Fake tan, feathers and red: Fashion Manifesto shows Gabrielle Chanel’s unexpected side

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The National Gallery of Victoria’s blockbuster summer exhibition reveals the vision of an icon, well beyond her Maison’s codes


Sitting in the corner of a white cube at the National Gallery of Victoria are three small, empty glass bottles. Each has a printed black and white label that reads Pour l’été: for summer. They once contained the first fake tan products, which came in the form of powder, liquid and oil. The bottles are from the summer of 1932 and were produced by Gabrielle Chanel, who returned from a holiday on the French Riviera with a tan and made it fashionable to be bronzée.

The bottles are on display as part of the much-anticipated exhibition, Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto, which has travelled to Melbourne after its 2020 debut at the Palais Galliera in Paris. There it was much celebrated as the first exhibition to be staged in Paris with a focus on the work of Chanel as a designer, rather than on her much-mythologised life, or the fashion house that bears her name.

Although Chanel’s love of outdoor sports such as swimming and tennis have been well documented, alongside her designs influenced by the simplicity of sporty silhouettes and materials, the fake tan is surprisingly un-Chanel. Even though a version of it was recreated in 2018 by Chanel makeup designer Lucia Pica, the presence of the three bottles seems to defy the house codes we are all so familiar with: tweed suits, padded handbags, two-tone ballet flats and camellias.

But Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto is scattered with surprises like this. For a designer as famous as Chanel, this is no mean feat. It speaks to the depth of research and skilful curation of Miren Arzalluz, the director of the Palais Galliera and co-curator of the exhibition.

Working with the team at the NGV, Arzalluz has assembled a showcase of Chanel’s work of more than 100 garments, including pieces from her earliest collections in the 1910s. The exhibition contains a range of familiar and breathtakingly modern silk-satin ensembles in cream, black evening gowns and a room full of Chanel’s famous suits.

Arzalluz says curating the exhibition was “a discovery journey”. She describes Chanel as radical, unmissable and essential to the history of fashion but says even as fashion historians, “we fell into this oversimplification of her work, the little black dresses etc.” As they researched and delved further into the archives of Chanel’s history, they found unexpected pieces, like daywear and extremely light dresses in bright floral and pastel prints from the 1930s.

Some of these are on display at the NGV, including three floral dresses made from printed and appliquéd silk chiffon. One has a bat-sleeve and simple round neck. It is cinched at the waist with a tie and drops to the knee in softly layered ruffles. At first, it appears to be a soft black with pink and red-gold roses printed on, but a closer inspection reveals a unique technique that gives the flowers three dimensions. They have been cut out and inlaid in places to accentuate the petals and leaves.

Related: Smell of success: How Chanel No 5 gained a sprinkling of stardust

Katie Somerville, the senior fashion curator at the NGV, says these pieces surprised her because they display Chanel’s technical capacity and reveal a love of romance and femininity that is often forgotten.

The three dresses differ in their floral palettes – pale pink, soft green and white – made in Chanel’s own textile factory, which produced graphic printed silks with abstract and naturalistic flowers. Another dress from this era is a strapless, floor length gown made from silk voile and printed with a large inlaid feather motif in swirls of pink, green, mustard and blue. The soft ruffle at the bottom is made using the same appliqué technique, offset by a row of ostrich feathers, dyed hot-pink, along the bust.

Although this seems surprising for a designer who once claimed “elegance is refusal”, Arzalluz says this use of adornment and feathers is repeated throughout her career. From 1920s and 30s pieces, to 1950s and 60s evening wear, “you see exactly the same sequins in the same colours”.

The jersey and the tweed are repeated too, alongside the silhouettes and functionality of the suits and ensembles – carried through from the 1910s to the famous suit of the 1950s. Arzalluz says: “Everything is there from the very beginning and that is extraordinary.”

The process of curation also revealed Chanel’s love of deep red. Somerville says: “Red was a favourite colour of hers, it appears in each collection and sits well outside the codes.” Chanel apparently even sent her red designs out fifth in runway shows, since that was her favourite number.

Among the red pieces is an evening cape made from silk velvet, crepe georgette and marabou feathers. Harriette Richards, the co-founder of critical fashion studies at the University of Melbourne, describes the cape as “incredibly unexpected, not at all what you think of when you think of Chanel”.

Arzalluz says the exhibition was called a manifesto “because we saw to what extent she was guided by the same principles, throughout the rest of her life. What we see in the first piece, we see in almost everything she does afterwards.”

Given the variety, technicality and depth on display, it’s hard not to wonder what Gabrielle Chanel would think of her house in 2021 – the enormous emphasis placed on a narrow selection of her designs: the 2.55 handbag, Chanel No.5, the ballet flats.

Richards says the association, the house codes, are thanks to Karl Lagerfeld. He popularised them and made them very recognisable during his tenure as Chanel’s creative director from 1984–2019. She says: “The accessories, the perfumes, that’s what keeps the company afloat.

“Those sorts of things are much easier to reproduce than a marabou red feather boa evening cape.”

  • Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto is open from 4 December to 25 April at the National Gallery of Victoria

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