- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 4, 2005

NEW YORK - Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel gave the fashion world some of its most stylish and instantly recognizable looks. There are the “little black dress,” the skirt suit with braided trim and gold buttons, the quilted handbag that hangs from a chain.

Perhaps Miss Chanel’s greatest contribution to the world of fashion, however, was the idea of timelessness.

In an industry seemingly obsessed with trends, Miss Chanel underscored her uniqueness — aside from being a strong-willed woman in a man’s world — by designing garments that purposely couldn’t be identified by date.

A dress from a Chanel collection of the 1920s can stand beside a dress from today, and it’s hard to tell which one is older. Is it the dropped-waist dress in pale yellow satin adorned with a camellia corsage, or is it the gray silk satin dress with covered buttons streaming down the back?

Fans of fashion get the opportunity to play this guessing game at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibit “Chanel.” It’s a lively presentation, taken out of the Met’s Costume Institute’s traditional lower-level space and put on the main floor in a maze of white modules that is further jazzed up with video wallpaper pulsing camellias, a Chanel signature detail.

The show opens today. It was organized by curators Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton of the Costume Institute with input from Karl Lagerfeld, and it is not a chronological retrospective. Instead, it features 63 outfits grouped together by iconic looks. One vignette features ivory wool boucle signature suits, one with a skirt that hits below the knee, one at the knee and a micro-miniskirt that barely grazes the hip.

“It’s an exhibition of an evolution,” says Mr. Lagerfeld, Chanel’s designer since 1983 and himself a fashion trailblazer. “It’s an evolution of Chanel, which has stayed in fashion for nearly 100 years. No one else can say that.”

One of the best examples of the two designers’ styles coming together is a 1986 evening suit by Mr. Lagerfeld that puts the pattern of the Chanel quilted bag, introduced in 1955, onto a black silk organza jacket and skirts, using embroidered paillettes. Gold and black beads edge the cuffs, neckline and front to mimic the purse’s corded chain.

Chanel’s continuity lies not only in its designs, but also in its handiwork. The gold lace gown embroidered with magenta and green sequins in a leaf pattern that opens the exhibit and is featured on the accompanying book is a Lagerfeld interpretation of a gown Miss Chanel wore in a 1936 photo. Both designers worked with the same embroiderer, Francois Lesage.

Mr. Lagerfeld, who glided through a museum preview in skinny black pants, a high-neck white shirt, dark sunglasses and leather driving gloves, encouraged the Met to use the gown as the centerpiece. It’s not the usual “Chanel,” he says, but it still emphasizes Miss Chanel’s affinity with simple shapes and impeccable construction and her ability to make something sexy without showing too much skin.

Miss Chanel understood that women didn’t want to be bound in corsets and wires — that they wanted to be feminine without being frilly and they wanted to look fashionable, not fussy. She was among the first designers to employ comfortable jersey fabrics and to embrace sportswear.

Miss Chanel “retired” from fashion after her lacy romantic collections of the 1930s, which were the precursors of the 1960s bohemian look, but it didn’t last. Her heralded comeback came in the early 1950s because she thought the highly stylized clothes from such designers as Christian Dior and Cristobal Balenciaga were off the mark, according to Hamish Bowles, Vogue’s European editor at large. Miss Chanel continued to work until her death in 1971.

“She was so appalled at what fashion had become,” Mr. Bowles says. “She had a distrust for this ‘Time of the Designer.’ She came back and tried to champion very soft, church-mousy sort of clothes with relaxed waists and arms, pockets that worked, skirts you could walk in. The European fashion press really lambasted her for it, but Americans — particularly Vogue and Life magazine — were her fans and championed her. Suddenly her clothes made sense again — and she prevailed.”

“Chanel” runs at the Met through Aug. 7.

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