The Shape of Chanel

How the latest exhibition at the V&A is a striking reminder, that quality clothes are for keeps.

If there is one unfaltering fashion brand which has stood the test of time, it is Chanel. Consistently classic and continually coveted, this label has remained untarnished and pretty much unrivalled, for over a century.

I was lucky enough to go and see the latest exhibition at the V&A, in its opening week. It was as enchanting as I had hoped. ‘Gabrielle Chanel, Fashion Manifesto’ is a beautiful reimagining of an exhibition which originally took place in Paris, in 2020, showcasing 200 Chanel looks. Starting with her millinery boutique in Paris, through to her very last collection from 1971, which she was still working on when she passed away that year.

Not only is this exhibition a comprehensive curation of clothing, it also gives us an in-depth narrative on Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel herself, the woman who created this oh-so-iconic label. Raised as an orphan, and taught how to sew by Nuns, Chanel went on to become a successful socialite, with many still pondering if she was actually a wartime spy for the Germans. At the young age of 27, she opened her first ever boutique (with the financial assistance of her wealthy lover) at 21 Rue Cambon, in Paris. A pioneering business woman, she remained unmarried all of her life. She was as much an inspiration for female independence, as she was for fashion.

Her style and designs quickly became popular all over Europe, for their simplistic elegance and exceptional high quality. To see so many pieces on display at this exhibition is testament to just how long good quality clothing can live. Understandably, when you buy well made clothes, you look after them carefully, and they pay you back with durability. All the exhibits were in stunning condition. I’m sure some of the more delicate pieces wouldn’t fare too well if you were to pop one on today for an all night party, but, on the whole, they still hold their style, their wearability and all the wonderful details with which they were made.

The palette of this exhibition was delicious, like an ice cream parlour. Colour blocked by room, starting with creamy vanilla from Chanel’s early beginnings, sprinkled with some sugary sweet pastels. The room of suits (arguably her most iconic look, and the most talked about room in the exhibition) is a feast for the eyes. Show stopping cabinets of colour; sorbet brights and pops of bold berry tones, all standing to attention hoping you’ll choose them as your favourite flavour. It wouldn’t be a Chanel exhibition if it didn’t feature black. A colour only really worn for mourning until Chanel made it a go to look for understated glamour. We also see examples of Chanel’s skincare, bags and jewellery. This woman was aware that beauty and fashion sell, and she evidently knew how to build a brand which everyone would want.

The final room made me gasp out loud. I do like a bit of theatrics in a fashion exhibition. The sweeping staircase mimicking her original Rue Cambon boutique, made me feel like I had waltzed onto the set of a 1950’s Hollywood musical. Spellbinding. Exhibitions have a wonderful way of absorbing us into another time and place, and this one did that superbly. ‘Gabrielle Chanel, Fashion Manifesto’ is a gorgeous trip along the timeline of this brilliant brand. One which still has a heartbeat as strong as when it first began. Very much worth a visit.

‘Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto’ is at the V&A until February 25th, 2024.

All photos by me.

The Outstanding Talent of Thierry Mugler

When a creative icon passes away, we all lose something. No more will we get the privilege of seeing exciting new work, no more ideas will form in their wonderful minds. The world of fashion and its followers are all a little worse off now that genius Designer, Manfred Thierry Mugler has died at the age of 73, on January 23rd, 2022. Famed for his architectural, sculpted designs, his fetishistic leanings and his unapologetic exaggerations of the female form; Mugler goes down in history as a legend in his own lifetime. A pioneer of provocative, ground breaking collections, he leaves a legacy which will never stop influencing future generations. Here’s some of Mugler’s work which captured mine and many peoples hearts.

Gold Leather Suit, A/W 1979

Futuristic and sexy as all heck, this insanely cool leather suit was strides ahead of its many copycat leather tailorings of the 1980’s.

