As the oldest Parisian couture house still in operation, Chanel is a place of unfettered fantasy. Through the work of the hand, its creation studio and ateliers liberate preconceived ideas about dressmaking and the imagination, and perfect silhouettes that epitomise elegance and luxury. For the Spring Summer 2023 Haute Couture season, artistic director Virginie Viard heightens the magic, playing on the bestiary in Gabrielle Chanel’s enigmatic apartment to conjure up a hyper-feminine, fairy-tale-like wardrobe that is as light in spirit as it is in weight and texture. Together with the maison, FEMALE captures the spectacle up close when the brand brought the collection to town recently for its first haute couture showcase in Singapore.
Cotton tweed pleated jacket with embroidery and jewelled buttons, and matching shorts, Chanel
For a start, prepare for the prettiest majorette march as Virginie Viard borrows from the uniforms of female parade performers. The pleated jacket in this two-piece look made from lightweight, pink-and-beige chequered tweed was inspired by the costumes of baton twirlers. Its sides are skilfully slit so that its neat folds – each created using fabric that is three times its volume – sit well over the boxy shorts and let the wearer easily slide her hands into the short pockets. Adding to its playfulness is a sequinned plastron embroidered by Montex – one of the 12 craftsmen ateliers Chanel owns – that holds more than meets the eye: Can you make out its many kitten motifs in various shades of pink?
Lace dress with painted motifs and jewelled buttons, satin and silk tulle bow tie, and leather boots with patent leather toe caps, Chanel
The delicately frothy volume of this svelte, long-sleeved lace dress comes not only from its ultra-light flounces, but also a layer of tulle underneath. Its nod to the beauty of the wild: hand-painted, marbled motifs of branches in shades of pink, purple and blue – all artfully intertwined to echo Chanel’s double C logo – and jewelled buttons in the form of flowers by Maison Desrues.
Tweed jacket with braiding and jewelled buttons, matching skirt, satin and silk tulle bow tie, and leather lace-up boots with patent leather toe caps, Chanel
Meanwhile, it’s another major majorette moment with this skirt suit made from iridescent dusty pink and turquoise tweed, whose flirty silhouette that is both inspired by and allows for carefree movement reflects Chanel’s modern approach to haute couture. The key accessories in this collection are simple yet – true to the pomp and pageantry of a parade – fun and every bit artisanal: bow ties made by Lemarie – famed for its featherwork, needlework and fabric flowers – and two-tone boots with comfortable little heels by bespoke shoemaker Massaro.
Tweed coat with lace, chiffon and satin pockets, lace and organza dress, satin and silk tulle bow tie, and leather boots with patent leather toe caps, Chanel
The gossamer-lace-on-organza maxi tank dress alone is breathtaking, but one could say that it’s the accompanying coat that is true wizardry. Inspired by that of a magician’s, the dramatic number is crafted from ecru-coloured tweed by Lesage and anchored by large patch pockets embellished by Lemarie. To create said pockets, artisans cut into strips lace as well as chiffon and satin cut on the straight grain, and arranged them in an alternating sequence. Each ribbon is next held between two sheets of paper, traced out so that it can be stitched discreetly to create a bouillonnés – or frothing – effect, and given a delicate bourdon stitch (aka a rolled hem) before being individually applied to a white organza base. The result: ruffles so lively it’s as if every band of fabric is dancing.
Cotton tweed jacket with braiding, jewelled buttons and embroidered tulle, lace and organza flounces, cotton tweed shorts, satin and silk tulle bow tie, and patent leather slingback loafers, Chanel
Take Chanel’s iconic little black jacket, enrich it with black-and-gold braiding and a peplum embroidered with shimmery tulle, lace and organza flounces, and you get this swishy update on a forever piece that can be dressed up or down. Artisans from the maison’s tailleur ateliers, which focus on pieces made from thicker fabrics, including the brand’s emblematic tweed jackets, have carefully constructed it with side slits so that it maintains its boxy silhouette and comfort when worn. Another mark of Chanel’s modern vision of couture? Down-to-earth patent leather slingback loafers handcrafted by Massaro to match.
