Exploring the Impact of the Woman Behind the House of Chanel

The life and fashion of famed French designer Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel receives the white glove treatment in a new U.K. exhibition.

The name “Chanel” evokes a world of iconic looks, prized scents and luxury. But more than just an iconic fashion house, the Chanel brand was, and is, a storyteller.

A black and white photo of a woman at a desk surrounded by fashion photos
Gabrielle Chanel, 31 rue Cambon, Paris, 1937. Roger Schall/Condé Nast/Shutterstock

It originated the story of power of the “little black dress,” the fashion staple mass-marketed to the world almost a century ago that still endures today. It sold the tale of a long, thin strap as freedom in the “2.55” quilted leather handbag, designed to free up women’s hands and perfected in February of 1955. And it turned a tweed suit into something akin to legend—a garment that epitomized style on the workaday woman of the last century.

The fashion giant’s original storyteller was, of course, French designer Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883-1971), whose life’s output is on display in a new exhibition Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto, now showing at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London in partnership with Palais Galliera, Fashion Museum of the City of Paris. The much-anticipated show is a first for the U.K., which has never before had such a comprehensive retrospective covering the famed designer, and general admission tickets are already sold out to all but V&A members.

Those lucky enough to have booked their slots can take a closer look at hundreds of bespoke Chanel garments, bags, accessories, jewelry and of course, the eponymous numbered perfumes. There are also some rarely seen archival assets on display, including one of the earliest surviving Chanel-designed garments dating from 1916.

A selection of Chanel suits in the exhibit. Peter Kelleher

Born in France in 1883, Chanel spent almost seventy years designing and creating women’s fashions and luxury accessories, delivering her final collection just two weeks before her death at the age of 87 in 1971. (A series that controversially included evening-wear trousers.) Chanel created her singularity by embracing a casual yet seemingly effortlessly chic aesthetic and adopting an enduring ethos: she designed garments she herself wanted to wear. Comfort paired with elegance won over women in droves, and her designs became incredibly popular after WWI, as previously restrictive women’s clothes were abandoned in favor of then-innovative creations like sportswear and the LBD.

Chanel’s popularity in the early 20th Century coincided with social-political changes across Europe for women. Greater emancipation, functionally and economically, helped cement fashion as a means of self expression across more segments of society. Comfort paired with elegance won over women in droves, and Chanel’s designs became incredibly popular after WWI as previously restrictive women’s clothes were abandoned in favor of then-innovative creations like sportswear and the LBD. By the 1950s, Chanel hit her zenith, becoming one of the first designers to adapt the sailor’s bell-bottom pant for women and creating the cult classic Chanel suit.

Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto lets the designer’s work tell her story in segments built around several themes. First up is “The Emergence of a Style,” focused on how Chanel was able to adeptly develop a signature style in the 1920s and 1930s characterized by simple color palettes and understated designs that tended to privilege comfort over grand aesthetic. Chanel’s maxim was always: “Luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury.”

An installation view of ‘Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto’. Peter Kelleher

Then there is “The Suit,” which provides a comprehensive catalog of the endless iterations of the Chanel tweed suit, first launched by the designer in 1954. There are more than fifty suits on display, featuring varying colors and patterns that emphasize the impact of the garment and remind visitors of the breadth of possibility this deceptively simple design offers. It has served as both a reference point in fashion and visual shorthand for Chanel, and the exhibition makes plain how consequential the suit itself was in post-WWII society.

Other sections turn visitors’ attention to accessories—including Chanel’s classic two-tone slingback heels—and the evergreen appeal of these staple items that remain in the house of Chanel’s collection today. Couture worn by stars, including Lauren Bacall and Marlene Dietrich, is elsewhere on display reminding visitors of how Chanel won over Hollywood with her luxurious, if unadorned, fashions.

Cards outlining Coco Chanel’s famed “rags to riches” tale punctuate the thematic sections, expanding what most of us know of the French designer. Born into poverty, she was sent to an orphanage at age eleven when her mother died. There, she learned to sew. At eighteen, she worked as a seamstress and a singer in a cabaret, which is where she got the nickname Coco and encountered several wealthy men—one of whom helped her open a millinery shop in Deauville, France. Her early penury provided some practical design inspiration, as she embraced cheap jersey fabric in looks that eventually attracted the attention of wealthier shoppers.

The classic “2.55” bag. Peter Kelleher

The final theme of the exhibition, “A Timeless Allure,” focuses on the classic evening dress. It’s a clever and eye-catching segment, largely because V&A has recreated Chanel’s striking mirrored studio staircase. The historical trajectory of the designer’s sharp and simple aesthetic is literally captured in a cascade of reflections spotlighting garments that continue to inspire many in fashion today.

Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto aims to resituate the life story of Coco Chanel within the idea of the inaccessible opulence of the Chanel name today. From the story of the penniless girl who was taught to sew by nuns to the ambitious designer who created coveted couture for women, it’s humbling to see how her vision proved so transformative. The show is something of a restorative archival project, taking rare and celebrated garments from the designer’s extensive oeuvre to highlight how Chanel’s efforts to pair fine fabrics with unpretentious looks ultimately created a fashion that irrevocably broke the fashion mold.

Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto is on view at the V&A Museum, London until February 25. 

Exploring the Impact of the Woman Behind the House of Chanel