Desire will be stimulated as you wander around the halls of Chanel’s new Mademoiselle Privé exhibition at London’s Saatchi Gallery. That is how my friend Rosie and I felt when entering Chanel’s exhibition, your thoughts are lost and you feel a sense of belonging in Coco Chanel’s world.
Chanel’s new Mademoiselle Privé exhibition is so absorbing you forget where you are, and are constantly surprised with beautifully designed sets. It is Chanel’s version of Alice in Wonderland, which keeps me locked in my dream world.
The exhibition explores the creativity of both Chanel’s founder, Gabrielle, known as Coco, and its current creative director, Karl Lagerfeld, who took the helm only 12 years after Coco’s death.
Lagerfeld, who at 82 says he has no plans to retire just yet (thank god) is credited by infusing freshness into the label to keep it modern while faithful to its heritage.
Karl said himself “When I started at Chanel, everybody told me ‘Don’t touch it, it is finished’ and that amused me.” “It was like a challenge and it worked a 100 times better than I could have imagined.”
Bruno Pavlovsky, Chanel’s CEO, stated “We felt we wanted, and needed, to say something about what goes on behind the scenes; about creativity. When you see Chanel, you see Mademoiselle, you see her apartment, you see the magnificent shows, but you don’t see much about what’s happening behind the scenes. We felt it was a good time for the brand to give away some secrets.” Finally we are able to see the magic that is created behind the doors of Chanel.
Join me, entering Chanel’s world.
The story begins before you even step inside, the entrance is transformed into a meandering English country garden, created by British landscape designers Harry and David Rich.
Once inside, we capture the places that meant the most to Coco – from her virtual Rue Cambon apartment (the famous mirrored stairs), to Venice, Scotland, her first hat shop in Deauville, and beyond. There’s the original hat shop where Chanel’s career in fashion began; the totem room which celebrates the label’s signatures – from pearls to the camellia flower.
Making our way round, the rooms are linked by white passageways edged by black trim at the floor and ceiling, as if we were walking around inside a Chanel No 5 bottle.
Gliding through, having the feel of Coco’s presence running through you, the next space holds a giant spinning birdcage. This holds an enlarged version of a star-covered diamond necklace created by Coco in 1932, more will be explained later…
Approaching the fabric-lined sensory room, visitors are allowed to touch and wander through real Chanel couture fabrics, from delicate silks to its famous bouclé tweeds, while artisans pin and sew on shadow-paper screens. The chance to touch and feel Chanel’s fabrics is enough to make you faint with an unbelievable amount of excitement shooting through you making you senseless.
Coming across a mysterious agent of creation, the room representing Chanel No 5 is a vast space in which the olfactory artisans who blend the house’s famous scents, Jasmine and May Rose are introduced, in a Willy Wonka-style scent-filled room packed with bubbling vats, just like a witches cauldron bubbling. The lids of the vats lift without warning, to reveal its surprising colour and its ever-changing cocktail of scent.
Finding ourselves upstairs, the clothes themselves are brought to life, firstly in the haute couture space – where the most delicate of dresses are placed on mannequins suspended on bright poles of light – allowing visitors to see the embroidery and workmanship that goes into every piece.
Through a little gap, a movie was on loop about the life and legacy of Coco Chanel that included a short film made by Karl Lagerfeld imagining an encounter between him and the woman who founded Chanel. Rosie and I not only watched but felt we were part of their encounter as you feel their tension running through your body.
Coco, played by Geraldine Chaplin, wakes on the sofa of her Rue Cambon apartment after forty years and confronts Lagerfeld about his work. “What do you think you are doing?” she asks, to which he replies “I am keeping you alive.”
Bruno Pavlovsky, Chanel’s head of fashion, leaves no doubts on the subject of whether Coco or Karl presides over his brand. “For me everything is Karl. I never met Mademoiselle Chanel. What I know of her is through how she inspired Karl. Coco was so ahead of her time, on her design, in thought and in the way she proposed to give more freedom to women she could now come alive and there is no doubt that Chanel is what it is today thanks to Karl.”
Joined next door, we revisit Chanel’s work with what she said represented “the greatest value in the smallest volume“: diamonds! It’s about clothes and shimmering diamonds: Coco Chanel’s first ever jewellery collection is displayed for the first time. Only a few pieces remain from the original Bijoux de Diamants High Jewellery collection, from which the caged necklace that we saw downstairs comes, but the entire offering has been recreated for Mademoiselle Privé, displayed on couture-clothed mannequins. Each mannequin, dressed as one of the high-profile “gamblers” at Chanel’s most recent couture show, wears a piece from the collection. The first set was meant to be displayed in London in 1932, but was stopped due to stringent British customs regulations. Now it is finally unveiled after 83 years, alongside Lagerfeld-lensed photographs of stars including Keira Knightley, Kristen Stewart, Lily-Rose Depp, Vanessa Paradis, Rita Ora and Lara Stone.
With the final room in sight, we felt we were entering the movie The Secret Garden. This room is designed as a neat French garden where we meandered through the double C pathways with real fresh box hedges keeping us on path.
On the floor above, workshops we being hosted by Chanel artisans including Lesage teach skills from embroidery to camellia-making to perfume blending. We were allowed to peek into the creativity.
The hour had flown by from entering through Coco Chanel’s door and being taken on her journey, we didn’t want to leave! Coco connected with the world through her visions and creativity by allowing us into her life, guiding us round her empire.
Chanel fans, make your way to her world.
If Alice were to fall down this slightly trippy Chanel rabbit hole, I doubt she’d ever want the dream to end