Tweed jacket with tulle flounces and jewelled buttons, and matching dress, Chanel
On the other hand, a black-and-midnight-blue tweed jacket gets an unexpectedly ethereal edge with silver threads and sequins woven into the tweed as well as tulle flounces handcrafted by Paloma – an atelier specialising in working with flou, or delicate fabrics – along the lapels. Three tiers of the same wispy applique that Chanel dubs “illusion tulle” are found on the hem of the matching backless minidress, peeking over rows of tiny black and silver beads that lend a romantic illuminating effect.
Organza tunic with embroidered scales, lace blouse with jewelled buttons, matching skirt, satin and silk tulle bow tie, and leather boots with patent leather toe caps, Chanel
Possibly the most exquisite take on mermaidcore, this three-piece outfit features a pleated blouse and pencil skirt made of iridescent, multicoloured floral lace set against flesh-coloured silk tulle for a daring play with transparency. The long sleeves of the blouse open at the cuff, accentuating the garment’s lightness and femininity. Completing the look: a tank-top-style, ecru-coloured organza tunic embroidered with scales in shades of purple, pink, orange, gold and silver – look at this trove; treasures untold indeed.
Mottled tweed jacket with embroidered plastron, braiding and jewelled buttons, matching skirt, and leather boots with patent leather toe caps, Chanel
Pictured above is an elegant skirt suit in yellow, beige, black and white mottled tweed that warrants a close-up with its embroidered plastron featuring a fringe-like finish that brings to mind cheerleader pom-poms, and jewelled buttons adorned with the daintiest of butterflies.
Sequinned tweed paletot coat with jewelled buttons, satin and silk tulle bow tie, and leather lace-up boots with patent leather toe caps, Chanel
Referred to as a paletot coat (which traditionally refers to any overcoat with a commanding – or boss-like – presence) by Chanel, this outer above with clean, flared lines is a technical masterpiece not only because it’s fully sequinned. To create it, artisans from the maison’s ateliers worked with a technical fabric that’s as supple and stretchy as a knit, moulding a single piece of the material into shape without the use of any seams. An ultra-light interlining made from triple organza and stitched to the garment calls for even more savoir faire.
Lace strapless dress with plumetis motifs, embroidered organza and silk twill tulle inner sheath, and velvet bow on back; satin and silk tulle bow tie; and leather boots with patent leather toe caps, Chanel
The outer layer of this show-stopping number is composed of lace plumetis (the fabric is woven with raised dots) set against sheer black silk tulle and features a low flounce for extra kick. Peeking out from underneath it is a golden menagerie embroidered in relief onto an organza-lined silk tulle sheath by Montex – whimsical and utterly stunning.
Organza dress with feather marquetry and silk twill flounces embellished with strass-dotted velvet threads, satin and silk tulle bow tie, and leather boots with patent leather toe caps, Chanel
Gabrielle Chanel’s concept of luxury eschewed ostentation for sophistication and often-invisible details, and the understated glamour of this two-piece black gown belies the labour and man-hours that go into it. First, there’s the slip-like inner layer embellished with goose contour feathers that have been glued, trimmed, then given cutouts to create 1,200 leaf motifs with veins of hematite-coloured pierced shards (10,500 of them, to be exact – the spaces carved out within the feather marquetry are meant to accommodate them). Just as it was entirely crafted by hand, each of these plumed leaves are placed onto the silk tulle base one by one manually, so it takes on a shape and life of its own.
Also the work of Lemarie: the undulating flounces on the lower half of the outer layer of the dress. A single tier calls for 17m of fabric that will be reduced to just 2m in length after pleating, explaining the lushness and movement of the gathers. Meanwhile, the shimmering queues de rat – or rat tail cords – that adorn said flounces demand as much dexterity. They’re made by rolling strips of bias-cut velvet by hand – a highly technical task because of the thickness of the velvet – then hand-dotted with nearly 18,000 strass beads in varying shades of blue and grey.
Photography Stefan Khoo Photography Assistant Alif Styling Damian Huang Styling Assistant Danessa Tong Hair Ark Lin Makeup Keith Bryant Lee, using Chanel Beauty Models Serena Jane/Misc Management and Lili Heaney/Upfront Models
This article first appeared in the June 2023 Time, Labour, Love Edition of FEMALE