Sitting down with Chanel’s President of Fashion, Bruno Pavlovsky, only a matter of months after the passing of the house’s legendary creative director Karl Lagerfeld and the subsequent appointment of his second-in-command Virginie Viard, could well be a slightly fraught affair. After all, this is one of the world’s most revered – and lucrative – luxury brands, and it has just lost the man who ensured its sustained success throughout his 30-year reign. In fact, so profound has his impact been on the brand that today Lagerfeld’s name is almost as interwoven with the Chanel narrative as that of Coco herself. But in the sticky Shanghai heat, amidst the opening celebrations surrounding the latest and largest iteration of Chanel’s travelling Mademoiselle Privé exhibition, Pavlovsky is resolutely calm. “Nobody is eternal,” he smiles. “The brand is stronger than that.”
The 6000 square feet that comprise Mademoiselle Privé are, in many ways, testament to the fact. “If you understand Mademoiselle Privé, you understand the brand,” explains Pavlovsky. “We are not talking about product – we are talking about Mademoiselle Chanel: her posture, her vision.” An enormous exploration of the house’s three core pillars – haute couture, high jewellery and fragrance – it showcases the profound confidence of a brand whose codes are set in stone. Where Karl Lagerfeld excelled was in modernising them: in enlisting the couture ateliers to turn their hand to fabrics like concrete or neoprene; in dressing his cool girl muses in astonishing diamonds; in maintaining the legendary renown of Chanel No. 5. If Coco Chanel established what is now the world’s longest-standing couturier, then Karl was responsible for ensuring she retained contemporary relevance.
The most impressive aspect of the exhibition is the couture tableaux installed behind the door of Shanghai’s very own 31 Rue Cambon: 33 silhouettes taken from six couture collections, from Spring/Summer 2013 to Autumn/Winter 2018. But even more impressive than the hundreds, sometimes thousands, of hours of labour that go into each of the looks – the extraordinary laminated lace, the hand-painted pencil shavings that appear as wooden ruffles, the laser-cut tweed suits that technically reinvented Chanel’s most renowned designs – is the idea that each has an impact that reverberates beyond the lucky few who can afford them.
While the garments that comprise Chanel couture might only be acquired by the most privileged elite, their astonishing creation significantly inform the rest of the house – both in terms of luxury branding and technical finesse. Lagerfeld was famously obsessed with both the present and the future – after all, as he told Suzy Menkes for Vogue before his passing, “Fashion is about change – and I like change. I do it like I breathe.” The innovation he introduced to couture and ready-to-wear was first explored through the laboratories staffed by his petits mains, who would develop never-before-used fabrics and techniques to add to their repertoire: “Haute couture is a kind of research and development,” explains Pavlovsky.
When, in 1997, the Chanel subsidiary Paraffection was set up to purchase Paris’s couture ateliers in order to sustain their craftsmanship, it ensured the safety of that strategy: a set of dying industries were revitalised anew, powered by the strength of Chanel financing (and the apparent equity of the deal: there’s no monopoly on their expertise, and every métier is permitted to work for other houses). When last year, for the first time in its 118-year history, Chanel released its figures, they proved the success of that mechanism: fashion, rather than fragrance or beauty, is what drives the business (those figures also indicated that the company’s growth is significantly indebted to the Asian market). “Everything we’re doing at Chanel is [preparing] for the next 20 years,” says Pavlovsky of the initial decision to invest in the company. Two decades on and those ateliers “are the key to our product,” says Pavlovsky. “We need to have that know-how.”
Inviting the public to immerse themselves in that savoir-faire, then, is a smart marketing move: you’d be hard pressed not to wander among some of these looks and become entirely convinced by the strength of the Chanel message: phenomenal clothing made with exquisite elegance. Then, there’s the high jewellery: Chanel’s equivalent of diamond-encrusted couture. On show are recreations of Coco’s 1932 designs, alongside the sort of contemporary pieces that ought require an army of security: a 307 carat rutilated quartz mounted on a 32.98 carat diamond; a golden plastron starring a 18-carat gold plastron starring a 6.52-carat stone. Presented against a backdrop of lacquered screens created by Chinese artist Wu Guanzhen, and amidst a gallery of Karl Lagerfeld’s muses wearing his understanding of Coco’s codes, it makes for impressive impact.
“We have a lot of fans here in China,” reflects Pavlovsky. “And need to give them the opportunity to better understand what Mademoiselle Chanel, and what the Chanel of today, is about… What you see here is the future of the brand, because these pillars will continue to incarnate what is so special, what is unique at Chanel.” During a time when speculation surrounding the brand’s future is, understandably, at an all-time high, saturating one of their most important markets in the luxuriant essence of its allure makes perfectly-timed sense. From the array of gowns to the displays of diamonds; the walls of Chanel No. 5 to the cinema-scale screening sessions of Lagerfeld’s films, you can imagine the fans will find plenty to sate them.
But perhaps more importantly, Shanghai’s Madmoiselle Privé is a reminder that Chanel’s codes, and the infrastructure that has been built around them, ought long survive a single designer. “The job done by Karl over the past ten years was in preparation for the next step,” says Bruno. “What you see here is the future of the brand, because these pillars will continue to incarnate what is so special, what is unique at Chanel […] Virginie is the same but she is different. She will probably bring some femininity to the Chanel look, but it will stay the Chanel look. We are enthusiastic for the future. Let’s see the Cruise collection in two weeks…” We’ll be waiting.