A Look at Chanel’s “Punk Princess” Couture Collection

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Chanel Haute Couture Autumn/Winter 2020 Virginie Viard
Chanel Haute Couture Autumn/Winter 2020Photography by Mikael Jansson

Presented as part of the inaugural digital haute couture week, Chanel’s playful collection began with Virginie Viard “thinking about a punk princess coming out of Le Palace at dawn”

Under normal circumstances, the arrival of couture week sees Paris’s most extravagant venues transformed for those most rarefied of fashion shows – not least the vast central hall of the Grand Palais, which plays host to Chanel’s haute couture presentations and has, over the years, been transformed into a library, a French garden, an Italian villa and a casino, or else implanted with elaborate set pieces, like a recreation of the Eiffel Tower or a monumental golden lion.

Of course, this is no normal year: in the wake of coronavirus, the physical haute couture week was cancelled, replaced with a week of digital presentations, which began yesterday. In lieu of a traditional show, Virginie Viard – Chanel’s creative director – chose to present her latest couture collection via a series of images, photographed by Mikael Jansson and featuring house muses Adut Akech and Rianne Van Rompaey, alongside an accompanying film. Comprising 30 looks as opposed to the usual 70, due to the physical restrictions placed on Viard and the atelier in the past months, the focused presentation seemed somehow fitting of Viard’s tenure, which has been defined by intimacy and restraint, rather than theatrics. “There is a sort of simplicity in going back to Chanel’s ABC. We don’t need to do too much,” she said after her Métiers d’Art show late last year.

That was the approach this past January, whereby Viard presented a couture collection inspired by Coco Chanel’s formative years at Aubazine, a Cistercian abbey in Corrèze in the south west of France. Presented amid an evocation of the overgrown courtyard at the abbey – “what I immediately liked was that the cloister garden was uncultivated,” Viard said at the time – the collection had a disciplined purity, recalling boarding school uniforms and the ecclesiastical garb of the nuns who would have taught the young Chanel.

But time spent in lockdown seemed to have placed Viard on a different track for this collection, the designer noting that the outing had begun with her “thinking about a punk princess coming out of Le Palace at dawn”. It seemed an about-turn: had Viard, stuck inside, been craving – like the rest of us – an evening getting dressed and heading out on the town? Or was she imagining her covent girl, broken free and let loose on the streets of Paris? “I like working like this, going in the opposite direction of what I did last time,” Viard explained. “I wanted complexity, sophistication.”

It made for a particularly joyful outing, which mined the 1980s for inspiration – the time when a young Karl Lagerfeld began at Chanel, and would host glamorous dinners and soirées, or spend evenings at Le Palace, alongside rebellious socialites and women like Grace Jones and Paloma Picasso. “This collection is more inspired by Karl Lagerfeld than Gabrielle Chanel,” Viard said, adding that she “really had Karl’s world in mind”. “Karl would go to Le Palace, he would accompany these very sophisticated and very dressed up women, who were very eccentric too.” As for the look: “a taffeta dress, big hair, feathers and lots of jewellery,” she said.

The collection followed a similarly glamorous tract: the house tweed was here enlivened in vibrant cerise, decorated with jewels or paillette flowers, or appeared to unravel into lace ruffles and fronds of feathers (despite the circumstances, Viard was still keen to utilise the immense workmanship of Métiers d’Art ateliers Lesage, Montex, Lemarié and Goossens, who contributed to the tweed pieces). Gowns looked made for an evening on the town: whether a society-girl moire silk ballgown – Van Rompaey’s spiky fronds of hair gave the look a debauched air – or a one-shouldered column gown, in disco-ball metallic lace. Others had a more historical bent, with pannier-style hips or ballooning sleeves: “a very Grand Siècle allure and the noble authority of heroines escaping from 19th-century tableaux,” as the accompanying notes explained.

It spoke of the house’s confidence that the world would indeed return to some sense of normality, and that its devoted clientele would have occasion to wear couture once again. (Chanel has said that it will host one-to-one appointments in its salon in Paris, and will facilitate international buyers with meetings with representatives in local markets.) As for Viard, despite the interruption to the usual grand gestures of couture week, the designer remains convinced of its allure: “For me, haute couture is romantic by its very essence,” she said. “There is so much love in each one of these silhouettes.”