SHANGHAI — Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel never traveled to China but her spirit is definitely present here in a new exhibition.
This story first appeared in the January 19, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“Culture Chanel,” which opened over the weekend and runs through March 14, features 400 items tracing the life of the fashion icon. There are manuscripts, drawings, photographs, rare documents and jewelry on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The venue is a former greenhouse in People’s Square, a park situated in the heart of the city. Exhibition organizers said they are considering moving the exhibition to other Chinese cities but a final decision hasn’t been made.
Two years in the making, the exhibition captures the spirit, emotion, imagination and influences that encompassed Coco Chanel’s world. It effectively transports her spirit to China, a country that clearly fascinated and influenced the fashion legend in her life and in her designs. It also showcases China’s numerous ties to the modern-day fashion house, under the creative direction of Karl Lagerfeld.
The exhibition begins with Coco’s childhood when she and her two sisters were abandoned at a French orphanage. It was here where Coco formed an idea of beauty inspired by the austerity of the nun’s religious attire and her black orphan’s smock with a white collar combined with the opulence of ceremonial dress and liturgical objects. Such aesthetics would continue to influence Coco for the remainder of her life.
“Culture Chanel” goes on to illustrate Coco’s encounters and friendships with artists, writers and composers, including Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau and Igor Stravinsky. It highlights her travels to Venice with the Spanish painter Jose-Maria Sert where she encountered the opulence of Saint Mark’s Basilica, and later, her time in Russia, where the Kremlin, orthodox sacerdotal dress and icons inspired her.
One section of the exhibition features photographs of Coco in front of her vast collection of ancient Chinese screens. In 1996, Karl Lagerfeld would use the screens as inspiration for three intricately embroidered jackets, each requiring at least 900 hours of embroidery to complete. Those jackets are also on display here.
“Bringing this exhibit here was to give honor to the Chinese dreams she lived with,” said Jean-Louis Froment, a French art director and critic who curated of the exhibition. “The story of Chanel is really a story of emotions, of images and words. It is not just a history of fashion. It is more a history of feminine behavior. It is a social history by itself.”
Vincent Shaw, Chanel’s president for Asia, stressed how important it is for brands to deepen connections with Chinese consumers.
“The Chinese consumer is very hungry for information,” Shaw said. “They have exposure. They travel to Europe. They want to know more, and they want to know about the brands as well as why we are important, why the houses of luxury are important and that is one of the important positioning strategies of Chanel. We must work with our customers to engage with them and showcase the history and heritage of Chanel.”
Shaw, Chanel chief executive Maureen Chiquet and Chanel Fashion president Bruno Pavlovsky hosted an opening cocktail reception Friday night for the exhibition. A number of regional celebrities also attended as well as actress Anna Mouglalis, who is an ambassador for the brand and played Coco herself in the film “Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky.”
The three executives declined to offer up hard figures for their business in China. But said overall growth is strong.
“[It is] very good,” Chiquet said. “Or you could say excellent.”
In terms of forward-looking strategy, Shaw said it is one that is carefully regimented. While other brands are rushing to infiltrate cities outside of Shanghai and Beijing, Chanel executives said they want to make sure new markets for the brand are truly ready for the brand.
“We will do it in a pace that is relevant to the market, but we are constantly evaluating key cities,” Shaw said. “People have to be aware of Chanel. They have to feel Chanel before we put the brand there, so that takes a lot of time and nurturing, especially in a market which is growing so fast and the audiences are maturing very quickly, so we have to be careful when we make our footprints, we do it for the right reasons, and we do it for the long term.”
Currently, Chanel has 8 stores in China, six of which carry ready-to-wear and two for jewelry and watches. The brand made a major statement at the end of last year when Lagerfeld unveiled Chanel’s Métiers d’Art pre-fall 2010 collection on a barge on Shanghai’s Huangpu River. Also of note, this weekend, 18Gallery, an art space located on the Bund, will open an exhibition of photos produced by Lagerfeld and Adnan Taletovish, a fashion model and photographer, to coincide with the Culture Chanel exhibition.
Executives declined to give business projections for the brand in China.
“Of course China is hugely important because there is a very large demand for luxury products here and great clientele here,” Chiquet said. “But we have amazingly well-established clientele in the US and Europe and Japan. I don’t think you can say that China is the last frontier. We will continue to seduce women around the world.”