Gabrielle Chanel was an avid reader – a devourer of literature whose apartment above her Rue Cambon salons was, and still is, lined on two walls with volumes ranging from Euripides and Homer to Maupassant and Molière, with memoirs of Casanova thrown in as well. That idea inspired Virginie Viard’s debut haute couture collection for the house of Chanel – perhaps underscoring her own studious respect for the house, reading of the codes, and the automatic writing of a new page. How apt, and how symbolic.
It was also a gentle homage to Karl Lagerfeld, with whom she worked for three decades and who was also renowned as a bibliophile. For a time, he even wrote literary criticism for French Vogue under the pseudonym Minouflet de Vermenou, and had his own book imprint with the publisher Gerhard Steidl, named Edition 7L after a bookstore he also established. In the Grand Palais, a circular library was erected, spinning out Chanel’s bookcases into an imaginary circular bibliothèque along whose perimeter the Chanel models perused the honey-coloured volumes. Under Viard’s eye, they were bookish sorts – sometimes wearing librarian’s glasses, occasionally strolling in flat slippers. “A woman with good shoes is never ugly,” Chanel herself once said. “They are the last touch of elegance.” And those women echoed the idea of the couture client not as a pursuer of flash and dazzle, but as an aesthete and intellectual, for whom haute couture is an investment akin to antique furniture, Old Masters or, indeed, hand-bound first editions.
Still in the opening chapter of her new story of Chanel, Viard’s haute couture offering was gentle, quiet and refined, like the backdrop. “I dreamed about a woman with nonchalant elegance and a fluid and free silhouette – everything I like about the Chanel allure,” she said post-show. Her models moved easily in silhouettes either gently rounded or bookmark-narrow, elongated tweed coats curling away from the legs to show pure white silk linings, like a fresh leaf of paper. Ease of movement throughout was paramount: trousers came for day and night, a tiered skirt breaking into culottes, offering women freedom and security. In place of a bride was a dégagé feather-frothed peignoir, worn in the intimacy and privacy of home. Other dresses slithered close to the skin, bias-cuts hugging the body and mirroring Chanel’s own creations of the 1930s, with their sinuous, sensual lines and extreme elegance.
Despite the inspiration, this collection wasn’t by the book – nor was it a rewriting of Chanel’s story. Instead, it felt like a revisiting of classics: maybe a re-reading, or even a new translation, finding new nuances and meaning in the established canon of timeless Chanelisms, an age-old story now told via Virginie Viard’s fresh handwriting.