The arrival in January of the Mademoiselle Privé exhibition, fresh from stops in London and Seoul, saw part of PMQ transformed to resemble the 31 Rue Cambon premises where a century ago Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel opened her first Paris boutique and salon, creative studio and haute couture atelier.
In paying homage to the designer’s brilliance, the three-week exhibition also demonstrated how the French maison, now with Karl Lagerfeld at the helm, is moving forward while maintaining the spirit of its famous founder.
Inside the exhibition
Visitors were greeted by a replica of the facade of 31 Rue Cambon before passing through into a red-themed garden that paid tribute to avant-garde Russian artist Ilia Zdanevich, known as Iliazd, who was a close friend of Chanel. Then began an immersive journey into the heritage of the house.
Dedicated spaces with captivating scenography highlighted the brand’s three main pillars: haute couture, the signature fragrance Chanel N°5, and haute joaillerie, with Gabrielle’s reborn Bijoux de Diamants collection taking the spotlight.
Bijoux de Diamants
“Emphasising the Bijoux de Diamants collection at this exhibition is extremely important not only from a patrimonial point of view—as it was the first and only collection Gabrielle Chanel created—but also because it’s a representation of her ground-breaking spirit,” Frédéric Grangié, president of the house’s watches and jewellery division, told us.
“She created the collection in 1932, a time when high jewellery houses were run by men; it was a breakthrough moment for the segment, to say the least. Coming from fashion, she felt that jewellery needed to be fluid, light, no clasps and with sensual shapes. She brought a woman’s touch to this segment, designing pieces women would actually want to wear.”
Inspired by Gabrielle Chanel
Gabrielle also famously presented the collection on wax mannequins instead of displaying them on jewellery boxes, which was the norm at the time. “We’ve done the same in the exhibition, presenting jewellery in an extremely dynamic manner and again very different from what you would see in boutiques or even in a museum,” Grangié said.
Today Chanel is among only a handful of brands that launch two high jewellery collections a year, in January and July. All its jewellery collections are inspired by aspects of its founder’s life—her inspirations, as well as significant moments and people. When asked if this approach constrained creativity, Grangié argued that it “is a fantastic constraint” to have.
“Gabrielle is the most modern woman of her time, and possibly the most relevant if she were still alive today. And in some way, these so-called constraints in fact allow for pure creation. But while we always look back, we also write new chapters for the maison. We still want to surprise people, and I think we’ve been successful in doing so.”
When Chanel celebrated 30 years of watchmaking, for example, it revealed something unexpected. “Many people were anticipating that we would make a limited edition of the Première watch, the first watch we made,” said Grangié.
“But we went in the opposite direction and released something completely new and ultra-modern, the Code Coco. I felt that those people who were expecting a re-edition of the Première really did not know what Chanel stood for. Because, indeed, while we stay true to our roots, like Gabrielle we are also trailblazers. I’d go as far as saying that the Code Coco, this mechanical jewel, is the ultimate Chanel watch—feminine, strong, distinct and forward-looking.”
As Grangié looked out over people beginning to trickle into the exhibition, he smiled and said: “I wish Gabrielle were around to see this. I’d like to think we’ve steered the brand in the right direction, towards a path she herself would have chosen, where at its very core is the burning desire to create and surprise.”