Peekaboo Cut-Out Dress A/W 1995

Always one to push the boundaries of cheekiness, this bum-baring evening dress is full on flirtation. Elegant and sophisticated, until you turn around and boom!…bum is out! I adore this fun filled take on fashion.

Motorcycle Corset, 1992

Later reincarnated for Beyoncè on her 2009 ‘I Am’ tour, this corset is possibly Mugler’s most legendary and well known design. Created for George Michael’s infamous ‘Too Funky’ video.

Venus Gown, 1995

A sensational show stopper of a dress, and a typical celebration of womanhood by Mugler. More recently worn by Cardi B on the red carpet.

Wet Dress, 2019

Mugler came out of retirement to create this mouth watering optical illusion of a dress, for Kim Kardashian to wear to the Met Gala. She does wear it better than anyone else I could imagine.

Haute Couture at Cirque d’Hiver, 1995

Mugler loved to blur the line between fantasy and reality and his penchant for sci-fi was always evident. This collection marked the 20th anniversary of his brand and was staged in his usual theatrical way, at Cirque d’Hiver in Paris. The metallic robotic cat suit with perspex breast windows went down in history as a look which lingers on fashions radar.

David Bowie, 1970’s

Confronting gender norms has been around for decades, albeit in a less mainstream way, but Mugler was always a pioneer of this theme. His designs were beautifully worn on numerous occasions by the inimitable David Bowie.

Gold & White Dress, A/W 1984

As a lover of sculptural 80’s dresses, and anything kitsch and bold, this dress is one which pushes ALL of my buttons, what a trailblazer Mugler was for 80’s OTT party looks!

Sexy Cleopatra, S/S 1985

Fiercely feminine and deliberately sexualised, this is a dress which would look bang up to date at any club today. You can never have too much gold in an outfit.

Beastly Woman, A/W 1997

Stunning his audience with this somewhat inhuman look, this is a blend of bird, beast and fish, with scales of golden armour, feathers and a serpent eyed stare from the model. His most intense project, this outfit was said to have taken 24 hours a day for 6 weeks, to make. Worth it for sure. Wow.

We’ll never see another talent as radiant and radical as Thierry Mugler, an epic loss. What do you love most about Mugler’s legacy? Let me know in the comments!

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A Riot of Roses

Japanese sculpture artist, Makoto Egashira is a man of many blankets. The fluffy flowery blankets so commonly seen in Japanese homes, to be precise. He covers everything in them, resulting in the most charming overload of chintz, and I love it!

Born in 1986 and a graduate of TAMA University, Egashira first started using the Rococo floral blankets in his work after a friend told him they were the only uncool thing in his apartment. His rightful rebuttal was to take all the blankets he could, and run with them. Like, really run with them. Proving his point perfectly that they are in fact, very cool in their chaotic kitschiness. Popular in Japanese homes after the Second World War, these brazenly bold blankets were not the typical style of Eastern interiors, yet they suggested a fascination and love for Westernised aesthetics. Egashira enjoys the clash of cultures in his work. We see traditional Eastern neatness and formality (and popping your slippers by the door) contradicted with showy-offy loud prints and palettes. His sculptural installations also offer us a colourful collision of soft versus hard. The plush fabrics offering a feminine gentility to the hardness of everyday domestic items such as wooden chairs and…a toilet. FYI I’ve added the toilet picture to my inspo images for interiors, I would adore to have a bathroom that looked like Granny had gone bonkers with a blanket project. I like opposite ends of the scale when it comes to style. I enjoy mute minimalism, or over the top too-muchness. It’s the midway stuff I like less. Choose a style and do it to the fullest. Egashira’s artwork takes that lead, with a total committal to its style. This is maximalism in full bloom, and it sure works well in my eyes.

I’m off to search the internet for old blankets.

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Architect of Attire – The Genius of Charles James

There’s a handful of names which roll off the tongue when talking about fashion designers of the twentieth century. Dior, Chanel, Quant, Balenciaga, to name a few. But there’s one other name which deserves to be spoken of in the same league, and that is the oh-so-innovative Mr Charles James.

