At the Grand Palais Éphémère, located on the left bank of Paris, panoramic glass windows offer a picture-perfect view of the Eiffel Tower. The streets nearby are filled with a throng of industry folks and fashion editors who have just seen the first Chanel haute couture show. Social media is already flooded with clips of the new collection, which I purposely avoid, hoping to later experience the show for myself.
As we sat in a lounge that lingered with the aroma of coffee, waiting for the second show to begin, Bruno Pavlovksy, president of fashion at Chanel spoke to me. “I believe you have just passed by the set of the show,” he said. “The lighting, the set, and the atmosphere simply can’t be replicated for viewers on the webcast.” I wholeheartedly agreed.
Pavlovsky has been with Chanel since 1990 and has worked with Virginie Viard for over three decades. Although they take on different roles, Pavlovsky has worked alongside her on every collection throughout the years. “Virginie knows how to convey emotions through her design. This collection was inspired by Gabrielle Chanel’s apartment. There were a lot of animals [inside] — real and imaginary. This became a source of inspiration for Virginie, and then she began working with Xavier (contemporary French artist Xavier Veilhan) to create the set design. It is a very powerful [collection], each piece is full of personality and detail.”
Virginie Viard and Xavier Veilhan have known each other since their salad days, and their chemistry speaks for itself. The Spring/Summer 2023 Haute Couture collection was the first time that Chanel had entrusted an artist for staging, where the abstract, geometric sculptures came together to paint the landscape of a surrealist playground. Veilhan’s preferred use of wood and recycled materials diffused the harsh glare of stage lights. Instead, the runway glowed softly, adding a sense of intimacy and texture to the space.
“We have been working with designers, known or less known, over the years, as a way of spurring the creativity of our collections,” Pavlovsky said of their third collaboration with Veilhan. “Here it’s all about the collection, while the set mangnifies it’s impact. This time, Xavier also brilliantly accentuates the collection by converging spheres of music, cinema, or literature – underlining the imaginative spirit of our runway sets as always. That’s what Chanel does best, collaborating with different creatives to add value to the collection. At the end of the day, it’s not about remembering the decor (stage), but to remember the clothes and the atmosphere. Haute couture is not for everyone, that’s for sure. But there is one thing that will always connect us: emotions. We have to do the best in order for you to feel it.”
The collection teaser directed by Xavier Veilhan had us beaming before we even saw the work in person. A gaggle of animals ran through the forest, transforming into towering wooden animal sculptures that arrived at the entrance of the house’s rue Cambon headquarters with models emerging from within their timber forms. Thus began the show in a similar fashion, with the audience greeting each model and outfit with a smile. This is probably the unparalleled experience that Pavlovsky speaks of— one that only live shows can offer. “One of the things I love about Chanel is that we are able to adapt to the needs of women. The decor (stage) and lighting are very soft, creating a sense of intimacy, allowing the audience to appreciate the details of the clothes up close. Sophistication and detail are key to this collection.”
The runway was transformed into a village square as if preparing to stage a festive parade. The wooden animal sculptures gradually made their grand entrance. Models dressed in the latest haute couture collection – top hats, bow ties, white gloves, laced two-tone boots, satin capes, pleated skirts, double-breasted jackets, and tuxedo shirts – emerged from their hidden doors. For this collection, Virginie drew inspiration from uniforms worn by majorettes while infusing her signature touch of femininity to create a festive, elegant, and timeless series.
The tailoring was light and elegant, from jackets worn with skirts or shorts to dresses with hemlines embellished with lace or feathers. Evening dresses, too, came in softer, flowing silhouettes, and the occasional body-hugging jumpsuit echoed the playful theme. The embroidery was delicately delightful. A tweed jacket featured an exquisite bird sewn into the centre; a round neck top hosted a variety of beaded forest animals; and a wedding gown embroidered with a flight of swallows made for a romantic closing spectacle.
Having witnessed the collection from conception to reality, Pavlovsky quipped that it was almost impossible to choose a favourite design, as every step adds to an integral part of the collection. “Creativity knows no limits, as has always been the spirit of haute couture. Operating without production and pricing constraints pushes the designer’s ability to capture the emotion of the moment — and this is what Virginie excels at. She has brought a lot of ideas and injected a lot of energy into her work.”
Working without production, cost, and pricing constraints sounds like a dream come true for every designer. And for Chanel, giving such a generous (and bold) space to its creations ensures that the best designs are brought to life and that the house will serve a larger purpose than just sales figures. “Whether it is Montex, Lesage, or Lemarié, each Maisons d’art atelier is important, and each is led by a strong artistic director who works closely with Virginie. It is certainly easier for them to collaborate and discuss [all under one roof at Le 19M], but Virginie works with each of [the ateliers] independently, encouraging change. That’s the Chanel ecosystem. Each contribution is equally important. We don’t just put their creations together, we challenge them to make the collection stronger.”
Focusing once more on the new collection, complex structures have been reduced, but without diminishing the craftsmanship and triumph of each piece. The lightness and agility of the collection is just the thing to propel haute couture, with its centuries-old tradition, into the future. “In the past few years, we have attracted many new young customers, including a new generation coming from social media. Chanel has a very unique positioning. It’s not about trying to do everything, but focusing on what we know — to care for the future, respect the past, and engaging our contemporary audience. This is the mentality at Chanel, and we are very confident about it.”
