At the heart of Chanel’s Mademoiselle Privé exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery is a short film, written and directed by Karl Lagerfeld. In it, Coco Chanel, played by Geraldine Chaplin, has risen from the dead to find Mr Lagerfeld (played by himself) sitting at a desk in her studio. She taunts him mercilessly: ‘Don’t you think it’s limiting what you do?’ she demands. ‘You manipulated my designs. WHAT are you doing with my brand? When you were handed my house in 1983, I turned in my grave!’ To which Mr Lagerfeld asks in frustration: ‘And are you still disappointed?’ ‘Happily, yes,’ says Coco.
The film reveals Mr Lagerfeld’s wit and self-deprecating humour; it also displays Coco Chanel’s force of will. What better way to tell the story of these two fashion revolutionaries, depicted throughout the exhibition? Coco Chanel, who left an exceptional legacy and Karl Lagerfeld, who must find new ways to retell her story every eight weeks. (As Lagerfeld points out to Coco, ‘You only designed two collections a year, whereas I must do eight!’)
‘I gave the better part to her than to myself, don’t you think? But then, she has a very strong ego, which I don’t have. I look more like the ghost than she does,’ said Mr Lagerfeld who had jetted in for the exhibition’s opening night, fresh from last week’s epic Chanel Airlines collection. ‘It’s really quite stunning,’ he said of the exhibition, declaring his favourite room to be the one featuring the most precious couture dresses, each one displayed with a neon light inside it to better see the couture atelier’s craft, inside and out.
The exhibition, a year in the making, starts with the history of its founder, with a reconstruction of the mirrored staircase above Chanel’s salon, where Coco would sit and observe, unseen, the reactions of the fashion press and her customers. The ground floor is dedicated to Chanel’s life – the opening of her first store, a hat shop in Deauville, the summers she spent in Scotland with the Duke of Westminster, and the totems on which she built her brand – black and white, the colour red, pearls, camellias. Every room is further brought to life by the Mademoiselle Privé app which visitors can download. Point your smart phone at the mirrored staircase and a virtual tour instantly transports you to Coco’s private apartment above Chanel HQ on Paris’ Rue Cambon.
The house’s creativity provides the backbone to everything on display, focusing on the three pillars of the brand, haute couture, fine jewellery and fragrance. The latter, Chanel No 5, is presented in a high-tech factory of a room with huge vats of potions bubbling and letting off steam. The 1932 fine jewellery collection, first created by Mademoiselle Chanel, and recreated by Lagerfeld for the brand’s last couture show set in a casino and worn by a host of celebrity gamblers that included Julianne Moore and Kristen Stewart, is displayed on mannequins together with the dresses Lagerfeld created for each ‘personality, body, age and spirit’. Meanwhile, the ‘savoir-faire’ of Chanel, the making of clothes, can be felt (quite literally) in the ‘sensory’ room, where you can walk through and touch some eight kilometers of fabric hanging from the ceiling and watch videos of fittings taken inside the atelier. There are also pop-up workshops on the top floor, where seamstresses from Lesage and Lemarie are on hand to guide you through the making of your own camellias and crystal embroideries.
But back to the film, which is the key to the exhibition and its must-see attraction. ‘It’s my favourite,’ said Julianne Moore on the exhibition’s opening night, ‘It really encapsulates the soul of Chanel. What she accomplished was so singular and so personal and what Karl has done is extend that very personal influence and made it global, which is an astonishing achievement.’
Mademoiselle Privé, Saatchi Gallery, from 13 October – 1 November, 10am – 6pm, 7 days a week (Wednesdays until 10pm). Free of charge. See Saatchigallery.com for details.