Born in the UK in 1906 to an English Father and American Mother, James moved to Chicago as a young man and worked in the offices of a family friend. After putting on a fashion show for fun (which consisted of Batik beach wraps) the family friend saw talent in James and moved him to the Architecture department. There he learnt the mathematics and structural skills which he would later utilise in his dress designs. James went on to work in fashion from the 1920’s onwards. He soon became the first Parisian style Couturier the US had seen, having such influence on fashion design that his contemporary, Dior, remarked that James was ‘the greatest talent of my generation’. That’s quite some claim when you consider that in his 45 year career, James only produced around 100 garments. But such was the magnificence of his designs, he earned every bit of recognition, and continues to inspire designers to this day, including my favourite; Zac Posen. Charles James deserves to be up there with the most well known names of the century.

In particular, James was known for ballgowns – and mY GoSH, do I loooove vintage ballgowns – winning high society clients in both the US and Europe. If you wanted to be seen in a ground breakingly beautiful gown, James was the man you needed to have on speed dial. Or rather the old fashioned equivalent. Either way, if James made you a dress, you would WOW. Fact.

During his career, James proved to be a pioneer of design, adopting an innovative approach to the structure of each garment. His dresses weren’t simply made, they were engineered and sculpted with complex corsetry and draping. He developed a signature ‘Wall of Air’ in his dresses to hold the fabric away from the body, allowing these heavy works of art to sit comfortably on the wearer. He loved a bustle (don’t we all?) and gave numerous nods to the Victorian silhouette. He wasn’t only a leader in the sense of shape, he was also the first designer of his time to use zippers, snaps, synthetic fabrics, and unusual pairings of colours. Without James, I reckon we could be looking at quite a different history of fashion.

James is best known for a few of his signature dresses, all of which paved the paths of future designers.

Clover Leaf Dress, 1953

The Clover Leaf dress is astounding, and quite possibly his most praised. Made in satin, it was constructed from four sections (torso, upper skirt, middle section of the skirt, and the hem) and the base has four corners resembling a clover leaf. James’ designs were often derived from the beauty of nature, and he always interpreted it in such a modern and original way. He first designed the Clover for Austine Hearst to wear to the 1953 Eisenhower Inaugural Ball. This 10lb gown sat balanced on the hips and made a sweeping statement. Deemed too bulky for that occasion, Hearst ended up wearing it to the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II instead. A worthy wear, in my opinion. James made six black and white clover dresses during his career.

Butterfly Dress, 1955

Another dress inspired by nature, James’ Butterfly dress is a sensation. Once you know that it’s designed in reference to a Butterly form, you can see it. The slim column body with the layered transparent tulle as wings. Incredibly elegant, James formed a higher torso and bust line than usual to accentuate its length and proportions. This earthy tone was so novel for evening wear, but brown was soon secured as a perfect palette for future fashions.

Taxi Dress, 1932

Many credit Diane von Furstenberg for creating the infamous ‘wrap dress’ in the 70’s. But way before she was even born, James had already created the style. He actually first developed it in 1929 and went back to fully realise the design in 1932 when it got stocked in small amounts in department store, Best & Co. It was a highly wearable piece and was made with modern women in mind; the idea being that it was easy to take on and off in the back of a taxi! Formed from one piece of seamless fabric, it had a spiral zipper and three clasp hooks to anchor it at the hip. Just. Genius. And, way to go for making life easier for the gals!

Charles James is high up there in my top 5 favourite designers of his era. The drama of the designs, the show stopping extravagance, twinned with an original flattery of the female form, means that his work thrills my eyes. And when you add to all that the fascinating construction behind each idea, well, it’s just dreamy for any vintage lover.

Stunning, and with a story. Perfect.

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Fashion in a Frenzy

Collaborative collections between high street stores and high end fashion Designers are big business, giving consumers a chance to own designer styles at a fraction of the price. But with collections selling out in seconds and items reselling online for often triple the original price, who are the real winners in what seems like a sartorial game of sport?

