If you saw the 3-week exhibition Mademoiselle Privé, you’ll know that Chanel straddles the past and present exceptionally well. One of my highlights was the short film shown towards the end, written and directed by Karl Lagerfeld in which he finds himself face-to-face with Chanel’s ‘ghost’ brilliantly played by Geraldine Chaplin. “What do you think you’re doing!” she asks Karl, highly unamused. “I’m keeping you alive,” is his answer, explaining how he has reinvented the brand while keeping the house codes top of mind. The film is actually quite a hoot, but the sentiment beneath it is serious business.
Chanel is the most famous luxury fashion house in the world. Its stable of couture, ready-to-wear, accessories, fine jewellery and beauty have been coveted for decades, from the Chanel no 5 perfume worn by Marilyn Monroe to everybody’s favourite 2.55 handbag. And so, while London’s creative and curious queued in a never-ending snake for the Saatchi Gallery exhibition a few weeks ago, I was busy being treated to my own Chanel education, in a guided tour of the actual Chanel apartment in Paris, on a two-day trip hosted by Chanel.
Like most fashion enthusiasts, I’ve heard and read about the legendary private apartment on Rue Cambon. This is where Coco Chanel would entertain guests while above her, industrious ‘petites mains’ would graft in the couture atelier. Ascending the famous deco staircase is a moment in itself. Chanel would hide out of sight at the top of the stairs secretly watching the reaction of the press during her shows, via the wall of mirrors. Our guide waited patiently while camera phones and DSLRs kicked into selfie-taking action on the very same staircase; some things just have to be recorded for posterity…
As soon as you enter the apartment, it’s a bit like Chanel bingo. Spot the codes. There are the screens – Ding! There’s the wheat – Ding! The lions – Ding! Ooh a camellia – Ding! And the double Cs, inspired by the stained glass of the Aubazine orphanage where the young Gabrielle Chanel grew up – House! There are so many things to look at, and yet the space doesn’t feel cluttered or museum like. Perhaps that’s because of the ordered displays. Coco Chanel had a superstitious thing about symmetry, which is why so many objects are arranged in pairs.
My favourite spot was the sand-coloured suede sofa with its quilted cushions, a comfy zone where we
pinched ourselves surveyed the room and laid our hands on the crystal balls (in a pair of course) in front of us. This is where she would often entertain guests – Balenciaga and Givenchy might stop by for lunch – although she never slept here. She had her own suite at the Ritz a hop and a skip across the way in Place Vendome, where she would spend her nights.
Everything you see has a story, a superstition or some other symbolic significance attached to it. Our brilliant guide informed us that this beautiful hand sculpture by Giacometti symbolises the importance of hand made craft. Chanel made everything by hand as she didn’t sketch (what a contrast to Karl!). Wheat symbolises her poor country family, but is also a sign of prosperity. Even the beige carpet is a reference to the sand of her beloved Deauville seaside resort, where she opened her first store. The red herring is the abundance of chinoiserie in the Coromandel screens. In reality, Coco Chanel had never visited China, only in her imagination…
There are numerous recurring house codes and yet if you think of all the collections, shows, ad campaigns and store designs, the well of references never seems to run dry. It would appear there is always one more way to retell a story. Perhaps one of the most memorable is the famous 1992 Coco fragrance ad, directed by Jean-Paul Goude, starring Vanessa Paradis as a symbolic bird in a cage. In front of us, next to the Giacometti hand, we find the very same jewel-like cage that inspired the ad. Look at it like that and the apartment itself represents something of a jewel box, holding invaluable trinkets and treasures. So much so that the apartment has been classified as a historical monument by France’s Ministry of Culture and Communications…
Back in London, November 19th saw the opening of the grand Chanel fine jewellery boutique on New Bond Street. After an 18-month refit, it now boasts three floors of exquisite jewels and watches. Based on the Rue Cambon apartment, architect Peter Marino has installed familiar tropes – the blonde colour scheme, the chinoiserie screens, the elegant symmetrical ornaments – using painstakingly sourced antiques and specially commissioned works of contemporary art. The best vantage point is from the first floor, where the removal of offices affords the site a dramatic double ceiling height. A glass lift ascends to a top floor private salon with the same chic but cosy beige furnishings and deco touches. (There’s also a rather fabulous pink marble VIP loo should you ever get a chance to visit.)
Stroll along Bond Street and you’ll need to navigate a number of construction hoardings. Clearly Chanel isn’t the only fine jeweller undergoing a revamp. But the fine jewellery business is an interesting place to be right now, with women increasingly buying it for themselves, younger customers discovering newly-cool names (such as Repossi and Dauphin), and fashion companies diving into the space too. Louis Vuitton, Hermes and Maison Margiela have all ramped up their offer on the fine jewellery front and high-end jewellery is said to be the fastest growing segment within luxury.
Couture Week is just as busy, with the 1% scoping out the high jewellery collections as well as the gowns. But fine jewellery is no longer about gowns and tiaras. For Chanel, it’s very much a modern business – unlike other houses, it starts with its designs, not the stones. Its house codes are ever present but interpreted for the modern luxurist – dynamic diamond camellias, youthful stars, lion rings and watches inspired by the carved Coromandel screens.
As per today’s young, independent-minded customer, these are jewels to wear however you like. For the brand that helped to advocate high-low dressing, the mixed-up approach to fine jewellery is a natural next step. (As is selling online. Chanel sold its affordable fine jewellery line, Coco Crush on Net-a-Porter earlier this year.) Diamonds with denim? Coco Chanel would be totally up for that. Didn’t she pioneer mixing costume pearls with real, after all?
WORDS: Navaz Batliwalla/Disneyrollergirl
IMAGES: Disneyrollergirl; Chanel