We Meet Chanel at the Intersection of Past, Present, and Future

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Coco Chanel
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Chanel never rests.

The billion-dollar fashion empire – which spans ready-to-wear, haute couture, accessories, fragrance, makeup, jewelry, and dozens of maisons d’art – is also one of the most active ones. In the words of Bruno Pavlovsky, Chanel’s President of Fashion: “The brand is everywhere. We have, every day, replica shows, shows, exhibitions, fine-jewelry and watch launches, et cetera more or less everywhere around the world.”

Indeed, while most other fashion houses would struggle through the transition that comes with the passing of a creative head, pause to get their bearings, and put a stop to all communications, Chanel powered through. It showed its Fall/Winter 2019 collection a mere two weeks following the death of creative director Karl Lagerfeld and launched the Mademoiselle Privé exhibition in Shanghai just a couple of months later.

It was during the opening of said exhibition that I sat down for a round-table interview with Pavlovsky to discuss the future of the brand. What was made abundantly clear that day, whether through our conversation or the exhibition, is that Chanel is uniquely positioned within the industry as a brand that is truly propelled towards the future by the strength of its past – and that is what allows it to soldier on without skipping a beat.

As future-facing as Chanel is, one of the foundational aspects of the house is Paraffection and the preservation of legacy artisan craftsmanship. It seems like it would require a new generation learning these specific skills in order to keep the ateliers going. Do you see young people taking an interest in the likes of fine embroidery and bijoux accessories?
Everything that we are doing at Chanel is for the next 20 years. If you had asked me this question 20 years ago, I would have told you that, yes, we had some doubts about our capacity to protect all this know-how and craftsmanship. But today, with the shift that we’ve seen since with the investment of Karl Lagerfeld and the brand into the collections – both couture and ready-to-wear – we’ve been able to recruit a lot of newcomers. If you go and visit the ateliers, what is striking is the number of young people working there. Not only that, but they are also inspired by the work they are doing. And that’s the most important part.

Twenty years ago, a lot of the people who were coming to work in the ateliers were doing so because they didn’t have another choice. In France, when you fail in school, you are sent to a technical college, and that’s how a lot of people wound up there. Today, that’s no longer the case. The people coming in are doing so because they love their craft; they have ideas and they are engaged. In fact, it’s becoming a virtuous cycle; because they love their work, they are doing better and better. They’re very connected and very happy to be here. We’ve also seen a change in the structure and in the way the ateliers work with the studio.

That being said, there is still work to be done to make sure that this know-how will continue to exist in the next 20 years. We are still working on some new acquisitions to ensure that we will be able to develop the right fabric and get the best leather, the best material tomorrow. Chanel is all about création – from Mademoiselle Chanel to Karl Lagerfeld to Virginie Viard – and I am very comfortable about our future. We have about 30 ateliers today, and we will continue to acquire more because they are the key.

And while we are increasingly engaged in different programs to ensure that we will always be able to get the top quality when it comes to materials, the top quality is not enough. It’s also about being able to source what we need as sustainably as possible. We believe that creation and sustainability are the two pillars of the brand for tomorrow.

Can you talk a little bit more about sustainability? What exactly is the house doing to ensure it moving forward?
From the ateliers and factories to the boutiques and day-to-day of our people, there are a lot of efforts towards sustainability. At the end of the day, the most important thing for us is that we can, with a lot of authenticity, engage our customers in the best direction. The reason we decided to ban exotic leathers is that we were not happy and not convinced of the future of such materials. Today, we are working to ensure that each single raw material is sourced better than it was previously – whether we are talking about wool, cashmere, silk, cotton, leather, or feathers. We want the planet to be able to continue to produce these raw materials, so we are investing increasingly in this direction and will be able to communicate these efforts to our customers as a pillar of the brand.

We opened a factory last year where everything is about positive energy. We create our own energy, and we deliver any surplus to the community. Our new leather-goods factory in Verneuil will function in the same way. We also just opened a new warehouse here in China that is powered using solar panels. What’s more, the materials that we are using in our boutiques are recyclable. There are many, many initiatives that we’re engaged in. There isn’t one part of the business where we aren’t thinking about the next step for tomorrow. The luxury of tomorrow is all about that.

We believe that creation and sustainability are the two pillars of the brand for tomorrow.

The investment into artisanal traditions, which are so beautifully displayed in this exhibition, underlines that Chanel goes beyond a single creative director, that it’s really about the artisans who make all these pieces and the materials that are being invested in.
Chanel is the mix of all that. Yes, there is Mademoiselle Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld, and Virginie Viard, but behind them are a lot of ateliers, and these ateliers are key to being able to deliver what we need to. The beauty of such an exhibition is to be able to communicate that – not talking about the products, but talking about the posture of the products. That, for me, is the most important.

It’s an ecosystem that is quite interesting. Mademoiselle Chanel was the very first one to have these strong partnerships with, for example, Lemarié and Goossens. It was very new at the time. Then, Mr. Lagerfeld understood what she had done, and he was able to take it to another level through these partnerships. Since the 2000s, we’ve focused on developing these partnerships to make sure that the brand can exist 20 years from now. We understood quite early that these know-hows were key for the next step.

When Virginie Viard joined Chanel 30 years ago, her first job was in embroidery, and she was the very first one to work with François Lesage. She learned a lot about embroidery thanks to him. Today, being able to continue the story with her is quite important because she was part of this evolution.

