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Chanel’s austere Aubazine spiritual chic

Published
today Jan 21, 2020
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Chanel’s couturier Virginie Viard went back to the roots of the house for inspiration this haute couture season, back before Coco even imagined she would be a designer – all the way to her convent school in the Massif Central deep in the heart of rural France.
 

Chanel - Spring-Summer2020 - Haute Couture - Paris - © PixelFormula


All the way to Aubazine, a convent where Mademoiselle Gabrielle Chanel and her sisters began studying in 1895 in a Cistercian Abbey first founded in the 11th century. Aubazine, where Coco learnt to sew, and where the black habits of the nuns were the basis of the origin of Chanel’s great revolutionary idea – the little black dress.
 
Founded for poor and orphan girls by the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Mary, it was a stark and frugal regime with strict discipline. A discipline reflected in the exact cut of the opening looks – pure, almost precious, check suits, cut three inches above the knee, and worn with simple black patent leather shoes and white schoolgirl socks; dark grey wool pocketed dresses with scapular shoulders; or houndstooth dresses in hourglass shapes. Best of all, some perfectly flowing trumpet dresses in bold checks that swished as the models walked by, recalling for anyone who has ever been taught by nuns the arrival of a religious sister. 
 
Starring Gigi Hadid in the role of Mother Superior, enforcing order in the girls’ school. Understandably, given her courageous stand last season when Gigi evicted a gate-crasher from the Chanel ready-to-wear catwalk. Hadid, however, was a risqué head nun with a long black belted dress split open to reveal lots of thigh.
 
There were hints of Manon des Sources as well, with an old working Provençal fountain, in the centre of a precise convent cloister garden, in a beautiful set where the models marched on cobblestones that formed mosaics with the abbey’s coat-of-arms composed of the moon, sun and stars.
 
Though, unlike the Sacred Hearts, who dress in black, the majority of the cast were dressed in ecru, cream or white. More  like Dominicans – no slouches when it comes to discipline, given their role in the Inquisition – with their long white robes. 
 
Even the exact square set was demarcated by white – hundreds of plain sheets drying as if in the sun among the wildflowers of Aubazine, scented by simple convent soap.
 
Viard also played on the Cistercian stained glass windows in Aubazineʼs chapel, using them in a couple of splendidly printed suits. The stained glass colours that were to become part of the whole accessory aesthetic of Coco, seen today with costume jewellery maker Goossens, part of Chanel’s Métiers dʼArt. 
 
In later life, when fashion had made her a rich woman, Coco built La Pausa, her rather austere villa in the south of France, she incorporated a replica of the great stone bannister from Aubazine, that she would descend daily at the abbey.
 
“What I immediately liked was that the cloister garden was uncultivated. It was really sunny. The place made me think of the summer, a breeze fragranced with flowers. I wanted floral embroideries like an herbarium, delicate flowers. What interested me in this décor was the paradox between the sophistication of Haute Couture and the simplicity of this place,” explained Viard after visiting Aubazine, and La Pausa.
 
Perhaps not every experiment with tailoring worked, displaced pockets occasionally spoiling the silhouette, but it was great to see a couturier taking some risks, Viard’s work displaying an increasing confidence. Especially for evening, when she sent out some wonderful lace plissé dresses and a magnificent guipure lace column – all anchored with white booties with black laces. Culminating in Kaia Gerber, as a postulant who found love outside of being a novitiate, Sound of Music-style, and was off on a romantic date. Dressed in a lace A-line dress topped with a pure black gauze veil.
 
“I also liked the idea of the boarder, of the schoolgirl, the outfits worn by children long ago,” says Virginie Viard.
 
Though, just like the Sacred Hearts who opened schools for ladies throughout Europe, this was a couture collection largely devoid of frills and jewellery. In a word, a purist expression of couture, and the most respectful imaginable homage to a house’s DNA.

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