Tilda Swinton: Endless Inspiration
What makes the perfect house ambassador? Apart from interpreting the brand’s designs, one must stay true to its spirit and embody its ethos. At the entrance of Chanel’s Spring Summer 2023 Haute Couture show in late January – held in the Grand Palais Éphémère at the foot of the Eiffel Tower – British actress and fashion icon Tilda Swinton breezed into the room. Clad head-to-toe in Chanel, her dazzling outfit and enigmatic gaze reminded me of an array of captivating moments she’s left us with as a brand ambassador. If Swinton is not the perfect ambassador, I’m afraid perfection does not exist.
In 2013, Tilda Swinton starred in Chanel’s Paris-Édimbourg campaign. Under the lens of former Creative Director Karl Lagerfeld, she posed against medieval tapestries, looking the epitome of ethereal elegance in an exquisite dress inspired by Scottish knitwear. Lagerfeld extolled, “She is of course Scottish, but more than that, she is a modern woman, a timeless icon of elegance.” This moment marked the beginning of a decade-long relationship between Swinton and Chanel.
Not only has Swinton been spotted in Chanel on countless major occasions over the years, but she has also worked with the brand to advocate and promote films, among other cultural activities. For instance, she helped launch The 2021 Chanel Next Prize as part of the Chanel Culture Fund. Ten winners from disciplines spanning design, film and the performing and visual arts are selected each year as the prize recipients. She also launched the inaugural BFI & Chanel Filmmaker Awards in collaboration with the British Film Institute. In 2022, she also participated in various film and literature talks as part of the Chanel Literary Rendezvous programme. It can be said that there is a spiritual affinity between Swinton and Chanel.
Once again, the actress was on the front row at this season’s Chanel haute couture show. Wearing a high-collar sequined jacket and black satin trousers, she looked as charming as ever, sporting a tousled hairstyle that came off a little more chic than usual. The actress entered the venue with a smile. Within seconds, photographers flocked to snap photos of her before the wooden animal sculptures crafted by Xavier Veilhan. Tilda was welcoming to the audience and staff who greeted her. After exchanging pleasantries with K-Pop superstar G-Dragon, who sat next to her at the show, the duo seemed to have much to chat about, setting off flashes from cameras around them. Riveted by the runway, Swinton shared her thoughts on the new collection with Vogue Hong Kong exclusively after the show.
“I think they are so busy, and so precious. I really like Xavier’s (contemporary French artist Xavier Veilhan’s) work. The moment when the models came out of the animal sculptures wearing the collection felt very precious, but at the same time, light, which is not an easy thing to pull off.”
We first asked Tilda what she thought of Virginie Viard’s work and what struck her about the collection. “Seeing every single piece felt like seeing different jewels, and I wanted to go up close and feel them, taste them. Of course, it’s all about animals, and the show was like a storybook landscape, a circus, or a play. Virginie Viard has created a really benign world through this collection, and I think is really beautiful.”
She shared more of her memories of the circus in a behind-the-scenes video she shot for Chanel. “There’s something so playful about the world of the circus. Even since I was a child, I remember loving the way, in the circus, women are very often in control, with a top hat and a short skirt and practical boots. And that whole feeling of the circus was definitely here. They are like animal Couture pieces, aren’t they? Particularly those that are very embellished and encrusted like treasures. If you think of the amount of attention and energy that each of those artists and artisans have put into each piece, they are alive. Like batteries, full of energy. These clothes are like jewels.”
Since her foray into film, Tilda Swinton has become the dream spokesperson for every brand. Her collaboration with Chanel is not just a business transaction but an exchange of energy. “One of the things Virginie is developing now is the sense of ease and relaxation. Especially for the haute couture collection, which is created by master artisans over months to give people the feeling that they are wearing art. This is the thing the house does.” Tilda added, “Chanel is invested the arts. Encouraging the lives of artists – a Gabrielle Chanel did – not only young artists but progressing artists, is something I am very interested in and invested in. Our relationship is an incredibly harmonious one. I am very inspired by Chanel and impressed by their committment to do good in the world.”
Virginie Viard has always been committed to making clothes for real women, and for Tilda, creating pieces that genuinely inspire contemporary women makes the brand unique. “The wonderful thing about couture is that it speaks way beyond a presentation like this, way beyond the clientale who can’t get near these pieces. It’s about entering a visual narrative for all of us. This is something that Chanel has the capacity to do. We can all be inspired by Chanel without even buy a fragrance or a bag. You can understand the narrative, and you can be inspired by it. That’s a privilege that Chanel has, and I think they use it very responsibly.” At the end of the conversation, Tilda Swinton expressed that she was eager to return to Hong Kong to meet her audience. Likewise, we look forward to seeing Tilda on the silver screen with her new films The Eternal Daughter, Problemista, and Asteroid City, and in person during her promotional tour in Hong Kong — and, of course, her next awe-inspiring Chanel look!