover Arthur “Boy” Capel, she opened the first Chanel boutique in Paris; it was followed by branches in Deauville and Biarritz, seaside towns that encouraged a move into sportswear. In 1918 she established her couture house in Paris at 31 Rue Cambon, and here she swiftly built her empire, marketing herself ruthlessly as a purveyor of modernity. Black dresses (the colour had hitherto been only for mourning), pyjama suits, new materials such as cotton velour: these, all on show at the V&A, were her stock in trade, to be followed by beauty products in monochrome packaging and fabulous costume jewellery (who cared if pearls were fake or real?). When the second world war broke out, Chanel temporarily closed the house, but ever the pragmatist she remained in Paris even after the city was occupied, having taken up with Hans Günther von Dincklage, a German spy. The exhibition notes that in 1941, the Nazis recorded her as a trusted source – and that recent research suggests she was an occasional agent for the French resistance too.
Chanel never married. She made her own life, this woman with a suntan and a circle that included Igor Stravinsky and Winston Churchill. But it’s a mistake to think of her as a heroine, feminist or otherwise. Her innovations are easily overstated; it was Paul Poiret who first told women to lose their corsets, not Chanel. If her sense of style was immaculate – instinctive, rather than intellectual – she didn’t much evolve as a designer; she simply repeated herself in a way that brooked no argument. Her true genius was for salesmanship. Having launched Chanel No 5 in 1921, she scented all manner of products with it, even brilliantine. Look at the travel-size cosmetics in this show – “Pour le weekend”, it says on a tiny pot of vanishing cream – and you realise that she saw the future.
The V&A’s exhibition, curated by Oriole Cullen, slyly captures some, if not all of this. The displays are both chronological and thematic, styles grouped together – evening wear, black dresses, dozens of her famous suits with their cropped and trimmed jackets – as if in an old-fashioned department store, and wandering them, spacious and cool, my critical faculties began to abandon me. How to pick out what I admired, rather than what I only longed to own?
But perhaps it’s the same thing in the end. A black sequin trouser suit from 1937; a pink lamé tunic from 1968; embroidered coats, feather-trimmed capes, resin cuffs with pâte de verre and diamante. The cumulative effect is stunning, and a little numbing. In a room that replicates the famous mirrored staircase at Rue Cambon, a gown on every step, I found myself wondering suddenly what it was all for: so many glorious frocks, and no human being allowed to wear them.
• Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto is at the V&A, London, until 25 February 2024