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mademoiselle prive exhibition chanel shanghai
Mademoiselle Privé ShanghaiCourtesy of Chanel

Five things we learned at Chanel’s new exhibition in Shanghai

The house’s Mademoiselle Privé exhibition continues its world tour, opening at the West Bund Art Centre in China

Mademoiselle Privé, Chanel’s revelatory exhibition began in London in 2015 and since then, has toured Asia with stops in Seoul and Hong Kong. Now, it has come to Shanghai.

Even though the scenography has changed dramatically with each city, the three pillars are essentially the same – the perfume Chanel No. 5, Chanel haute couture, and high jewellery – all icons instigated by founder Gabrielle Chanel. Taking place at the West Bund Art Center from April 20 to June 2, the exhibition is held in an expansive space, with sketches, mannequins in couture, and films directed by the late Karl Lagerfeld

“It’s not about product, it’s about creation,” says Bruno Pavlovsky, president of fashion at Chanel. “There is no other brand that can execute these pillars at this level. Here you see all the values of the brand and how they engage with the future.”

While craft is placed centre stage, the exhibition also emphasises the modernity and innovation of what Chanel is doing within haute couture, with pieces such as the incredible 3D “selective laser sintering” Chanel suit created without a single stitch, and material advancements like concrete netting, neoprene eveningwear, wood shaving embroidery, and siliconised lace amounting to thousands of hours of work. There’s even a platinum, diamond-encrusted cigarette case that took 1,350 hours to create. 

The exhibition comes shortly after the passing of Lagerfeld, longtime Chanel designer, leaving the house in a time of change – and the opportunity to reaffirm its identity. “Nobody is eternal. The brand is stronger than that,” Pavlovsky concludes. “The job that Karl did in the past ten years was a preparation for the future.”

Here’s what we learned from the exhibition.

THE EXHIBITION BRINGS CHANEL TO REAL LIFE SCENARIOS

In Shanghai’s West Bund Art Centre, three distinct staircases lead up to a mezzanine floor, and a re-imagined ‘house’ for each pillar. In Grasse, the iconic perfume’s floral notes are brought to life with animatronic flowers, symbolising the abstracted scent that Chanel and perfumier Ernest Beaux wanted to create: one that would be as “artificial as a dress.” At 18 Place Vendôme, Coco Chanel’s 1932 Bijoux de Diamonts collection – her one and only high jewellery collection – is recreated and displayed alongside more recent pieces to show the enduring inspiration of her stars, sun, bow, feather, and fringe motifs. At 31 Rue Cambon, 33 key haute couture ensembles by Karl Lagerfeld are grouped by materials and accompanied by vaguely surreal voiceovers, placing lofty haute couture in modern scenarios, from a forest stroll to a dinner party. One group is overheard taking the subway home. Chanel concrete couture on the tube?  Why not.

VISITORS CAN INTERACT VIA WECHAT

In China, you basically can’t function without WeChat – it’s IG, Facebook, Uber, Google and all your payments, rolled into one and mainly powered by QR scans. In light of recent luxury brand gaffes in China, how does Chanel approach this audience of WeChat-powered netizens with mega spending power? “Chanel is about creation and creation is global,” says Pavlovsky. “Here in China we have a lot of fans, who love the story of Mademoiselle Chanel and we need to give them the opportunity to learn about what she was about and what Chanel today is all about. WeChat was integral to the exhibition here.” Throughout the exhibition, chic QR codes bearing the image of Coco can be scanned through WeChat to access extra video content and audio guides, voiced by the Chinese actress and Chanel ambassador Zhou Xun. But don’t expect to find any Chanel fashions online any time soon. “We believe that Chanel is more than a click,” Pavlovsky says. “We want to offer our specific expertise in person in our physical boutiques.” 

IT’S ALL ABOUT THE TEAM, NOT ONE CREATIVE DIRECTOR

The exhibition doesn’t make just one creative director the main protagonist. In each room, there’s a central pillar of video screens showing all the hands that take part in the making of Chanel’s haute couture, jewellery, and perfume and they are the ones that Chanel chooses to honour, what with their acquisition of embroidery and featherwork ateliers like Lesage and Lemarié. “If you look at Mademoiselle Chanel, she created that strong partnership with Goossens (French jeweller) and Lemarié, before Mr Lagerfeld took those relationships to another level. Today, Virginie is doing the same thing.”

DUA LIPA PERFORMED AT THE AFTERPARTY

If culture is global, then so were Chanel’s choice of performers at the opening party of Mademoiselle Privé. Bathed in red light amid party goers eating dan dan noodles and dumplings, Paris-based twin act Ibeyi introduced their multi-lingual performance to a Shanghai audience. Then Dua Lipa, in a black and white CC swimsuit worn with signature white tweed performed standout bangers including “One Kiss” to “New Rules”. A swathe of super glam Chinese Chanel clients clad in tweed and pearls partied on with the likes of model Liu Wen, Julianne Moore, and Zhou Xun.

VIRGINIE VIARD’S VISION FOR CHANEL WILL COME SOON

Although Mademoiselle Privé as an exhibition is focused on Chanel culture as opposed to one creative director, it was hard to ignore the fact that, in Lagerfeld’s wake, there is a huge amount of curiosity as to Chanel’s next steps – especially when it comes to where Virginie Viard will take the label. Pavlovsky was keen on emphasising the continuity that Viard brings and that things must go on, despite what has happened. “Of course we are very sad, but at the same time we feel ready and energetic to prepare for the next steps. Virginie will bring some femininity to the Chanel look, the one laid down by Karl. We are enthusiastic for what comes next. Let’s see the cruise collection in two weeks time!”