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London, November 2015  chanel 1

Thank God for Charles Saatchi! Yet again he has done the art loving public a great service with his beautiful new gallery on Kings Road, Chelsea. Housed in the old Duke of York’s headquarters in a grand, Grade II listed building, it is a far cry from his first gallery space, a disused garage in Boundary Road, North West London. 

In contrast with the worthy, but slightly uptight V&A, where gallery attendants go apoplectic if you so much as point at an exhibit, and photography is verboten, the Saatchi is steeped in cool. The sensory experience starts in the wild garden (designed by the Rich Brothers) planted with bees in mind, where bird song piped through overhead speakers impart a sonic tranquility and trees with butterfly leaves lead you to the entrance framed with Doric columns.

I have come to see Mademoiselle Prive, a retrospective of the work of designer Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883-1971). There is no entry price and the staff, who you do want to speak to you, are ferrying about in black uniforms wearing head microphones. The exhibition begins with a reconstruction of Chanel’s Paris showroom on 31 Rue Cambon, its sweeping staircase lined with multitudinous mirrors indicating her rise from back-room seamstress to influential couturier. In the ‘Deauville hat shop’, her trademark floppy fedora hats are assembled so that an animated miniature Coco, dressed in signature skirt suit and pearls, climbs out from one hat box and walks elegantly across the stand to another. Her disembodied voice informs the space that her relationship with British aristocrat Boy Capel was the catalyst to her opening shop and the success that followed.

Chanel was the first designer to understand what women wanted in the early 1900’s. She freed them from tight corsets and restrictive bodices by blending classicism with modernity and the practical stuff of mens apparel such as tightly knit Breton cotton and Harris tweed. She cut softer jersey separates to produce a representation of the modern female that is timeless. So that women could play tennis, ride, hike, sail and drive, looking and feeling stylish.

She first sourced the tweed that has become the mainstay of her womenswear from the factory of another lover, the Duke of Westminster, but soon opened her own factory in France, still operational today, where weavers use pearls, beads, sequins, feathers, leather, zips, plastics and shimmering threads to pimp lightweight Lesage tweed into bolts light years away from heavy Harris tweed. The bedazzling warp and weft of something so everyday is undeniably irresistible to the eye. Since 1923, not one of Chanel’s couture collections has omitted tweed.

Part tomboy, part glamour puss, Chanel caters for both sides of the female persona. In a gloriously monochromatic world emerging between two world wars, the little black dresses, endless strings of pearls, boxy jackets and weighted hems created the flat-chest silhouettes of the dress de jour. By 1921, the sweet smell of success was emanating from a fragrance that no woman could live without - Chanel number 5. The room dedicated to its production is a trip inside a scented Tardis: huge, colourful vats with LEDs signing words and symbols, and issuing vapours. Of the ten batches of perfumes made in a lab in Grasse, it was number 5 that Chanel liked the best.

Mademoiselle Prive 5On the third floor, a room full of sculpted privet hedges from floor to ceiling and benches tap into the nature loving, simpler side of Chanel. A quiet, green space where people are sitting and talking. At the other end, an oversize birdcage full of diamonds and cut quartz crystals is spinning seductively. Beyond that is a long, darkened gallery lined with blow-up photographs of models and actresses known as “Lagerfeld’s darlings.” It is here, under the spotlights, that the collaboration between Karl Lagerfeld and Chanel goes stellar. 

His silk and satin two pieces and dresses are adorned with her diamonds set in the shape of shooting stars and crescent moons. These are Chanel’s Bijoux des Diamants, originally banned from display in the UK in 1932, and reproduced for a show seventy-three years later. In yet another room, florescent rods inside perspex tubes are the mannequins on which some of the most exquisite dresses known to mankind are hanging embroidered with solid gold thread.

For the last thirty years Karl Lagerfeld has steered the House of Chanel towards greater success.  In turn, he has borrowed the best of her ideas and incorporated them into his own ranges, whilst injecting new life into her staples: quilted bags, two-tone pumps, sunglasses and watches. A symbiosis between the living and the dead, of chic branding and digital marketing, simple elegance and show-stopping glamour that will continue for the rest of Lagerfeld’s life and no doubt beyond.

The merest inflection from the Saatchi staff illicits me keeping a respectful distance from the diamond displays. But my imagination is stuffed full with a swag-bag of the finery before me, and I somehow set off the alarm on leaving the gallery!

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Photos by Sam Burcher