In popular imagination, Chanel is a byword for classic French good taste – by which I mean the subdued, discreet aesthetic we associate with Paris style. So many tenets of modern Parisian dressing started at Chanel – the little black dress, the stripy Breton top, the ballet pump, the cropped, bouclé jacket. Etcetera. Etcetera.
But even a cursory look in any Chanel store window reveals a more subversive influence at work. Critics of Virginie Viard, Chanel’s creative director, blame her for what they see as lapses into kitsch and oddness, yet these curveballs have always been part of Chanel.
Gabrielle (“Coco”) Chanel, the epitome of monochromatic chic in her photographs, liked to throw little perversities into her later collections, as testified by some of the garishly coloured 1960s and 1970s tweed suits and rainbow ballgowns in the current blockbuster Chanel exhibition at the V&A (now extended for an extra fortnight owing to demand for tickets).
That doesn’t make the shiny white body stockings that every model wore in this spring couture show any less of a head scratch. Ok, Viard says she was inspired by the world of ballet – a tradition sparked a century ago when Coco Chanel collaborated with the Ballets Russes. But Lordy, they’re not the easiest of wears. Margaret Qualley, the talented actress daughter of Andie MacDowell, recently seen on our screens playing a young disadvantaged single mother apparently destined to spend her life as an overworked, underpaid cleaner in the TV series Maid, opened the show tasked with another burden: make thick sateen-finish tights and a ruff look appealing.
All that white elastane did however, create a stark backdrop for the jackets, which came in every variety a Chanel customer could desire, from waist-length cape-jackets to mid-thigh fitted blazers. The late Catherine Walker, one of Princess Diana’s favourite designers, once demonstrated to me the amount of work that differentiates a perfectly executed couture sleeve – one that hangs perfectly straight, no wrinkles from shoulder to cuff – from a run-of-the-mill sleeve.
You can see how sleeves might be the technical equivalent of a black ski run for designers. In the new Disney+ drama about Cristóbal Balenciaga, the couturier, whom Coco Chanel called the “the only true couturier amongst us, able to design, cut, assemble and sew a dress entirely by himself”, falls into paroxysms of despair when he sees women wearing badly constructed sleeves.
Suffice to say, these Chanel sleeves passed muster. Scoop-necked jacket-dresses, silver beaded “chore-jackets” and translucent jackets composed of silk chiffon flowers – when all’s said and done, the clients will come for those jackets.
There were red carpet moments too. We’re bang in the middle of awards season, and Chanel is setting out its stall for the nominees. Ultra pretty pale ballet pink tulle gowns might lure Margot Robbie, a Chanel ambassador, away from Barbie Pink for a few outings, although she seems committed to the Mattel theme for the rest of the season.
Floaty trains and capes are another big Chanel theme, along with delicate jewel trims and crystal buttons (this show was also an ode to buttons, complete with a giant button that descended from the roof). Sheer pencil skirts over those tights were a styling tic first seen last year at Gucci and Miu Miu and already worn by Emma Corrin.
Baz Luhrmann and his costume designer wife Catherine Martin flanked Anna Wintour in the front row. Possibly they were there as friends of the house (Luhrmann directed a lavish commercial for No 5 once) but with dramatisations of both Cristóbal Balenciaga and Christian Dior airing or about to air on the streamers, it’s more tantalising to imagine there’s a Luhrmann-directed Chanel biopic in the pipeline.