At last. Coco Chanel will finally receive a proper exhibition dedicated to her work when the V&A stages this country’s first major Coco retrospective in September next year. Book early and stand by for an extraordinary insight into the craft and vision of one of the two greatest designers of the past century.
And about time too. The last Chanel exhibition I remember seeing in London was at the Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea in 2015 and consisted mainly of empty rooms with some holograms. Surely some kind of cryptic joke. Karl Lagerfeld, her successor at the house, who died in 2019, viewed museum hagiographies warily, suspecting they made a brand seem fusty and demode, two of the adjectives he feared most.
That may have been a valid argument once, but in the past decade, two V&A blockbusters – for Dior and Alexander McQueen – have only added lustre, fame and creative credibility to those houses, each one becoming highlights on the cultural scene.
Coco’s may be the most fascinating yet. Born before Christian Dior and Lee McQueen (she was deliberately vague, but consensus puts her birth year as 1883) she spans the Victorians to hippies. Her personal history alone is enthalling. Like all the best protagonists, she was divisive – a self invented woman who did what it took to survive at the time, including having an affair with a Nazi officer. She was lucky to escape being tarred and feathered by her fellow Parisians at the end of the war.
Coco Chanel still defines a genre of modern understated elegance, inspired by athletic sports and following the lines of the body. Her design principles are as relevant today as they were in the 1930s – more so perhaps, because they’re more widely available thanks to a high street that didn’t then exist.
Take, for instance…
1. …the cropped boucle (or curled) tweed jacket which, at the age of 71 she reintroduced in her comeback collection in 1954 (she had closed her house in 1939 on the eve of war). Often with gold buttons and a braided trim, this is the essence of Coco – a smart but comfortable uber-cardigan that works day or night and doesn’t require any other embellishment to look “dressed”. Never out of style, it’s particularly fashionable at the moment, with both high street chains and high end designers producing versions – witness the dark boucle Celine “Chasseur” jacket the Duchess of Sussex wore during the recent Invictus Games with her jeans – which is how millions of us do it (they’re also terrific over long, minimalist slip dresses).