Coco Chanel – the Craft Behind the Couture

Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto​ at London's V&A Museum
The Garnered - The Garnered Gabrielle Chanel 31 Rue Cambon Paris 1937  Photo By Roger Schall
Gabrielle Chanel, 31 rue Cambon, Paris 1937 Photo: Roger Schall/Condé Nast/Shutterstock

Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel began her working life as an assistant selling cloth in a draper's shop in Moulins, a town in central France, before moving to Paris and opening a millinery boutique, Chanel-Modes, at 21 rue Cambon. It was this early knowledge of fabric and the craft of millinery that underpinned her revolutionary designs. She understood the way that materials moved and how to cut fabric to create the ideal silhouette.

The Garnered - Roussy Sert Wearing A Long White Sequin Dress By Chanel And A 15 Strand Coral Necklace Photograph By André Durst Published In Vogue December 15 1936
Roussy Sera wearing a white sequin dress. Photograph by André Durst, published in Vogue December 15, 1936

As you walk around this ground-breaking exhibition, Gabrielle Chanel's uncompromising approach to quality and craftsmanship is breathtaking. She sought out the finest fabrics – from the supple tulle, chiffon and lightweight jersey that that made her early clothes so easy and elegant to wear, to the broderie anglais, velvets, satins and silks of her later evening wear and, of course, the Linton tweeds of her iconic suits. As well as sourcing these exceptional materials from all over the world, she designed and manufactured her own range - establishing Tissus Chanel in the 1920s, which, after the Second World War, would go on to supply couturiers such as Dior and Balenciaga.

Her millinery training meant she knew how embellishment – be it feathers, flowers, sequins or jewels - could be stitched onto garments, allowing her to marry the simplicity of her shapes with spectacular adornment. This appreciation of skill when it came to stitching and embroidering also meant that she employed and nurtured talent in these fields. By 1931 the New Yorker reported that she employed as many as 2,400 seamstresses in her 26 sewing ateliers alone, not to enumerate those in her perfume laboratories and at her looms.

The Garnered - Gabrielle Chanel Hat Silk 1917 © Chanel Photo Nicholas Alan Cope
Silk Hat 1917 © Chanel Photo Nicholas Alan Cope

In 1930, French author Colette described Chanel's intense, meticulous and exacting working methods: 'Chanel works with her ten fingers, with her nails, with the side of her hand, with the palms, with pins and scissors, right on the garment'. It was this deep, tactile involvement with the craft of fashion, the ability to feel fabrics and to understand how to cut, shape and sew them, that resulted in the timeless elegance of her designs.

The woman herself – independent, strong, determined – proves to be something of an enigma. She reimagined her past and often told contradictory versions of events in her life. But her extraordinary craftsmanship shines through in every one of her creations. The work speaks for itself, and it tells an inspirational story.

Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 16 September 2023 – 25 February 2024. Presented in partnership with Palais Galliera, Fashion Museum of the City of Paris, Paris Musées. With the support of CHANEL.

The Garnered - The Garnered Chanel Exhibition Journal
Dress 1935 Palais Galliera, Paris/Photo: Nicholas Alan Cope/Gift of the Heirs of Mr Henry Viguier; Marinière Blouse 1916 & Suit 1964 Patrimoine de CHANEL, Paris © CHANEL/Photo: Nicholas Alan Cope