The Vampire’s Wife, H&M, 2020

Global fashion chain H&M first kicked off its now legendary annual tie ups with big shot fashion designers back in 2004. The debut was a collection with the late Karl Lagerfeld. These partnerships result in big bucks and enormous exposure for the brands. It was game on from that point, having a hot hook up every year since with names including Comme Des Garcons, Lanvin, and Isabel Marant. Other high street stores were fast to join the game. Gap got Valentino into their gang, Uniqlo teamed up with J W Anderson, and Topshop joined forces with Mary Kantrantzou, Christopher Kane, and their most powerful pairing; Kate Moss. The structure of these sell out collections is a winning formula. Whispers gather speed, sneak peeks appear, and excitement swells alongside massive marketing. A slow paced anticipation, is followed by a sprint to the launch date. Alarms set, queues form outside the stores, fingers hover over keyboards, like waiting for a starting gun to release the race. Shoppers hoping to get their own piece of the collection which -at least for that week- everyone is talking about. This huge hype creates hysteria at the high street stores. They no doubt know that every item will be a sLaM DuNk seller.

Kate Moss, Topshop, 2010

The collaborative collections all tend to be small, with star player pieces which by the time they go on sale, I’m a little sick of the sight of. The ad campaigns relentlessly run on TV, billboards and magazines. On launch day social media is flooded with successful shoppers flaunting their wares, like winners of a competition. Show offs. Do they really love that Giambatista Valli H&M dress we’ve seen five thousaaaand times on Kendall Jenner in the campaign? Or are they more chuffed with the fact that they managed to actually get one? Like a gold medal for the most dedicated fashion fan.

Lanvin, H&M, 2010

I really do love some of the collections. The multiple ones Moss has done with Topshop all have some pieces which make my heart skip a beat. The latest H&M collaboration with -lust worthy dress maker of the moment- The Vampire’s Wife, has some absolute darling dresses, and a stand out cape like many of Moss’ collections. But I can’t help feeling that the beauty of them, and that of wearing them, is a little overshadowed by just how damn overexposed they all are in the media. If I see someone wearing an item from one of these collections, rather than admire their style and think they look lovely, I’m more likely to think that they heeded the hype and fought to get their fashion fix. Or that they paid a fiercely inflated price to buy it from a reseller. The power of promotion.

Karl Lagerfeld, H&M, 2004

As with much new fashion, inspiration is drawn from original vintage looks. The pieces I adore most from both Moss and The Vampire’s Wife’s collections have strong similarities to items I have sold over and over in their original form through my vintage shop. Does the limited edition nature of these high street collaborations make the dresses collectible? Possibly, in many years to come, they are very identifiable and made in restricted amounts. I will always value an original vintage dress more though. These high street collections are still after all, mass produced to some degree, not one of a kind. The resale market for these collections is a secondary business in itself. Within hours of the items being on sale in the stores, online selling sites such as eBay and Depop are full of them, often at triple the high street price tag. The demand is so high that the value increases the moment it leaves the shop. But how long does it hold its value? Once the frenzy fades, are people still willing to pay so much? Prices get hiked so high that the Valli H&M dresses were reselling online for more than a dress from Valli’s own ready to wear label! Wowzie.

Valentino, Gap, 2010

Are pieces from these collaborations iconic, or just over popularised? The more we see something, and get told that everyone wants it, the more we feel an urgency to get it, and fast. People buy any size they can grab, regardless of whether it fits, just to be involved. This feels like fast fashion played out in a literal sense. Create a craving, build up to the release, keep it limited, and it’s guaranteed to be a very fast money maker. It’s a game, but who is the player here? These collaborations are a whole heap of fun and create some really beautiful fashion. But if they made more runs of each item so they weren’t limited stock, would we all still so eagerly hand over our money just to score a goal?