It might have been a completely fortuitous coincidence but the famous interlocking C’s of the house of Chanel could well be mistaken for a similar motif that may be found throughout the stunning Château de Chenonceau. Set in France’s Loire Valley, the C’s of the château were designed to pay homage to Queen Catherine de’ Medici; but those with a penchant for history would know the true lady of the castle for a time was Diane de Poitiers, the Duchess d’Étampes and legendary maîtresse of King Henry II, who was 18 years her junior and husband to Catherine.
A blend of Gothic and Renaissance styles, the château is superb and sumptuous by all accounts, proving to be a worthy setting for the recent Métiers d’Art 2020/21 show from a house founded by another equally enigmatic and influential woman in French history — Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. Originally gifted to Poitiers, ownership of the château reverted back to the queen after Henry was critically wounded in 1509 in a jousting tournament, and later succumbed to sepsis.
But it is to Poitiers due credit must be given for much of the royal estate’s stunning design and architecture. She commissioned the architect Philibert de l’Orme to build the iconic arched bridge that joins the château to the opposite bank of the River Cher, a masterpiece said to have been directly inspired by Florence’s Ponte Vecchio, and personally saw to the planting of the extensive and exquisite gardens for which it is still world-famous.
For those unfamiliar with the maison’s Métiers d’Art collection, it is a French term that translates as “art professions” while the fashion collection itself is always a visual and tactile homage to the small specialist workshops that Chanel began acquiring since 1984 in a bid to preserve the time-honoured expertise and unparalleled craftsmanship that underscore the essence of French luxury. These specialist ateliers include household names in couture circles, such as milliner Maison Michel, parurier or costume jeweller Desrues, feather-worker and flower-maker Lemarié, glove makers Causse Gantier, pleater Lognon and iconic embroidery house Lesage, all of whom contribute to the creation of each new Chanel universe, from handbags to its ready-to-wear collection, in some way or another.
The annual Métiers d’Art show has traditionally been held in December since 2002 and Chanel has always looked to a different city to pay tribute to these masters of their fashion art forms, staging the runway shows in locations as diverse and exotic as Edinburgh, Mumbai and Dallas. This year, in part because of the relentless onslaught of Covid-19, the 2020/21 Métiers d’Art collection was held on home ground at the Loire Valley. It is also creative director Virginie Viard’s first runway show outside of Paris. But pandemic or not, it is hard to deny the inspiration the fairytale-like setting the castle affords.
Besides Catherine de’ Medici’s interlocking monograms dotting the architecture and Diane de Poitiers’ stunning contributions to both structure and grounds, other visual cues abound that inherently link the spirit of the women who lived at Chenonceau to the house of Chanel, including the rich embroidered tapestries, the sleek sculpted lines of the sprawling, beautifully manicured gardens, the Royal Gallery’s monochromatic tiles and even the appearance of the majestic lion in sculptures, a much loved symbol of Mademoiselle Chanel, herself born under the sign of Leo.
“We don’t know if Coco was directly inspired by [Catherine] but it is highly likely because she so admired Renaissance women,” confides Viard. “Her taste for lace ruffs and the aesthetic of certain pieces of her jewellery come from there. Deep down, this place is a part of Chanel’s history. So, showing at the Château de Chenonceau, at the Château des Dames, was an obvious choice. It was designed and lived in by women. It is a castle on a human scale.”
The Métiers d’Art show on Dec 3 also marked a most unprecendented year, with only one invited guest in attendance — actor and Chanel ambassador Kristen Stewart, who sat gracefully on a bench to watch a parade of models wearing luxury fashion that doubles as fine art, with all the accents and expertise of the ateliers beautifully showcased, including the top of a damask dress embroidered entirely by Lesage, a flowing lace dress composed of lattices punctuated by studs made by Lemarié and a beautiful black chapeau created by Maison Michel.
Although devoid of a crowd of spectators, the entire fashion world tuned in for the online 2020/21 Métiers d’Art show. Certainly the magic of the location was not lost, nor its obvious ties to French history, luxury and beauty. The word “renaissance” means “rebirth” in French while also referring to a time in European civilisation marked by a revival of classical learning and wisdom. How apt then for Chanel to have staged its show at Chenonceau, reminding us that it continues to evoke this same spirit time and again in all its creations.
Watch the preview below:
This article first appeared on Dec 17, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.