The V&A is to host the first ever exhibition in a major UK museum on the work of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, covering the career of the French designer from the opening of her first millinery boutique in Paris in 1910 to the showing of her final collection in 1971.
The London museum’s exhibition, Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto, will display 180 designs as well as jewellery, accessories and perfume, and outfits created for Lauren Bacall and Marlene Dietrich.
And like much of Chanel’s work, the show is likely to be a blockbuster. It is organised into eight themes, and based on a show first displayed in Paris in 2020 and more recently in Melbourne. In addition to the pieces that are part of the touring exhibition, there will be outfits from the V&A’s collection which are rarely on display.
Chanel is widely regarded as a pioneer of modern fashion, a woman who designed for herself – a radical concept in the early 20th-century France, where women did not have the right to vote until 1944. She sought to emancipate clothes for women by making them simple, comfortable and chic, and doing away with corsets and fripperies of the era.
Items now known as classics – such as the “little black dress” and the Breton top – can be traced back to her work. Her perfumes – including Chanel No 5, which was first launched in 1921 – remain some of the world’s bestselling fragrances. She also had a Wildean knack for a bon mot: “fashion changes, but style endures” is a regular on Instagram feeds more than 50 years after her death.
Miren Arzalluz, the director of the Palais Galliera, the Parisian museum of fashion, said: “Gabrielle Chanel devoted her long life to creating, perfecting and promoting a new kind of elegance … a timeless style for a new kind of woman. That was her fashion manifesto, a legacy that has never gone out of style.”
Chanel undeniably changed the course of fashion, but she is considered a controversial figure. During the second world war, the Nazi officer Hans Günther von Dincklage was her lover. In 2011, the investigative reporter Hal Vaughan’s book Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War showed evidence that she was antisemitic and carried out work as a Nazi intelligence officer, recruiting agents across Europe. The exhibition, which is due to open in September 2023, focuses on her work, rather than life.
Chanel the brand remains a huge powerhouse in fashion – partly thanks to Karl Lagerfeld, who revitalised the house after Chanel’s death. In his tenure as creative director from 1984 until his death in 2021, he made Coco Chanel an icon, reimagining many of her designs, such as the 2.55 quilted bag, and by featuring her image in campaigns and imagery. With the collections currently designed by Virginie Viard, Chanel was valued at $13.2bn (£10.5bn) in 2021.