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Gabrielle Chanel: Pioneering yet Timeless Fashion at the V&A

Staircase of Chanel dresses at the V&A

I visited the incredible Chanel exhibition at the V&A last week, it was like going on a visual journey into the life and work of Gabrielle Chanel, where the designer's legacy unfolds. I was lucky enough to go to the lunchtime lecture to learn all about the inspiration and sourcing of the exhibition, as well as Gabrielle's life. She was certainly a colourful character and created the most incredible life after an early upbringing in an orphanage. It was also great to hear that sustainability is a key consideration, one of the curator's explained they reused display cases from previous exhibitions where possible.

Beautiful Rainbow Chanel Dress at the V&A Exhibition

Chanel, a true maverick, transcended the role of a designer by becoming the living embodiment of her brand. Unlike other designers at the time, she seamlessly integrated into high society, reshaping the perception of designers as mere tradespeople. Her approach was to be both the creator and use herself as her own muse/client. She used her public persona to promote her work and create a hugely successful brand and business.

Chanel's way of working was anything but conventional. Ahead of her time, Gabrielle didn’t sketch or draw, but instead draped her designs on a mannequin and got her ateliers to interpret and create her designs. A very unusual approach. Consequently a lot of her designs were about movement and form. This departure from tradition underscored her avant-garde vision.

Timeless Red Chanel Dresses from V&A Gabrielle Chanel Exhibition

Pioneering Chanel Sequin Trouser Suit

In an era where trousers and suits for women were considered audacious, Chanel fearlessly championed comfort and challenged societal norms of the corset etc. The exhibition spotlighted a sequined trouser suit worn by Diana Vreeland, exemplifying Chanel's ability to push boundaries.

Chanel's leap into perfume in 1921 created the timeless Chanel No.5, it was the fifth sample from a range of samples provided to her by Ernest Beaux perfumier, hence the name. The design of the make up and perfume containers were so ahead of their time and still look inkeeping and modern today. 

1950s Tweed Suit by Chanel

Always an early adopter, Chanel championed tweed in women's fashion, it was pioneering to see tweed used outside of country attire and worn on Bond Street! Chanel's influence extended beyond design, she invested in a textile factory and established a presence in London, sourcing textiles from Britain as she loved the quality of UK manufacturers.

The war temporarily halted her business, but Chanel made a triumphant return in the 1950s at the age of 71. In the 50s and 60s Chanel continued to provide costumes for big movies and screen stars and had a big influence on fashion in cinema. We also learnt at the lecture that she worked right up until the day before she died! Obsessed with her trade.

Accessories and jewellery were integral to Chanel's collections. The iconic two-tone shoes, were designed to elongate the leg, and the black toe protected the shoe from scuffs, also making the foot seem smaller. They were made with a low heel and elasticated strap for comfort which was always key for Gabrielle. Alongside her now infamous quilted shoulder bags, Vogue aptly observed that Chanel had the understanding that ‘accessories carry the mark of personality.’

Iconic Chanel Two Tone Heels

The V&A's Gabrielle Chanel Exhibition captures a female designer who defied norms and left an eternal mark on the world of fashion. Chanel's enduring influence remains huge, her designs standing as a testament to timeless elegance. The dress below wouldn't be out of place on the most recent AW23 catwalks, where we saw a lot of 3D florals, and no doubt we will continue to see her influence through the next century. I'd highly recommend visiting if you can grab one of the new tickets that have been released!

Chanel 3D Floral Dress

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