Skimming The Surface

Reading a recent story on Chanel by CNA Luxury, we sensed we would be confronting something unsatisfying when, from the start, we had to be reminded that the 112-year-old maison has an “exclusive atelier in Paris”. We were not wrong. Superficial observation is one thing, trite description is another

Just like the ceaseless supply of Chanel tweed jackets, there have been never-ending media stories on Chanel’s haute couture. A report by CNA Luxury shared online last week is another, and it won’t be the last. More than a century after Gabrielle ’Coco’ Chanel founded her eponymous label and nearly 50 years after her death, there appears to be constant craving, not about her, but the couture studio that she left behind that is still generating what CNA imaginatively calls “lavish clothes”. Is there anything in their editorial that isn’t a pallid reminder of what haute couture is not?

We feel bad for Chanel. By their “invitation” (which could mean this was a junket), CNA Luxury was in Paris to show readers “inside Chanel’s world of haute couture”, perhaps with the noble aim of demystifying it. The 1,290-word editorial, in fact, accompanies the 2.44-minute documentary, ‘Inside Chanel’s Haute Couture Universe in Paris’, for the CNA Lifestyle 2022 series. From the first paragraph, it was a journey of textual cringe. To set the scene, they told readers that the Chanel epicentre at Rue Cambon—a narrow, one-way, 449-metre long street in the heart of the French capital—“is chockful of French dreams” and, later, that it is “one of the most well-stocked flagship boutiques… in the world”. We are not sure, but were they describing a 杂货店, provision store? Or, recalling the set for the RTW autumn/winter 2014 show, a supermarket?

And who was Chanel before she became a “full-fledged fashion designer dreaming (again?!) up sartorial hits(!)”? Wherever she is now, we doubt Chanel would be amused to be called, at the start of her career, a “mere milliner”. Chanel did begin as a hat maker and, by most accounts, a rather successful one. Biographer Edmond Charles-Roux wrote in Chanel, “The truth was she had a really impressive talent” (so much so that one of her boyfriends at the time eagerly financed her venture). This was the early 1900s, a time when, as Mr Charles-Roux noted, “family, children, love, jewels—none of these aroused as much concern as the question of hats”. Her headwear, in particular a boater, “was absurdly simple, and it was curious to see how some of her friends reacted to this sparseness as a new form of eccentricity”. Her clientele expanded and they included “customers of Worth, Redfern and Doucet”. Chanel’s first proper shop (before that, she operated out of another boyfriend’s “bachelor flat”), Chanel Modes, that opened in 1910 was in Rue Cambon, at number 21. The number 31 address—where, according to CNA, ”is chockful of French dreams”—did not materialise until 1918 when Chanel, the “mere milliner”, purchased the building.

Wherever she is now, we doubt Chanel would be amused to be called, at the start of her career, a “mere milliner”

Above the store, we were told, “Chanel had an apartment where she used to work, daydream and entertain a small circle of friends. Curiously, the couturier (sic) never actually lived there, preferring to call one of the suites at the Ritz Hotel… home”. Yet, the apartment is an “abode” and, to be certain, a “historical” one. Then we were introduced to the ateliers above. “Everything is made-to-measure and made entirely by hand,” one of the premieres was quoted saying. “Haute couture is really about excellence. It is all about handwork and craftsmanship,” she expanded helpfully. Enlightening. And to add to your growing knowledge, “each haute couture garment begins from a sketch.” For the complicated nature of the work they do, we were offered a glimpse: “See-through (!) Guipure lace layered with gossamer lace; coloured lace inlaid onto Guipure lace; lace patterns reworked entirely by hand with sequins; lace hand-painted in resin; and cashmere wool woven into lace-like patterns.” Following?

Whether anyone at CNA knows what Guipure lace is, we can’t say (if you ask, it is openwork, therefore, nearly always “see-through”, with motifs, such as flowers, joined by fine bars or plaits instead of webs of nets or mesh, as in other laces). But they seem to be educated on the fineness of couture finishing, explaining away that “not only are the seams on the outside hidden from view, even those on the inside of the garment are ingeniously tucked away”. The ingenuity is in how, in this, we can’t discern the making of “really expensive clothes”. To banish all doubts that Chanel could be capable of even a whisper shred of shoddiness, we were informed that “nothing is left unfinished, everything is finished to perfection”. A friend from Kuala Lumpur, who had read the article too, said to us, “I’m surprised there isn’t ‘laboratory of ideas’. Maybe they are not informed enough to use that!”

A report startlingly littered with clichés wasn’t enough, it had to include the “icons” that “continue to thrive” and bear listing: “the tweed jacket, the ‘little black dress’, two-tone slingbacks and, of course, the inimitable Chanel 2.55 purse”, much, we suspect, to the delight of the brand (one media professional said to us, “Chanel will love it, lah. They obviously paid for the trip and they expect the media to fawn over them”). The article is probably targeted at those who are not acquainted with the creative and practical business of “custom-made artisanal garments fashioned entirely by hand by dressmakers skilled in creating one-of-a-kind garb that are more than worthy of their price tags”. But could they not have toned down the trite and the banal? “Every single detail matters,” they concluded, ”After all, this is haute couture, where precision is the name of the game.” Take note, you “stylish set”!

Illustration: Just So

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