“Happy Chanel day!” someone calls out across the dark car park of a Manchester city center hotel. It’s a rainy Thursday night in December, and to the surprise of both fashion insiders and members of the public, the French fashion house has descended on England’s third most populated city for its latest Métiers d’Art event — an annual catwalk dedicated to the brand’s community of artisans.
Nestled in the northwestern flank of the country, Manchester was once a textile titan of the UK — but the fashion parallels just about stop there.
More recently, the city is known for birthing the new romantic and Brit pop bands of the 1980s and ‘90s: The Smiths, New Order, Joy Division, Oasis and The Stone Roses. There’s a bustling literary scene, too. Punk poet John Cooper Clarke — whose song “Evidently Chickentown” closed Season 6, Episode 14 of “The Sopranos” — and UK poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy are both proud Manucians, as was Anthony Burgess, author of the subversive dystopian ‘60s novella “A Clockwork Orange.” Even Emmeline Pankhurst, who led the country’s suffragette movement in the early 20th century, was born here. In short: Manchester is known for its defiant spirit and counter-culture history. So how did it become the catwalk backdrop for one of most traditional names in luxury fashion?
“It’s ultimately thanks to Viriginie Viard that Chanel has taken this excursion to the north of England,” reads the letter by editors Charlotte Stockdate and Katie Lyall in the special edition of Chaos magazine, issued as part of Chanel’s show invite. “But this part of the world also has particular ties to Coco Chanel through the 2nd Duke of Westminster…and his family estate in Chesire.” In 1923, Chanel began a relationship with the Duke and stayed in the country seat 30 miles from Manchester. Though it’s uncertain whether she ever visited the city itself.
If the link sounds tenuous, it was more than made up for by the collection’s playful observance of British heritage. The outdoor show was staged on the cobbled streets of the city’s Northern Quarter and remixed a range of English references from ‘60s Mary-Jane pumps — complete with bedazzled cross straps — to newsboy hats in peach tweed (yesterday announced as Pantone’s color of 2024), purple and chocolate brown. Houndstooth dress coats were cinched at the waist with gold Chanel chain belts and models were dripping in jewels: Stacked bracelets, oversized teardrop earrings and even a version of Princess Diana and Queen Camilla’s beloved three-strand pearl choker. The show also opened with a procession of vivid tweed skirt suits inspired by the late Queen Elizabeth II’s own colorful palette, with each coordinating set taking around 300 hours to make.
A celebration of craft
Literally translating to “master of the arts,” the yearly Métiers d’Art show is a chance to shine a spotlight on the couture houses Chanel has supported and worked with since 1985. While the brand shies away from phrases such as “funding” and “sponsorship,” artisans insist Chanel was a lifeline for many specialist ateliers in Paris. “I began working in the fashion industry in 1990,” said Hubert Barrère, creative director of Maison Lesage — the house tasked with creating Chanel’s tweed and embroidery — after the show. “And (back then) I heard the same thing every time. ‘If Chanel didn’t exist, we’d be dead.’ Today, not so much. But for a long time that was the reality.”
The hours poured into making a Métiers d’Art collection comes close to the prestigious rigor of Haute Couture. Garments take anywhere from 50 to 500 hours for craftspeople to make, and they only have 10 days to do so. But while the design process is largely unchanged compared to scheduled runway seasons (Viard remains in control of the silhouette, color and inspiration) at Métiers d’Art the role of the artisans takes center stage in the brand’s storytelling. “Usually we are behind the scenes, in the shadow of the fashion (industry),” said Barrère. “This is a moment for people to discover exactly what we do. And for that reason, it’s a gift.”
The Manchester spirit, missing the Mancunians
Not everyone was thrilled with the festivities, however. While famous faces such as Sofia Coppola, Kristen Stewart, Hugh Grant and Tilda Swinton piled in for the occasion, several rows of security meant the event remained private — forcing locals to stand on nearby pub benches to get a glimpse of the action.
Earlier in the week, when the area was still open, excited Manucians filmed themselves on social media strutting down the soon-to-be catwalk. Residents of the flats overlooking the Northern Quarter gave the world a sneak peak of final dress rehearsals. “Chanel has come all the way to Manchester, yet locals aren’t allowed to watch,” read one comment. Hours before doors opened, one TikToker advertising his view offered to stream the event live on the app in exchange for 1000 more followers. The video was watched over 400,000 times.
And if you were expecting Viard to interpret the rebellious Mancuian spirit literally with safety pins, tartan and studded leather, you might be disappointed, too.
But Chanel’s artisans did create anarchy in their own way. One standout moment was a knee-length black overcoat enveloped in raw-hemmed, deconstructed appliqué flowers in a flurry of red, white and black. “The collection was about tweed,” said Lemairé creative director Christelle Kocher backstage. “I wanted to bring the punk energy, the music, and what I see and feel about Manchester and the UK.” It took Kocher’s team — who create flowers and feathers for Chanel — 300 hours to make. “It’s all (made from) different tweed,” she said of the embellishments, which cover almost the entirety of the coat. “We made flowers, then cut them, split them apart and stuck them back together to create a very unique piece. It has a lot of spontaneity, but at the same time is incredibly technical.”
In the end, the salute to Manchester shouldn’t overshadow what is at its core a love letter to the artisans. “I think the show is very important today, especially because we’re in this new world, with new technology, and the dehumanization that can come with that,” Barrère said.
“We need to remember what is possible to create with our hands. For me, Métiers d’Art is not just embroidery or feathers, it’s a human touch.”
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