Moving from creation and sustainability to demand and purchase: how do you think that the market for haute couture is changing?
I wouldn’t call couture a market. It is the ultimate service, the ultimate luxury that we want to offer to a very small number of customers. The market is about ready-to-wear, and that’s much bigger. We have about 200 boutiques in the world, and each of these is contributing to the image of the brand through strong activity in the ready-to-wear department. That’s key.

Haute couture, on the one hand, is a sort of research and development space because there is no limit to what we are doing in that field. It’s about inspiration, and the atelier can play with anything including concrete, steel, and wood. But what is even more interesting for haute couture is that it’s the ultimate service for the customer. It’s a one-to-one relationship between the chef d’atelier and the customer. Haute couture is not the end; it’s the beginning. It’s about something very new and very modern, and it’s about creative servicing.

Mademoiselle Privé Exhibit in Shanghai
The 'Mademoiselle Privé' Exhibit in Shanghai | Photo: Courtesy of Chanel

Are exhibitions like this one particularly important in communicating Chanel to an audience at a time of change for the brand?
If you understand Mademoiselle Privé, you understand the brand. It’s not about products, it’s about creation. It’s about the icons of the brand – ‘N°5’, Haute Couture, and Haute Joaillerie – that have been created by Mademoiselle Chanel. When you go through these houses, you will realize how modern they are today, even though they were created decades ago. You will notice how they were adapted to make them so meaningful and pertinent for the people of today. And, in fact, what you see here is the future of the brand because these pillars will continue to incarnate what is so unique and so special at Chanel.

There is no brand that can do the same at this level and with this level of detail, creation, and craftsmanship. Through one exhibition, you can see all the values – what the DNA of the brand is about. That’s what we are trying to communicate here to the customers. We are not talking about products; we are talking about Mademoiselle Chanel, her posture, and her vision. That’s the most important.

Why have three of the iterations of this exhibition happened in Asia? In the financial report released by Chanel last year, Asia is one of the areas with the highest growth for the brand, about 16 percent. Is that why there is an extra interest in reminding the region of what the fundamentals of Chanel are?
With every new Olympics, there is a lot of discussion around where the next one will be hosted. It’s the same at Chanel. We are limited; we have two exhibitions a year and two replica shows a year. We have a lot of candidates, and we need to find the best way and the best balance to organize everything. We have had a lot of requests here in Asia to talk about more than just the product – to talk about the story of the brand – and it’s very important for us to be able to communicate that.

It’s true that China is one of our most dynamic markets, but we still have a lot of work to do to introduce the brand to Chinese fans. I’m not talking about customers, but fans who love Chanel, love the idea of Chanel, and love the story of Mademoiselle Chanel. We need to give them the opportunity to better understand what the Chanel of today is about. That’s why we’re here. That being said, we were in New York four months ago, and we will be in Tokyo in a few weeks. The brand is everywhere, and there is no direct link with financial results. It’s more about what we need as a brand, and what is most important for our customers. What has changed is that we have to be everywhere at the same time, but we have to prioritize.

There is no brand that can do the same at this level and with this level of detail, creation, and craftsmanship.

How does the exhibit differ and evolve from city to city?
The concept is the same, but everything else is different. The location is different, the size is different, the opportunities and the impact are different. We have to adapt to the location every time. Here, we have space – we have a mezzanine and a main floor – so the challenge was how to fulfill everything without being too big. For the last exhibition, the location in Hong Kong was very small. In China, for example, we also integrated specific ecosystems through WeChat. Thanks to that, we’ve been able to offer additional content throughout the exhibition.

At the end of the day, we want to stick to the principles, the icons of the brand, and this is about how to best explain their strengths and their importance for the brand. After that, it’s about the specs. We’ll be in Tokyo in October, and the space has nothing to do with this one – the exhibition will be totally different, but the concept will be the same. Chanel is about that. We have 200 boutiques in the world, and each one is very specific. We have a motto that says, “One boutique, one story.”

We don’t want to copy and paste our Parisian boutique around the world. We don’t like to duplicate exactly what we are doing. Even when we replicate a show, it’s not the same as the original one; it’s another story to better engage the audience. We try to bring something special and meaningful to the people who we want to talk to every time. In a couple of weeks, for instance, we will be in Korea with a replica of the Metiers d’Art show, which will be the same and yet different from what we’ve seen in New York. And that’s the beauty of Chanel – to be able to come up with something special, more engaging, every time.

Chanel is one of most – if not the most – future-focused houses. And yet, you do not sell your clothes online. What is the reasoning behind this strategy?
Chanel fashion is not going e-commerce – and that’s worldwide. Chanel is more than just a click. We want our customer to come to the boutique, to have an experience, to touch the product, to try it on, and to see the finishing. That is something that is very important to us. We don’t want you to just to see a picture on the screen and click. We don’t want the Chanel experience to be about that.

We are quite active on a day-to-day basis on all digital social networks, but that’s for communication, to inspire our customers. The objective is to attract them to the boutiques, where we are able to offer them the best service and expertise. That’s the objective of the brand.

What will the Chanel retail experience be like in 20 years?
Perhaps no e-commerce! We will offer an amazing experience in the boutique, but at the same time, you will be able to have everything delivered to your home. We will be able to send someone for alterations to your home as well. The idea is to still be able to communicate the creative energy that we do in our boutiques, but to be as flexible as possible on a service level to follow the wishes of the customers and be meaningful to them. The objective of the brand is not to be automatic or systematic, but to be able to consider each customer for who she is, to offer the best of the experience to each of them. I don’t know exactly what that will look like, but we want to be able to offer something that will feel unique for you.

Bruno Pavlovsky by Frédéric David
Bruno Pavlovsky | Photo: Courtesy of Frédéric David
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