For anyone with a remote interest in and/or enthusiasm for fashion, the day Sunday, December 5, 2021, should already be highlighted by a large and exclusive ‘X’ on the calendar. This is the day on which, having premiered in Paris in autumn 2020, the exhibition ‘Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto’ makes its international debut in Melbourne. Presented by the National Gallery of Victoria, in partnership with the Palais Galliera – the City of Paris’ pre-eminent fashion museum – and with the support of CHANEL, it will be the first exhibition in Australia to focus exclusively on the immeasurable contribution to 20th century fashion culture by the renowned French couturière Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel. Born in 1883, Chanel entered the world via a poorhouse hospice to impoverished parents. At 11 years of age, after her mother’s untimely death, she was sent to a Catholic orphanage. It was during her time in the orphanage that the young Coco learned to sew. Whether because of, in spite of – or a combination of the two – these humble and arduous beginnings, Chanel evolved into modern fashion history’s first bona fide revolutionary. By observing and responding to the growing desire for greater social freedoms among women in the early 1900s, the cutting-edge designer began to wholly reform the female wardrobe by literally creating a new dress code, one that favoured comfort, function and elegance. ‘Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto’ explores this fashion maverick’s career trajectory and the birth and evolution of her unique style.

Curated by the Palais Galliera, the exhibition contains over 300 total items, including jewellery, accessories, cosmetics, perfumes and over 100 original outfits, some of which have never before been seen by the public. Key designs have been chosen from the rich and varied holdings of the Palais Galliera and the Patrimoine de CHANEL, the heritage collection of the fashion house in Paris. These are further complemented by offerings from public museums, including the NGV, and specific private collections. Divided into nine sections and organised chronologically and then thematically, ‘Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto’ is a rare opportunity to see a comprehensive display of a visionary’s work from the full span of her long career. The timeline begins in 1910, when Chanel was but a mere 27 years old, with her iconic striped jersey “marinière” top and navigates a collection that is highlighted by elegant lace gowns, wool-jersey and tailored tweed suits and intricately beaded pieces. All of the designer’s big moments are celebrated. Think the iconic No. 5 perfume and the “little black dress”, as well as entire eras and aspects of her work that are often overlooked, amazingly. Interestingly, it is from these lesser-known creations that a surprising diversity and sophistication emerge. For example, in the 1920s, Chanel discovered flowers and floral prints, fringes, sequins and feathers – details not often identified with the fashion house.

‘Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto’ at the NGV

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‘Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto’ at the NGV

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‘Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto’ at the NGV

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Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel had a career that spanned over six decades. She devoted nearly her entire life to creating, perfecting and promoting an exciting and fresh take on feminine elegance based on the reality of women’s lives. In doing so, she rewrote and redefined the fashion conventions of the time in order to transform women’s wardrobes. Chanel’s success can be attributed to her use of innovative ideas, a pioneering approach to fabric and construction and the utmost consideration of the female form. This visually rich and alluring exhibition celebrates a design style based on principles of comfort, streamlined simplicity and an ease of movement – principles that became a veritable template for modern female living. Through her trademark timeless and modest luxury, always choosing subtlety over extravagance, the revolutionary artist managed to completely transform fashion, not once but twice, during her lifetime. It is now the Australian public’s turn to celebrate the spirit of freedom and defiance that defined and guided the Chanel design evolution throughout the 20th century. ‘Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto’ runs until April 25, 2022, and is located in the NGV International, Ground Level, 180 St. Kilda Road.  

Kay & Burton is a proud supporter of the NGV. 

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