Warrior women in a ruined Scottish castle, colourful vintage cars in Havana, dressing in the spirit of Seoul, or performing at the concert hall in Hamburg… Chanel has been to many places over the last three decades.
But this season’s Spring/Summer 2020 couture show explored somewhere rarely mentioned: the childhood home of Gabriel Chanel – Aubazine, a Cistercian abbey in the Corrèze district of south-western France, where she and her sisters were sent in 1895 after their mother’s death. She was 12 years old.
Returning to source was the inspired idea of Virginie Viard, who had collaborated with Karl Lagerfeld during his more than 30 years at the helm of Chanel and is now Artistic Director.
Whereas Karl had used the world as his canvas, Virginie looked back to the often forgotten period when “Mademoiselle” was not only learning to sew by hand, but was also touched by the ancient abbey’s demand for rigorous purity.
Could those crisp, neatly lined clothes that she invented in the 1920s have come from anywhere else?
So when the couture audience walked into the Grand Palais, where Karl had always created sets to stun – from a sandy beach (with real water), to downtown supermarket or even a rocket, poised for take off – we were surprised to find a semi-wild allotment.
It was rich not in couture glamour, but in herbs and vegetables – from fennel to mushrooms or oddly shaped tomatoes. We had left sophisticated Paris for “La France profonde” – the depths of the countryside.
And Virginie had nailed it; finding a way to make Chanel seem younger, fresher and perhaps more innocent – although the stories about how the young Gabriel became “Coco” by singing the popular tune, “Cocorico!”, in the local bar, might offer the designer an even juicier set of clothes from Mademoiselle’s early years.
“What interested me in this décor was the paradox between the sophistication of haute couture and the simplicity of this place,” explained Virginie, referencing not just the abbey’s convent building that was the young sisters’ home, but also the cloister garden that had been recreated for the show.
Virginie’s fresh, sporty clothes did not fall far from the Chanel tree. But there was a youthful charm in dogtooth-check, tweedy-looking outfit, while white collars gave a touch of the “good girl”.
The designer, steeped in Chanel history, retraced the tracks through Coco’s home on the French Riviera, La Pausa, where Chanel built a staircase in exact memory of the abbey of her early years.
I don’t know how many times Karl himself told me that he would never look back. But his former assistant dared to knock down the barrier of time – in a most delightful way.
Sometimes it was just a whisk of net at the hem of a more solid skirt; or perhaps the schoolgirl shoes; or a dress in white with a faint blush of colour that looked more First Communion than First Lady.
And so it went on – a younger, sweeter vision of Chanel, but one that might resonate with the independent young women of today.