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Simply Chanel

At the Met, an Exhibition of Timeless Good Taste

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 5, 2005; Page C01

NEW YORK

All of this city's personalities, demographics and archetypes collide on the public bus. One can see hardworking clock punchers as well as retirees happily killing time. You can spot Broadway headliners, businessmen yapping into their cell phones, nannies wrangling toddlers, blustering egoists and stiletto-heeled ladies with Bergdorf Goodman bags.

One morning earlier this week, a particular Manhattan archetype climbed aboard a crosstown bus that was headed toward the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She was a discreet blonde dressed in a short black overcoat, crisp khaki trousers and a pair of taupe and black ballet flats. From some distance away, it was possible to make out the embossed interlocking C's on the cap toes of her shoes. She was a Chanel lady. One quickly assumed that her crocodile handbag was real. Could she be a fan heading to a sneak peek at the Met's "Chanel" exhibition?

No, she continues on into the heart of the Upper East Side. She must be on her way to a manicure.

Chanel has become shorthand for a particular kind of high-maintenance, wealthy and social woman. There is no particular age range associated with the Chanel lady. Besides, she is the sort who does not show her age. If you want to know her secret, begin by checking her handbag for Botox and Restylane bills. Over the years, Chanel couture has made many appearances on the red carpet, draped on Hollywood's most delicate shoulders. But in the popular consciousness, Chanel is not as linked to West Coast glitter as Giorgio Armani or Versace. Chanel isn't so much about glamour as it is about class, elegance and no small amount of snootiness.

Chanel is not helpful during a presidential campaign, or any time a woman seeks to underscore her populist appeal. Teresa Heinz wears Chanel. This fact was announced during the 2004 campaign in an accusatory tone. Here was further evidence that the wealthy heiress was self-involved and dismissive of the hoi polloi. That tweed suit-wearing elitist! Quite possibly she enjoyed kicking small dogs. The fact that Armani and Oscar de la Renta were also in her closet did not elicit such harsh judgment.

Chanel is iconic. The name is in rap lyrics. Counterfeit bags are sold on urban street corners. And it has left its mark on the fashion industry with such signatures as tweed suits, camellia brooches, little black dresses and quilted handbags. Chanel may be the most instantly recognizable, often imitated brand in the world. And its founder, Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, who died in 1971 at age 87, was one of the world's most famous designers. The brand continues to thrive more than 30 years later, thanks to designer Karl Lagerfeld. Since 1983, he has brought artistry, marketing savvy and a flair for the dramatic to a brand that could easily have withered and died as so many houses did after their namesake passed away.

The exhibition "Chanel" opens at the Met's Costume Institute today and runs through Aug. 7. It is housed in the museum's special exhibition galleries on the first floor, a space somewhat larger than the institute's permanent subterranean home. It examines the legacy of Chanel and the way in which the designer's personal aesthetic helped to lay the foundation for the style in which so many women -- including those who are not Chanel customers -- dress today. Chanel speaks of wealth, exclusivity and modern society in a way that few fashion brands do. But the exhibition is not limited to the work of the brand's founder. It includes Lagerfeld's designs for the house. The audience can see how he preserved the essence of Chanel while maintaining its relevance.

Chanel has become part of popular culture. We can recall the languorous commercial for Chanel No. 5 with the Inkspots crooning about not wanting to "set the world on fire." We were bemused by the commercial for the fragrance Egoiste in which hordes of women shouted at some mysterious lout from their windows. And now we can watch Nicole Kidman emote her way through a new Chanel No. 5 advertisement directed by Baz Luhrmann.

We know about the brand's quirky details; an authentic Chanel jacket has a gold chain stitched into its hem to weight it and give it a smooth line. It is the kind of tidbit that might turn up in a game of Trivial Pursuit or on "Jeopardy!" (Famous Fashion for $500, Alex.)

Women make references to the perfect adaptability and practicality of a "little black dress" without realizing that it was Chanel who popularized the idea.

We tan because of Chanel. We painted our nails blood red "Vamp" at the brand's urgings. What did Marilyn Monroe wear to bed? "Chanel No. 5," she famously said.

The opening of the exhibition has been greeted with breathless enthusiasm. Folks are gorging on this sumptuous buffet of elegance, lapping up every crumb. There are windows at Bergdorf Goodman chock-fullof contemporary Chanel designs and an array of her most famous maxims. The Carlyle Hotel is offering special Chanel-in-New York tourist packages. A New York magazine cover story detailed the hoopla around the exhibit's opening -- namely, the Costume Institute gala.

The Monday night party was chaired by Vogue editor Anna Wintour, Kidman and Lagerfeld. It was a perfect blend of fashion industry might, Hollywood star power and self-promoting largesse. (Chanel sponsored the exhibition.) Taking the temperature of a party is a subjective endeavor. Who can really say how much fun each guest had? But there was an air of intrigue attached to the evening, a sense that on this rainy night in May there was going to be a magnificent explosion of glamour, fame and money.


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