V&A Chanel exhibition reviews: what the critics say
Updated: Oct 20
The V&A's Chanel exhibition is finally open. It's been one of the most hotly-anticipated museum shows of recent years — no mean feat for an exhibition that has already toured the world.
Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto arrives in its latest iteration in London following its premiere in Paris in 2020, and then further stints in Tokyo and Melbourne.
But here the exhibition has been ‘re-imagined’ by the V&A, with over 100 new objects including 60 new looks. It is the first exhibition in the UK dedicated to the work of Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel, and charts the evolution of her iconic design style and the establishment of the House of CHANEL. In total, visitors are promised 200 looks seen together for the first time.
And visitors have been waiting a long time for this fashion exhibition to arrive in Britain. First announced in July 2022, over a year of ever-building anticipation has resulted in tickets for the first half of the show’s run selling out. The second half is likely to sell out very soon.
But has it been worth the wait?
Well, the reviews all seem to suggest that it has.
“Dazzling” is the Telegraph’s verdict. In Lisa Armstrong’s five-star review she said “Each new showcase reinforces how alive Chanel’s extraordinary legacy remains.” She was particularly impressed with the new aspects added by the Victoria and Albert Museum compared to the original Paris show, believing that the curators here “have done something more honest and valuable” by alluding to Chanel’s reputation as a Nazi collaborator, and by including new research suggesting she was conversely part of the French resistance. Overall, Armstrong believes visitors will be “surprised and moved.”
Victoria Moss at the Evening Standard agrees that visitors will love it. They will be in “for a powerful treat” she states in her glowing five-star review.
“Over ten sections, Chanel’s extraordinary impact on how women get dressed is painstakingly presented across artful black and white spaces (as if stepping into a Chanel store) through over 200 looks, as well as numerous accessories, perfumes, beauty items and jewellery” Moss says. It’s “an impressive and emotive collection” she adds.
It’s a sentiment echoed by the Times critic Hannah Rogers, who thinks “every room feels like an event.”
Rogers loved the space featuring 62 of the famous Chanel tweed suits, where they are stacked floor to ceiling. “There are many such eye-widening displays” she adds in her four-star review.
In the Independent’s four-star review, Olivia Petter also focuses on the fact that the exhibition doesn’t shy away from Chanel’s controversial wartime activities, but she adds that it “is happy to embrace the mysteries that still surround” the designer.
Rachel Cooke in the Observer agrees, thinking that the exhibition’s organisers sense that “too much investigation will break the spell it wishes to cast.” Biographical details are at a minimum Cooke highlights, and further points out that it “is equivocal about everything from Chanel’s activities during the second world war.”
“About the [fashion], however, it is unstinting” she remarks.
— Find out what else is on at the V&A in 2023
But Cooke’s four-star review admits that the overall effect of an exhibition filled with so many of Chanel’s “intensely covetable work” is numbness. “I found myself wondering suddenly what it was all for: so many glorious frocks, and no human being allowed to wear them.”
And one of the biggest fashion critics of them all agrees. “However magnificent the display…the clothes struggle to come alive” writes Alexandra Shulman, former editor of British Vogue, in the Daily Mail. She concludes that as Chanel’s pieces were so wearable, they lack drama when displayed in glass cases in a museum exhibit. “I found myself craving more images of them being worn and, more pressingly, of the woman who designed them.”
Ultimately, Schulman said she left “with more questions than answers about the real Gabrielle Chanel.”
Yet despite these reservations, no critic has awarded the exhibition fewer than four stars. The reviews suggest that the Chanel exhibition is definitely an exhibition worth a visit.
Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto is at the V&A in London until 25 February 2024.