Named after the sign that Coco displayed on the door of her atelier to enable her to work uninterrupted, the Mademoiselle Privé exhibition at London’s Saatchi Gallery takes you on a sensory journey along the milestones in life of the charismatic founder of Chanel. The exhibition also presents some of the audacious fashion house's most exquisite creations.
The journey begins as you enter Saatchi’s grounds; the pathway from the King's Road gate is transformed into a quaint English country garden. As you emerge from this chimerical surrounding and enter into the exhibition, visitors meet with a sketched image of Coco in her ionic attire, at her Rue Cambon apartment with its decadent mirrored staircase.
The ground floor rooms lead you through the milestones in Coco’s life; the opening of her first hat shop in Deauville, the summers she spent in Scotland- these are only traced out and visitor’s are expected to colour in the details with the Mademoiselle Privé app which can be downloaded onto smartphones. This is only the first sensory magic we encounter; the next visual delight is waiting at the end of a series of increasingly darkened rooms.
As we turn a corner, we are stopped in our tracks by a giant, rotating birdcage. Chanel used a cage to flaunt Vanessa Paradis in their famous fragrance advert, here it showcases an enlarged version of a star-covered diamond necklace designed by Coco in 1932.
One of the most meditative and peaceful rooms is the pretty French garden. As visitors walk around the double C pathway, you can smell the scented box hedges.
The exhibition is light on the historical details of Coco Chanel’s life, however, excited for Mademoiselle Privé and to feed my curiosity of the audacious couturier, I turned to Vogue on Coco Chanel by Bronwyn Cosgrave, to get an insight into the life of Coco before the exhibition.
It is clear that Coco built her empire up from the ground. Gabrielle Chanel was born in 1883 in a poorhouse and was one of five children. At a young age she was tragically abandoned, along with her sisters, by her father who left them at the Aubazine orphanage in the Corréze Valley,France. Despite the trauma she suffered at being neglected and her dislike of the orphanage, Aubazine is thought to be the source of inspiration for some of Chanel’s signature features. Cosgrave notes that Aubazine’s ‘white-washed, unadorned walls’ and ‘imposing doors painted a black so deep’ are thought to have inspired the ‘onyx-on-bleached white palette that came to define Chanel’s Brand identity and dominate it’s colour scheme.’
It’s impossible to think of Chanel without picturing the iconic bottle of No.5. This affinity is played out in the exhibition with the square corridors edged in black – creating a feeling of walking inside a giant No.5 bottle.
Cosgrave also writes that when creating No.5, Coco said to the perfumer that she wanted her scent to be an original blend of an array of floral notes, ‘I am an artisan, so I want a perfume that is composed- a paradox.’ No.5 was composed of rose, jasmine, ylang-ylang and sandalwood. An entire room in the exhibition is dedicated to the fragrance; industrial sized metallic wells, each filled with the individual ingredients of the perfume, miraculously open up bubbling and smoking like a beautiful cauldron, releasing a fusion of scents into the room.
When asked what name to give her new fragrance, Chanel replied; 'We will let this sample number five keep the name it has already- it will bring it good luck.' Chanel also presented her couture collections on the fifth day of the month, though the source of her superstition is disputed, she believed that the number 5 brought her luck. The Totem Room explores Chanel’s codes, symbols and icons created by Coco and continued by current creative director, Karl Langerfeld.
Upstairs, visitors are again plunged into a dramatic darkness. Suspenseful, almost eerie music pervades the rooms while the number of burly guards in black suits multiplies. Lagerfeld creates an atmosphere of exclusiveness and anticipation to present his stunning haute couture dresses and an exquisite diamond jewellery collection.
Beaming down into an otherwise pitch-black room is a constellation of the most beautiful black and gold evening dresses. The dresses are place on mannequins which glow within as a hang suspended on bright poles of light. This striking display allows visitors to see the delicate embroidery and craftsmanship of these sublime haute couture pieces.
Displayed in the room opposite the dresses, are the jewels. Re-editions of the High Jewellery 'Bijoux de Diamants' collection designed by Coco in 1932 but here on display for the first time, captivate visitors who are directed by the guards to walk anti-clockwise around the magnetic display.
The jewels are displayed on mannequins, each dressed as one of the high-status gamblers at Chanel’s most recent casino themed couture show. The jewellery collection was set to be displayed in London in 1931 however it was prevented from being shown due to strict British custom regulations. 83 years later it is finally unveiled, accompanied by photographs of Chanel’s women of today, including; Keira Knightly, Vanessa Paradis, Lily-Rose Depp and Lara Stone.
The exhibition concludes with a room showing a short film made by Lagerfeld where he meets with the ghost of Coco Chanel, played by Geraldine Chaplin. In a confrontational conversation about his work Coco asks Langerfeld, "What do you think you are doing?" to which he replied, "I am keeping you alive." As well as exploring the life and inspirations of the founder, the exhibition presents the codes, symbols and icons of Chanel which form the DNA of Lagerfelds exquisite creations today.
It’s an enticing journey through the House’s creativity; both inspiring and playfully engaging with its use of technology and delights upon the senses.
There is still one week left to see the Mademoiselle Privé, free exhibition which is showing at the Saatchi Gallery in London until 1st November.
You can find Vogue on Coco Chanel by Bronwyn Cosgrave on Amazon here.