The V&A’s New Exhibition Is A Fashion-Lover’s Dream

By Charlie Colville

8 months ago

Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto comes to London this September

Can’t make it to fashion week? The V&A has the next best thing. The hotly anticipated Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto opens to the public this weekend, promising to relay the personal and professional story of one of fashion’s most prominent figures. Charlie Colville took a sneak peek at the exhibition before the grand opening – and made a note of everything you won’t want to miss.

First Look: Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto At The V&A

Chanel is a name synonymous with haute couture – even those unfamiliar with the intricacies of the fashion industry will be well-versed in its signature looks and styles. The brand, which burst onto the scene in the 1910s, was founded by its namesake Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel, a consistent innovator who pushed at the boundaries of fashion for over six decades.

So, when the V&A announced it would be bringing the life and work of this iconic designer to London, it’s safe to say that fashion fans were thrilled. Comprised of 400 objects gathered from over 25 different collections worldwide, Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto is a new rendition of the Parisian exhibition of the same name – and the first UK exhibition dedicated entirely to the pioneering French couturier.

‘Gabrielle Chanel was a master of her art. Her incredible outlook and career (spanning over six decades) distinguishes her as one of the most influential figures of 20th century Western fashion,’ said Tristram Hunt, Director of the V&A. ‘And as one of the most successful fashion houses in existence, Chanel owes much to the templates first laid down by its founder. This exhibition charts the evolution of Chanel’s iconic design style, and the establishment of the House of Chanel, with objects bridging the full timeline of her extensive career – from the opening of the first legendary Paris boutique in 1910 to the showing of her final collection in spring/summer 1971.

‘Drawing upon the Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto exhibition organised by the Palais Galliera fashion museum with the city of Paris, Paris Musées, the exhibition has been reimagined by the V&A with over 170 new objects. With our world-renowned holdings of fashion, the V&A is perfectly placed to tell this expansive story,’ he continued. ‘With the likes of Alexander McQueen and Christian Dior, the V&A has helped to define and redefine the fashion blockbuster. And now with Chanel, a master reinvention who transformed culture with her timeless language of modernity, we hope to extend this innovative image further.’

‘Since its original iteration in Paris, the show has evolved and changed,’ added Oriole Cullen, Senior Curator of Fashion and Textiles at the V&A. ‘There are over 191 mannequins in the show, and 100 of these are new exhibits shown in a completely reimagined design. The exhibition consists of 10 sections in all, which lay out the defining ideas and elements of Gabrielle Chanel’s fashion manifesto; her template for the wardrobe of the modern woman, crystalised is at the very beginning of her career and revisited and reinvented throughout her 60 years. Within these themes, the objects on display represent foundational and aspects of the recognisable Chanel style.’

Featuring rarely seen Chanel pieces from the V&A’s collection, alongside looks from the Palais Galliera and the Patrimoine de CHANEL (the heritage collections of the fashion House in Paris), the exhibition brings together a collection of items never before seen all at once. Teasers and sneak peeks promised nothing short of wonderfully glamorous storytelling – and now, we can confirm that Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto does indeed live up to the hype. Planning your visit? Here’s everything you should keep an eye out for:

Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto: 5 Things Not To Miss

Blouse on mannequin in display case

Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto at the V&A (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London / David Parry

1. A History Of The House

Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto can easily be described as a visual biography, told through the many garments, photographs and videos dotted throughout the exhibition. From one of Chanel’s earliest garments (a chic silk jersey blouse dating back to 1916, pictured above) and early 20th century street style shoots, to war documents and film clips, it tracks the designer’s life from humble beginnings (growing up relatively poor in an orphanage) to her last golden years (now known as one of the greatest fashion designers of all time).

Due to the sheer number of objects on display – there are over 400, after all – it’s easy to find yourself looking up at dresses, jewels and accessories rather than the captions nestled below. But these help tell the story of Gabrielle Chanel in greater depth, connecting the dots that might be missed with items alone. ‘As curators, we agonise over captions and text – and the realisation that not everybody reads them,’ said Oriole. ‘ So while the exhibition can be enjoyed just by looking at the incredible and beautiful object, I would also like to add that there are some wonderful stories and new information included in our text points.’

Chanel No. 5 Bottle

Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto at the V&A (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

2. Lessons In Perfume

Perhaps the most famous fragrance ever, Chanel Nº5 was the House’s debut perfume – and is now considered the world’s best-selling fragrance. Gabrielle Chanel dipped her toes into the world of beauty in 1921 with the release of Nº5, and further extended her brand’s repertoire with the launch of Chanel makeup in 1924 and skincare in 1927. Fragrance fans will be delighted to know that Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto give plenty of love to this aspect of the designer’s career, with an entire room modelled after the gold-tinted Nº5 perfume bottle filled with vintage bottles, makeup and skincare products.

Chanel suits in display case

Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto at the V&A (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

3. An Ode To The Chanel Suit

For most of us, the first thing we think of when it comes to Chanel is the iconic suit (hailed ‘the world’s prettiest uniform’ by Vogue). A defining garment in Gabrielle Chanel’s post-war career, the classic suit was crafted from supple fabrics that allowed for better movement and typically featured a cardigan-like jacket and matching skirt. Those feeling a need for tweed won’t want to miss the sixth room of the exhibition, which features a ginormous, two-storey display case filled with over 50 Chanel suits – with several once owned by models, film stars, royals and close friends of Gabrielle Chanel herself.

Gold jewellery in display case

Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto at the V&A (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

4. Magpie Moments

Have a wandering eye when it comes to all things sparkly? You aren’t the only one. Gabrielle Chanel was something of a magpie in her own right, having abandoned fine jewellery conventions in favour of glitzy costume jewellery. By the 1920s, the House was renowned for its ornate jewellery pieces crafted by skilled designers, often inspired by places and historical epochs. This is especially apparent in the penultimate section of the exhibition, where display cases filled with necklaces, bangles, earrings and brooches glitter under the lights. From designs modelled after vines, fruit and flowers to chunky gold necklaces that would look right at home on the necks of ancient Egyptian pharaohs.

But that doesn’t mean the designer was completely averse to fine jewellery. In 1932, Chanel worked on a collection made entirely from platinum and diamonds for the International Diamond Corporation of London. A brooch from Bijoux de Diamants collection (one of only two surviving) can be found in the fourth section of the exhibition, surrounded by couture evening gowns.

Room with displays of vintage Chanel dresses with mirrored staircase to the right

5. The Mirrored Staircase

The finale of Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto is unmissable for two reasons: one, it’s a fantastic visual tribute to the designer’s final collection, and two, you have to walk through it to get out. Gabrielle Chanel’s atelier was home to a mirrored staircase, which provided a fragmented view of models descending the staircase (with the tease making the final reveal of each look all the more exciting). The exhibition recreates this staircase on a massive scale, with several mannequins dressed in Chanel eveningwear stood on the steps and reflected in the floor-to-ceiling mirrors. Other mannequins and videos in the room pay tribute to evolution of the designer’s evening dresses, culminating in the designer’s final collection in SS71 – which is also shown alongside the display on video.

The Final Word

If you only see one show this year, make it Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto. With its twinkling theatrics, superb storytelling and – obviously – stunning fashion and beauty archives, the V&A’s latest exhibition outlines a vivid legacy left behind by the legendary Coco Chanel. Whether you spend your visit putting the pieces together with various guides and labels or simply staring up at the House’s creations, be prepared to fall in love with Chanel all over again.


Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto opens at the Victoria & Albert Museum on Saturday 16 September 2023. Tickets start from £24 and members go free.

Featured image: Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto at the V&A (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London / David Parry