The exhibition every fashion lover needs to see

So said Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883-1971), one of the greatest fashion designers of all time. Good advice, I think. Chanel is synonymous with so many fashion statements, including the LBD (little black dress), strings of pearls and costume jewellery with faux and semiprecious gems, which she elevated to couture status.

She is all that and more, as explored in a sumptuous exhibition, the first in Australia to focus on the contribution of Chanel to fashion history, at the National Gallery of Victoria until April 25.

Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto, developed in partnership with the Palais Galliera in Paris and curated by Palais director Miren Arzalluz and head of collections Véronique Belloir, brings together loans from Chanel’s heritage collection and offers a true insight into the designer who was the first to cater for the emerging modern woman, inventing a fresh dress code in response to the new freedoms afforded women, freedoms that demanded comfortable – but also stylish – clothes that permitted movement and took inspiration from men’s clothing.

Gabrielle Chanel: 
Fashion Manifesto is on at the NGV until April 25
Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto is on at the NGV until April 25. Picture: Sean Fennessy

Chanel reinvented luxury along the way, with beautiful fabrics in spare proportions, designed to move with the body. Exhibited in chronological and thematic sections, Fashion Manifesto explores Chanel’s design codes via more than 230 garments, accessories, and jewellery pieces, as well as her innovations in perfume (famously, Chanel No 5, created in 1921). On display are some of her signatures such as her love of black, which she used to convey chic modernity, and her wool jersey and tailored tweed suits, still coveted and worn today.

If you’re looking for examples of Karl Lagerfeld’s tenure at the hallowed house, this is not that show, but rather what you will see is the vast history to which Lagerfeld and Virginie Viard (who succeeded Lagerfeld) owe a considerable debt. This show really aims to celebrate Chanel’s contribution to contemporary culture, from the opening of her first fashion boutique in Deauville in 1912 to her couture house on 31 Rue Cambon in Paris in 1918, which remains something of a fashion bucket-list destination for tourists in Paris.

The Australian exhibition includes new acquisitions given by local fashion collector Krystyna Campbell-Pretty AM and family: an embroidered organdie evening dress, spring- summer 1933, and shirred red silk velvet and marabou-lined evening cape, circa 1924-26. Both are exquisite.

I spoke to Miren Arzalluz, Director, Palais Galliera via Zoom in Paris about the exhibition.

Gabrielle Chanel’s legacy is undisputed. How did she stay relevant?

Gabrielle Chanel’s success was based not only on the functionality, comfort, and chic elegance of her designs but also on her ability to grasp and interpret the needs and desires of the women of her time.

You see her starting in 1912 and becoming a celebrity almost immediately, even during the first World War. She was one of the most successful designers, a woman, in the interwar period. And then she comes back when she’s over 70 years old in 1954 when everyone thinks that she’s completely over and done with and that what she does is not relevant anymore, and becomes, once again, a key figure of international fashion, into her 80s. This is one of the reasons we called the show Fashion Manifesto because from the very beginning she proposed a very radical vision of fashion and of the body, very radical treatment of garments, and the same principles guided her work until the end.

How did she define the idea of the modern woman?

She was not only a very successful businesswoman, but she was also the embodiment of her style. She was her brand. Women knew the life she led and the way that she was successful economically. She was independent, single, she didn’t have any children, she had various relationships that everybody knew about, she was completely free. There was not only the radicality or the sophistication of her work. It was an embodiment of her. Women wanted to look like her. And that was part of her success in the 1920s and 30s.

Today we’re used to the star designers, who are very public, and we follow them on social media, and they also embody their own style. They’re very involved in the marketing of the house, the communication of the universe and the brand. But this was not so much the case in Chanel’s time and even less so for women. I mean, she was really the first woman designer to do this.

Chanel’s  bag
Chanel’s “2.55” bag, 1955-1971. Picture: Sean Fennessy


The NGV’s next big exhibition is also coming from Paris. The Picasso Century, opening on June 10, is a Melbourne Winter Masterpieces exhibition charting Pablo Picasso’s career and legacy. Developed for the NGV by the Centre Pompidou and the Musée National Picasso-Paris, the show will feature more than 70 Picasso pieces alongside 100 works by more than 60 of his contemporaries, drawn from French collections and the NGV.

This article originally appeared on Escape and do not necessarily represent the views of

About the author


Hi! I’m Ozzie!

Before joining Australia Exploring, I was a writer at Tripadvisor.

I'm looking for the best posts for you about travel adventures in Australia and around the world. This website has the purpose to inspire you to travel… travel more and better. I hope it can help you explore the world a little bit better.

I graduated from the University of Sydney. I live in California with my wife and two children.


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