Regardless of how much you care about fashion, there’s a 99% chance you’re familiar with Coco Chanel. You’re also probably familiar with Chanel as the behemoth brand that dominates Bond Street with its tweed two-pieces and interlocking C’s. A French fashion house steeped in history and largely credited for establishing the chic Parisian uniform that we have all come to know and love, Chanel is beginning to leave its roots and look firmly toward the future. At least this is the impression you get as you enter the Saatchi Gallery, guided by legions of guards present to limit the crowds. As you enter the gallery you are treated to a recreation of Coco’s own garden divided into three sections, all of which are beautifully decorated with vast swathes of flora including, Chanel’s own favourite, the camellia. This stunning yet quaint entrance soon makes way for modernity as visitors are reminded that the exhibition comes fully-furnished with free Wifi and an accompanying app, which promises to act as a faithful companion there to uncover new nuggets of information as you peruse the installations.
|Mademoiselle Privé exhibition poster|
Essentially, this is the one problem with the exhibition. It soon becomes obvious that, for as many people have come to discover the exhibition, just as many have come for a photo opportunity. This impression fades as you move through the exhibition but throughout the first sections of the lower floor, the presence of technology is almost overbearing. One room is designed to uncover the ‘codes’ of Chanel - the lucky numbers which adorn the perfume bottles, for example, or even the use of the colour red. All of these quickly became trademarks of Chanel which remain intrinsic to the house aesthetic even today. The problem was that they were all simply blown up in size and illuminated, ready to be photographed. There were no explanations as to why they became part of the house codes, they were simply there to be quickly digested via the medium of smartphone, and just as quickly forgotten. The same mood prevailed in the diamond room (entitled Bijoux de Diamants), a large light installation focussed around a life-size diamond necklace which rotated in the centre of the room, projecting light onto a green screen. The effect was beautiful, especially when teamed with a quotation from the lady herself in which she proclaimed incredulity at the apparent demand for expensive diamonds in the middle of the Great Depression.
|Bijoux de Diamants|
You are then swiftly guided through hanging curtains of fabrics which range in texture from heavy cotton to frothy tulle and, in the centre of these curtains, a silhouette image is shown of a seamstress adjusting a couture gown. I was initially impressed by this room - finally, an installation which moves past light and image and incorporates the other senses. Running your hands across the fabric is a real sensory experience, and helps to envisage the various textural dimensions of a couture gown. Alas, this was not the intended case - we were sternly reprimanded by a guard, who told us the curtains were in place strictly to create a pathway, and not to be fondled.
|The 'perfume room'|
Upstairs was more promising - as you reach the first floor you enter a beautiful replica of a 19th-century garden, complete with Romeo & Juliet balcony. As you walk through the small garden you can sit and breathe in the heady scent of the shrubbery - for the first time in the exhibition you can quietly take in the atmosphere without fear of interrupting the camera-phone wielding guests and their impromptu photo ops. Next comes a room which intersperses some of Chanel’s most ornate and well-known outfits and portraits of celebrities past and present modelling the gowns. This room also leads to a small cinema which shows a film imagining a conversation between the late Coco Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld. This is the one room which demonstrates a sense of humour - the iconic Karl bitchily remarks that the house codes are somewhat limiting, and that he “writes modern music with the notes left behind” by Coco. The short film seems to be a witty comeback to those that put down Lagerfeld, that complain that he is dragging the house kicking and screaming away from its heritage and into the future.
|A replica of Coco Chanel's garden|
Ironically, it is this emphasis on modernity that does the exhibition a disservice. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but it would be nice to walk around a gallery without being pushed aside for the sake of a 22-year-old getting the perfect profile picture of her looking contemplative in the Jardin du Chanel. By introducing an app, you effectively encourage people to digest the exhibition through a lens and negate the emphasis on tradition that the exhibition content seems to promote. It is telling that, of all the rooms in the gallery, the most popular by far was the gift shop. It seemed people were clamoring for a physical keepsake of the exhibition, something they could wield as proof that they were there. The regimented guards were also slightly distracting at times - it would have been nice for the audience to have been able to interact with the exhibition itself as opposed to an iPhone app. But then of course this is West London and this is Chanel. Part of its allure is its unattainability - years after Coco herself, the brand remains a symbol of status, wealth and class. It’s unsurprising that the exhibition itself felt so voyeuristic and slightly off-limits. Still, it was pretty, and we did get a free gift bag. Coco would be proud.