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Chic Lessons: Unveiling the World of Gabrielle Chanel Through a Kid's Lens

Updated: Dec 5, 2023

by Alessandra Guerrieri

The biggest retrospective about Gabrielle Chanel ever held in London has opened at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Attending the exhibition is a great opportunity to learn about the woman behind the eponymous Chanel fashion house and witness with your own eyes how the past, the present and the future are greatly combined to offer visitors a continuity of the three dimensions, in appearance, distant from one another.

Thinking about the exhibition - besides all the glamorous vibes - one might feel looking around all the different sections, I thought about what I can share with the younger generations and how an exhibition targeted at an adult audience could be a source of education for children as well as for parents.

The fashion industry is notoriously famous for targeting mainly an adult audience, often forgetting that it is the younger generation that is most in need of an education that could help them learn about the fundamentals of fashion and how to filter beyond a few viral video trends on social media platforms. What to discuss with your children about the Chanel exhibition?

Let’s start at the beginning of the story and analyse a few important aspects of her life.

Gabrielle was an orphan who grew up in the orphanage of Aubazine Abbey, in France. Despite her tough childhood, she found a way to turn that challenging period into something greater. The most famous Chanel Bag 2.55 was born from her orphanage experience. Everything about this particular bag’s style comes from her memory of the convent. The diamond shape of the quilting is drawn from the stained glass windows at Aubazine – also the source of the brand’s interlinked CC logo, while the interior of a classic 2.55 is lined with red leather, a reference to the red uniforms worn by Chanel and her fellow orphans. The leather-plaited chains are yet another orphanage reference, inspired by the key chains worn by caretakers at the convent. She experienced the premature death of her mother, the abandonment by her father Henri-Albert Chanel, a street vendor by profession, and her years in the custody of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, in Aubazine. Her childhood wasn’t a fairytale, but she never stopped believing in herself. The environment you are surrounded by doesn't matter, it’s your personality that will put you forward in life.

photo by Alessandra Guerrieri

Gabrielle wore a black uniform with a white collar. She was surrounded by women dressed only in austere clothes, strictly white and black, and the rigorous architecture of the Abbey. Yet ironically, it is precisely where it all began: the antithesis of the opposing colours and the severity of the lines, that eventually become the distinctive feature of her designs. Another memory which shaped a future business idea.

She started her fashion path by making hats as an apprentice to a milliner. She soon passed from making hats to drawing and producing clothes, accessories, fragrances and jewellery establishing her own fashion house. Creativity is the motive for grandiose projects: make sure to support your children's creativity and encourage them.

She was a big expert in her sector and always trusted her professional taste along with her high sense of fashion. Mastering a specific subject gives the self-confidence to stand out in certain situations which require the knowledge to convince others of your capability. In 1916, Rodier, a French textile industrialist, exclusively gave Chanel some jersey fabric, which proved to be the best interpreter of Chanel's creations. Through Chanel’s innate ability, she gave women freedom from the restrictive clothing of the day via the softness of the materials she used in her fashion designs. The triptych skirt, pullover, and cardigan thus became the first distinctive models of Chanel fashion, made especially in neutrals such as grey, beige, and dark blue, as well as the famous combination of black and white. She had a vast mastery of fabrics and textures.

Gabrielle Chanel was ahead of her time. Her quick rise to prominence was due to the contrasting nature of her designs to the popular fashion of that time, which was still closely tied to traditional and slowly outdated pieces: the corset, and crinoline. These pieces were now seen as cages in which women locked themselves in for the sake of an aesthetic balance and were viewed more and more as unhealthy. Thus, Chanel, against the current, began to offer sporty silhouettes, with simple and soft lines, in line with what would become the new trend of the beginning of the century. She was forward-thinking. Believe in your idea, even when the people around you think differently.

She wasn’t afraid to be copied. Now known as the most copied bag in the world since the day it was created, the birth of the Chanel 2.55 can be attributed to this period, the ‘30s. Though counterfeit products infuriate most creatives, Chanel didn't mind at all, explaining that "being plagiarised is the greatest compliment one can receive: it only happens to adults.”

She was a French girl in love with Britain, which played a crucial part in the original story of her legendary tweed suit. In 1920 she was spending time in the UK, considering possible British ventures. She was able to understand how the environments or people she was coming in contact with could teach her something. This attitude helped Chanel to be unafraid to experiment with new friendships, and new ideas and build bridges between countries.

The exhibition showcases all of Chanel's lifetime achievements. What I understood from this exhibition is that almost all of Gabrielle's achievements involved unpleasant situations that she was able to turn into positive ones. Furthermore, Gabrielle never hesitated to undertake new projects and new paths to follow, since she did not consider the falls as failures, but as an integral part of her journey towards that world of fashion, of which she wanted not only to be part of but to be the protagonist. Perhaps now the life of this extraordinary and ambitious woman goes beyond a famous perfume or an iconic bag. Nothing in life is easy to conquer and it wasn't even easy for the great Gabrielle Chanel.

Taking your children to fashion exhibitions can be a transformative and enriching experience. Beyond the glitz and glamour, these events provide a unique opportunity for young minds to explore creativity, culture, and history. Exposing children to diverse styles and design concepts fosters an early appreciation for art and self-expression. By immersing children in this world, they not only gain a sense of aesthetic awareness but also learn about the impact of fashion on society and the environment. These outings can spark curiosity, encouraging kids to ask questions, think critically, and develop their own sense of style. In essence, attending fashion exhibitions becomes a fun and educational way to broaden a child's perspective and nurture their artistic spirit.

by Alessandra Guerrieri

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