Fashion Manifesto ‘at the National Gallery of Victoria, the first to present a retrospective of her work

Arzalluz, an art historian who studied political history before moving on to fashion curator at the Cristobal Balenciaga Foundation in Spain, believed the public had, at best, “a superficial understanding” of the life of Chanel, perhaps because of the omnipresence of her name. “Because it is very much alive in the codes of the house, this is perhaps why we had the feeling that we did not need a retrospective. But we thought it was time to do it, to really take a look at who Chanel was.

Fashion manifesto was a difficult exhibition to stage. This is Arzalluz’s first major exhibition at the Palais, the official museum of fashion in Paris, of which she was appointed director in 2017, just before a renovation project of 2.5 years and 8.1 million euros does not close the place. Originally designed to mark the 100th anniversary of the museum’s founding act (the donation of 2,000 pieces of clothing by the Costume Design Society to the City of Paris), the exhibition was delayed for several months due to of the coronavirus pandemic. Twenty-eight days after it opened, finally, in October of last year, the gallery was closed due to another lockdown. The exhibition opened once again in May of this year.

Gabrielle Chanel evening dress for Chanel spring-summer 1933. Narelle Wilson / GNV

In Melbourne, the exhibition will showcase more than 100 pieces of clothing that are emblematic of the designer’s career development, from her beginnings as a milliner, to the sportswear she became famous for, to suits and haute dresses. couture, jewelry and perfumes.

Whitfield points to a beige silk hat from 1917, reminiscent of Chanel’s early career in hat making, and a coat made in 1918. “It’s really extraordinary,” she says of the coat. “It is made with exquisite embroidery directly inspired by chyrpy, a ceremonial dress worn by women in Turkmenistan.”

Chanel adopted the graphic effect of traditional patterns but infused it with her style. The coat, says Whitfield, foreshadowed the creation of the Chanel embroidery workshop, which opened in 1921.

In a moment of icing on the cake, visitors to Melbourne have an exclusive inaccessible to lovers of Parisian museums: the Chanel dresses of the philanthropist Krystyna Campbell-Pretty, loaned especially for the exhibition but unable to travel to France due to their delicate nature.

The exhibits include, in the center, a diamond, emerald and synthetic stone pendant worn by Gabrielle Chanel between 1950 and 1960, and a crucifix pendant and bangle from 1965-66 made by Robert Goossens. Julien T. Hamon

“This is the first time we’ve seen all of Chanel’s work in one place,” says Arzalluz. “Of course, there have been exhibitions on the house itself, but not on Chanel as a designer. It is very special.

She points to the jewelry section as a highlight, especially the collection of costume jewelry from the 1920s and 1930s, painstakingly put together over three years before opening. “When people think of Chanel jewelry, they rightly think of pearls. But there is a lot more, and I’m glad people are seeing this. “

The coins include a cross-shaped brooch belonging to the old Harper’s Bazaar editor Diana Vreeland, and a pendant belonging to Chanel herself.

Fashion shows have become big business in Australia and the arts sector has contributed to their success. At the NGV, the collections dedicated to Cartier, Dior and Australian fashion were key events for the gallery. The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney has hosted exhibitions focusing on the work of Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson, Collette Dinnigan and Akira Isogawa, and recently dedicated its Ultimo venue to fashion. The Bendigo Art Gallery has earned a reputation for presenting the spectrum of fashion as art, from Balenciaga to Australia’s first show dedicated to Indigenous fashion.

And although some have criticized the role of brands in public art, Arzalluz makes an effort to mention that while the exhibition was put on with the help of Chanel, it was not influenced by the brand. “They didn’t tell us what to do,” she says. “It was really a ‘Tell us what you need’ thing and then they let us do our job.”

Regarding the general and enduring appeal of fashion to museum goers, Arzallus says it makes sense: we all use fashion, every day.

Exhibition “Gabrielle Chanel: Manifeste de Mode” in Paris. Getty

“We all feel identified with fashion,” she says. “It affects us all; we get dressed every day. And generally speaking, people feel more comfortable with fashion shows than art.

There is a lot, she adds, to discover and understand about the world through fashion – an awareness that changed the course of her life.

The former political historian fell in love with the history of clothing after visiting the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and enrolled in an MA shortly after. Considered a kind of wild card for the role at the Galleira Palace, due to her youth and Spanish heritage, she is determined to breathe new life into the museum.

“For me, museums are about discovery, not about showing something we already know,” she says. “It was wonderful to see people find a new way of thinking [Chanel]. We really wanted to put the biography aside and focus on his work.

While many of the pieces on display are now 100 years old, they are striking for their modernity, she says, in particular the costumes and accessories. “We have had repeated feedback that the work seems so ahead of its time that it wouldn’t be out of place on a track today.”

MUST KNOW Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion manifesto is from December 4 to April 25 at NGV International, 180 St Kilda Road, Melbourne. For more details and to book, visit

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