THERE is no bigger name in 20th-century fashion design than Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel.
Indeed, the originality, timelessness and elegance of the French fashion designer forged a radically modern vision of fashion, says National Gallery of Victoria director Tony Ellwood.
Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto, now on show at the NGV, demonstrates the designer's ability to grasp and interpret the needs and desires of the women of her time, says Miren Arzalluz, co-curator of the exhibition.
"Gabrielle Chanel devoted her long life to creating, perfecting and promoting a new kind of elegance based on freedom of movement, a natural and casual pose, a subtle elegance that shuns all extravagances, a timeless style for a new kind of woman," she said.
"That was her fashion manifesto, a legacy that has never gone out of style."
Highlights of the exhibition include rare examples of Chanel's early daywear and her wool jersey suits, which marked a radical departure from the elaborate fashions of the Belle Epoque and Edwardian periods in France and England.
Equally captivating are the gowns associated with Chanel's so-called "romantic" period of the 1930s. Dedicated sections of the exhibition showcase her love and use of floral motifs - realised as printed textiles or as appliqued florets - and her skilfully manipulated lace evening-wear.
Chanel's innovations also included the first composite and abstract perfume, Chanel N°5, created in 1921, and cosmetics and highly decorative costume jewellery that combined precious and semi-precious materials.
A further highlight of the exhibition is a display of Chanel suits.
Debuted by Chanel in the 1910s and reintroduced after the re-opening of her haute couture house in 1954, the two- or three-piece suit, in lightweight woven tweed or wool boucle, remains a feature of the house's collections to this day.
Popularised by the likes of first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, Princess Grace and actresses such as Marlene Dietrich, Romy Schneider and Lauren Bacall, the Chanel suit quickly became the embodiment of sophistication and functionalism, defined by its tailored lines.
Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto, NGV International, Melbourne, until April 25.
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