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Chanel + Manchester = Chanchester!

‘Chanel is never really new — it’s always Chanel,’ designer Virginie Viard tells Tim Blanks as she brings the French megabrand’s celebration of artisanal crafts to the UK’s second city.
Chanel Métiers d’Art 2023/24
Chanel Métiers d’Art 2023/24 (INDIGITAL.TV)

MANCHESTER, United Kingdom — The industrial grit of Manchester, the UK’s second city, has birthed some formidable pop cultural icons. Joy Division and the Smiths defined indie music. The Haçienda is a nightclub legend. Manchester United are the most followed football team in the world. The thought of Chanel, an equally formidable icon, tapping into all that primal energy with its choice of the city as the location for its new Métiers d’Art show set the pulses racing with its promise of a delicious collision of worlds, the surface Beauty-and-the-Beast incongruity of such a fusion only adding to the intrigue, heightened by the fact that there’s always been something about Chanel helmswoman Virginie Viard which suggested an inner rock chick raring to go, Chrissie Hynde maybe, with her mussed hair and her worn black jeans. If you were looking for a goofy supercouple nickname, one suggested itself immediately: CHANCHESTER!

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Viard made sense of the location when she explained that Eaton Hall, the home of Gabrielle Chanel’s longtime lover the Duke of Westminster, was an hour to the south of the city. But it was too predictable a choice for her, so presto! Manchester. As per usual with its Métiers d’Art presentations (which have roamed from Seoul to Salzburg, Dakar to Dallas, Havana to Edinburgh), Chanel made sure its audience of international invitees had the chance to get well-acquainted with the latest host city before the show on Thursday night. The night before, a lucky 150 or so got to see ManU play Chelsea at hallowed home ground Old Trafford. Others dined at local institution Salford Lads Club, where a former weightlifting room has been converted into a shrine to the Smiths. There were visits to Factory International, a monumental new space which promises to transform the city’s cultural life, and walking tours of the inner city that were an education in Manchester’s past power and future potential. The overall impression was of an idiosyncratic but irresistible dynamism. “To be here, you feel so free, so strong,” Viard enthused at a preview on Wednesday. “I love the atmosphere. When we travel, I like to do things really different from Paris. Paris is not so fun. This is more unexpected.”

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She was wearing a Smiths teeshirt. Yes, she liked their music. Joy Division too, especially in “Control”, Anton Corbijn’s movie about the band, though she admitted her favourite pop combo from the heady salad days of 1980s indie was actually Soft Cell, a duo from Leeds, not Manchester. Michel Gaubert featured them on his show soundtrack performing “What”, their version of a Northern soul classic from the 1960s. Also on the soundtrack was another Northern soul smash “Tainted Love”, the original released by Gloria Jones in 1964 rather than the cover version that Soft Cell turned into a chart sensation in 1981. (Consider the Northern soul movement which grew out of Manchester’s underground club scene in the late 1960s a precursor to the rave scene of the late 80s. Her collaborators were clearly doing their homework on Viard’s behalf.)

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All of this is by way of saying that there was an earnest effort to create a vibe around Chanchester. Viard described the collection as “a little harder, but simpler too.” Métiers d’Art is usually a celebration of Chanel’s artisans, but she pointed out there wasn’t much embroidery this time. Still a lot of tweed though, often with Coco’s camellia planted on it to emphasise the major house signature. In other words, less métiers, more iconic Chanel. And even a little edgy. “Chanel est comme ça pour moi,” Viard offered, slipping into French as she often did when we were talking. But that edge was hard to discern. Sure, there was a sheer wee slip of a dress with an artful safety pin bodice (and an incongruously heavy football-scarf-like skirt underneath) but it stood alone, and I got the feeling that’s the way Viard likes it. “Chanel is never really new,” she said cryptically. “It’s always Chanel.”

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Sure enough, there was that familiar gamine parade of tweed coat dresses, jackets and skirts, though Viard insisted that, this time, she was inspired by English girls, charmed by their imperfections, like the way their bare legs redden when they refuse to wear stockings in the chill of winter. (Manchester obliged by delivering a wet cold front to accompany the show.) It wasn’t only Gaubert’s soundtrack which conjured up echoes of the 60s. With their newsboy caps, black knee-highs and Mary Janes, or long woollen scarves over glittery party frocks, Viard’s “English girls” could have been Julie Christie or Rita Tushingham or Charlotte Rampling stepping out of a 1960s celluloid something, with Cilla Black tearily intoning “Anyone Who Had a Heart” as the girls wandered rainswept streets. Nothing as Swinging as London however, more a monochrome twinset-and-tweed kitchen sink drama from the North. This made the lively colour palette a curious paradox. I wonder what Mark E. Smith, the corrosive poet manqué/front man of The Fall, who inspired one of Manchester’s most devoted cults in a city that specialised in them, would have made of that.

Gaubert highlighted Smith’s disturbing, incantatory genius in his music for Viard, which reminded me of something Leena Nair, Chanel’s Global CEO, said recently about the power of disruption. Everyone has such a clear image, or expectation of Chanel. When Viard acknowledged in her preview that Manchester gave her the opportunity to show something she could never show anywhere else, for one mad moment I imagined that she might be preparing to shake that expectation. I should have listened more closely to her when she talked about her profound attachment to Chanel. “I don’t know how to do anything else.” So this boat will remain unrocked.

Still, the crowd went home happy when, after days of speculation, the city’s favourite sons New Order finally made their presence felt — even if it was only in recorded form — at Chanchester (it’s not going to stick, is it?) with a burst of “Bizarre Love Triangle”.

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