Coco Chanel at the Palais Galliera is one thing above all: a successful coup! After years of expansion & renovation, the Parisian Fashion Museum opens with the first retrospective dedicated to Coco Chanel’s life and work. That’s right: Despite the boom in fashion exhibitions over the past two decades, there hasn’t been a major Chanel exhibition yet. The Palais Galliera now celebrates Gabrielle Chanel, her “Manifeste de Mode,” her revolutions and iconic fashion in a comprehensive show that is well worth seeing.
CHANEL – what else!
The Palais Galliera’s exhibition archive to date is really something to behold: Whether it’s Mariano Fortuny, Balenciaga, Jeanne Lanvin, Madame Grès, The 50s – many great chapters and careers have been shown so far (Click here for the complete archive). In the long line of great monographic exhibitions of fashion designers, the Parisian museum was really only missing Mademoiselle Chanel.
And the coup is a true success: The Palais Galliera is now showing around 350 exhibits on 1500 square meters and two floors – eight months later than planned due to Covid. Numerous national and international collections, collectors, and the museum’s own holdings make this possible.
GALLIERA - new or old?
The numerous exhibitions at the Palais Galliera were, without exception, fabulous. The museum, on the other hand, was always restrained not to say old-fashioned in its dramaturgical, educational and architectural approaches. The exhibits were great, the way the museum conceived and showed its shows was always somewhat demodé: Chronological tours, large showcases and numerous wall texts took the professional public back then into the great chapters of fashion history. One was immersed in other fashion worlds, but was rarely surprised, but rather taken by the hand.
The Palais Galliera was well-behaved back then. Today it is still pretty well-behaved – but much newer. The museum has been completely renovated and its exhibition space has almost doubled. But the old-fashioned basic tone has remained: There is still, unfortunately, no trace of digital experiments or a bold exhibition architecture. An opportunity has clearly been missed here: The museum has been thoroughly overhauled, but it has not been brought up to date. The paint job is fresh – the ideas are not.
As the FASHION so the ARCHITECTURE
Actually, I’m a great lover of bold exhibition concepts. I don’t mind architecture and dramaturgy daring a bit. But you won’t find any obtrusive elements, dramatic perspectives or even an exalted stage at Chanel in the Palais Galliera.
But I have to admit: The restrained exhibition dramaturgy might not correspond to my extravagant taste. But it does correspond to what Chanel needs: a calm, neutral and elegant atmosphere. It is this atmosphere that offers her fashion the perfect stage.
60 years of Mademoiselle Chanel
Coco Chanel began her career around 1910 as a modest milliner and ended it as a living legend in 1971. The exhibition traces her career chronologically and divides – not only architecturally – her more than 60 years of creative work into two chapters. Her life’s work was created in more than six decades – but she shaped the zeitgeist and fashion with her creations especially in the 10s/20s and the 50s/60s.
2 chapters – 2 REVOLUTIONS
In both eras, Gabrielle Chanel turned her back on the prevailing fashion and literally confronted her predominantly male designer colleagues with her own designs. In the 1910s, it was Paul Poiret’s designs that she despised for their costume-like, extravagant style and restricted movement given to the women. In 1947, Christian Dior made his New Look the reigning silhuette, which was as impairing and old-fashioned with its wasp waist as it was with its weight, which came from numerous yards of textile and many petticoats.
Despite their great popularity, Chanel found both fashions deeply unfashionable and countered with light, relaxed, functional and highly elegant cuts & fabrics. In both decades she wanted to dress the modern, emancipated and mobile woman, not the lady of society who at most leaves her own salon to take a seat at the opera, acting as a showy decoration for her husband.
Chanel & the ARTS
Other chapters of the exhibition are dedicated to Chanel’s connections with artists such as Jean Cocteau, who portrayed her and whose play “Antigone” she provided with costumes. The notorious drawings of the caricaturist Georges Goursat, better known by his pen name “Sem,” are also on display.
An EMPIRE called Chanel
A room is also dedicated to Chanel’s financially greatest coup: the perfume “Chanel No 5” is exhibited with its numerous, historic flacons. And: Quite surprisingly, the small, bright room was also set to music by an equally notorious voice: Every few minutes, the part of the interview in which Marilyn Monroe explains that she only wears Chanel No 5 when she’s asleep is heard: “… `cause it’s … it’s the truth!” she breathes in her childishly naive and at the same time erotic voice.
Les CODES Chanel
Entering the lower floor of the exhibition reveals not only the 60s but above all the consolidation of Coco Chanel’s style. The unmistakable beige-black contrast of her fashion, the jacket or better “le tailleur” Chanel, the beige pumps with black cap, the quilted leather bag with the abstract name “2.55” or even the unmistakable jewelry – they are all not only the codes of Chanel but meanwhile true icons of 20th century fashion. We all know them – whether from the Chanel stores, from numerous other fashion houses or even from H&M and Zara. It is idle to note that it is again a completely different pleasure to experience the (historical) “originals”.
I am not a particularly emotional person. But at several points in the exhibition I could have cried with happiness. Mon dieu! I know Chanel. I know her iconic fashion. I know all of Coco’s codes. But to experience Chanel’s stylistic power so concentrated in one place – that is truly unique. In its radiant yet understated elegance, Chanel’s life’s work is incredibly beautiful – and at the same time breathtakingly timeless.
About the FACTION of CHANEL
The FACTION that unfolds at #ExpoChanel is unique. However, it hardly emanates from the exhibition itself – rather from the fashion on display. The temporal & stylistic density of the exhibits is fabulous: It is in the middle of the fashion, in the middle of the iconic garments, the whole poetry of the show unfolds. The only place where the dramaturgy dares a bit is that small room dedicated to No 5. This is the only place that leaves the otherwise very illustrative aesthetic of the exhibition and allows a full experience of Chanel’s story. Or rather, brings to life a small but iconic moment in her history.