The setting was an exotic memory of things past: the rich darkness of Coco Chanel’s coromandel screens; a pair of gilded lions as a talisman; the symbolic camellias; and, overhead, the vast, twinkling chandeliers.

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But in this Chanel Métiers d’Art show, nothing was more emblematic than the sweep of the Art Deco, mirrored staircase at 31 rue Cambon, where “Mademoiselle” would hide on the top step to gauge the reaction of her clients to her collections. The recreation at the Grand Palais of those original steps served as a runway, as each model descended in variations of classic tailoring, some with “tie-dye” colouring.


Tie-dye shades for 2019-2020 from Chanel Métiers d'Art
©Kristy Sparow / Getty

This was Chanel’s Artistic Director Virginie Viard going back to the source after three decades at the right hand of the late Karl Lagerfeld. And with this show, she has come assuredly into the limelight, proving how wise it can be to elevate a designer who already knows every nuance of the house.

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“This is the return to the very first Métiers d’Arts show in 2002 in the salons at rue Cambon – that was very dear to me,” Viard said, remembering how the models moved casually around, “listening to Lou Reed – it was more an attitude than a theme”.


This 2019-2020 show was a nod to the the very first Chanel Métiers d'Art show in 2002, which actually took place in the salons at 31 rue Cambon
©Francois Durand / Getty

Those words could sum up the lasting spirit of Coco, with her subtle play on masculine/feminine, so in advance of her time, back in the 1930s. Viard brought that up to date by including trousers – narrow, but soft and easy – as a definitive part of the show. She also used a sunset orange, often in liquid shades, like the burning sky itself, with the confidence of creating a new code.


Virginie Viard has introduced a new shade of orange, with the confidence of creating a new code at Chanel
©Olivier Saillant

The House of Chanel has some big supporters – not just Lily-Rose Depp, sitting front row with her mother, French actress Vanessa Paradis, and fellow actress Kristen Stewart.

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Long-time friend of the house, Sofia Coppola, brought her cinematic vision to the set, which was both grand and intimate. Those words also described the models, stepping out in a pretty update of those famous two-tone classic pumps.


Sofia Coppola worked on the decor of the show to recreate the famous mirrored staircase of the Chanel salon and Coco's apartment at 31 rue Cambon, Paris
©Olivier Saillant

As the set brought old and new together, so did the clothes. The general feeling was of lightness and ease, with specifics including a semi-transparent chiffon dress in a gradient of blush pink to sky blue. Such subtleties make the Chanel Métiers d’Art show unique; a different league to the Pre-Fall collections currently on offer from major brands across the world.


A semi-transparent chiffon dress in a gradient of blush pink to sky blue
©Kristy Sparow / Getty

It was a true privilege to go backstage to see the extraordinary detail of the handwork, such as a mixture of silvered decoration in different textures and colours, so incredible up-close, but casual from a distance. Perhaps the most extraordinary meld of ancient and modern was a lace dress recreated from a photograph of a pensive Gabrielle Chanel taken by royal photographer Cecil Beaton in 1935.


A 1935 portrait of Gabrielle Chanel by Cecil Beaton inspired this champagne-hued lace ensemble
©Stephane Cardinale / Corbis / Getty

But there were other details, such as Coco’s sheaves of wheat, symbols of good luck, subtly embroidered onto fabric.


Coco Chanel kept little treasures from friends, such as the sheaves of wheat painted by Dali. Feather, flower and embroidery specialist Lemarié recreated these in aged gold for the Métier's d'Art 2019-2020 collection
©Olivier Saillant

Viard shares with Karl Lagerfeld a desire to stay in the present tense, or even to project the future, never focusing on the past. She is more specifically French than her multi-lingual predecessor, and in this collection it is easier to imagine a young Parisienne – off to a weekend in the mountains in a soft, pale pink trouser suit – rather than an international woman. But there were plenty of work outfits, with touches of the 21st-century power woman in the slither of bare flesh at the waist. Neutral tones (mostly black) gave way to off-beat, mixed-colour tweeds, or curvy, colourful tops.


Some pieces from the 2019-2020 collection were inspired by a pink tweed suit created by Gabrielle Chanel in 1960, whose lining was tie-dyed in black, blue, pink and mauve
©Kristy Sparow / Getty

Since Chanel embraced the traditional Parisian creators of flowers and feathers, embroidery and millinery, the Métiers d’Art shows are designed as their showcase. But Viard admitted back stage that she finds the over-elaboration of grand evening clothes outside her fashion orbit. There is a sense that, like all strong female designers, there is much of herself in her work.


Silk pongee camellias with jewelled centres embroidered by feather-and-flower experts, Lemarié, become bijoux sculptures to uplift an evening ensemble
©Kristy Sparow / Getty

Is Chanel modern? That is a complex question, especially in the context of other fashion houses that have totally changed the spirit and the reality of the clothes shown under a famous name from the past. Balenciaga’s current collections are certainly in that category.

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Amanda Harlech, a free spirit at Karl Lagerfeld’s side for the last two decades, described the current change as very much like the Sofia Coppola set – a ghost of Coco, but the furniture has changed.

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“The spirit is the same but the clothes are different,” Harlech said. “Karl could never do this because he could not go back to what he did when he first started. But Virginie shows why we love Chanel – for being a woman and a brilliant editor of what women want to wear. Coco took away the pretentious, and that was her genius. Her archive pieces are so far ahead you can keep going back to her.”

 


Costume jewellery, including chainbelts, cuffs, pendants, and necklaces all sparkled with pearls, bows, stars and camellias for Chanel Métiers d'Art 2019-2020
©Stephane Cardinale / Corbis / Getty

There is a different argument, that Virginie is only reinterpreting for the umpteenth time what Chanel offered in the past. Her vision is conventional, but so beautifully executed and thought through. Backstage, I also found, when lifting a tweed jacket or examining embroidery, how light these apparently conventional clothes were.

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With the models lined up on the stairs at the finale, the wardrobe seemed totally and accurately 21st century. “I have completely absorbed the Chanel codes,” Viard said. “I saw Karl twist them so much. I have grown up here. I am a child of Karl and Gabrielle.”

 


Virginie Viard looked to the Chanel codes for her 2019-2020 Métiers d'Art collection, many of which are from Gabrielle Chanel's apartment at 31 rue Cambon
©Francois Durand / Getty