Found in a box of ephemera — this press release from the Paris HQ of legendary fashion designer Coco Chanel announcing a forthcoming exhibition on a May 5th (possibly 1933) of over a hundred dresses made entirely from British materials.
The aim of this non-selling exhibition, which was to be held at 39, Grosvenor Square and would last a fortnight, was to promote co-operation between textile manufacturers and exclusive model houses in Britain and designers in Paris. The show was the result of a previous visit to London when Mlle Chanel had met with forty textile manufacturers. From the samples they had brought with them she had produced a collection that aimed to prove that’ it is possible to be appropriately dressed in British materials for a cloudburst at Ascot or a hurricane at Lords, as for a dead calm at Cowes, or a tropical spell on the Scotch moors.’
‘These dresses and their many accessories ’, the press release continues, ‘will be displayed by English girls, (including Mrs Ronald Balfour and Lady Pamela Smith), and as each dress appears, a card will be shown stating the name of the manufacturer of the materials employed.
The presentation of the exhibition will be directed by an English woman, Signora Lombardi, who has worked in Mlle Chanel’s Paris establishment for many years, but is perhaps better known in England as Miss Vera Arkwright…’
According to the release, on the opening day, after representatives of the Press, textile manufacturers, distributors, merchants and a ‘number of representative English women ‘were admitted to the exhibition, ‘the collection was to be shown twice a day at 11 o’clock and 3, and as the dresses are not for sale, the general public will be asked to pay a small entrance fee in aid of a charity ‘.
In promoting her business model Chanel’s PR team is revealing about the interest the designer has always taken in the choice of material:
“Her admiration for British material has been proved by the extensive use she has made of it since she opened her dressmaking establishment, and it is no exaggeration to say that much of the popularity British woollen goods have enjoyed on the Continent and in America during the last ten years is due to her influence. British enterprise did not, however, and, indeed could not, fulfil all the demands made by the Paris dressmakers, even for those materials in which British weavers excel. In 1928, therefore, Mlle. Chanel started to manufacture dress fabrics in France and to market them all over the world. The success of this enterprise has been enormous. Leading Paris dressmaking house now find it to their advantage to employ ‘Tissus Chanel’ in spite of the fact that by doing so they are giving publicity to the name of a rival establishment. The large retail stores, such as Galeries Lafayette and others, sell ever increasing quantise of materials bearing the name of “Chanel” and the orders from the United States are so important that the looms must be kept working at full pressure in order to execute them. In brief, the turnover has increased from 1 million francs in 1928 to 20 million in 1931. Mlle Chanel is, in fact, faced with the alternative of supplementing her factories in France or extending her activities to another country. Taking world economic conditions into full consideration, she prefers the latter expedient. She has already received an offer of collaboration from a group of American textile manufacturers, but for a number of reasons, she does not consider this proposition to be attractive. She considers that a close collaboration between herself and a group of British manufactures could only result in great mutual advantage…”
Mlle. Chanel, the press release continued, is keen to achieve ‘worldwide distribution ‘ of her products, and moreover will not confine herself to the ‘ luxury end ‘ of the market, but will devote herself to ‘ mass production ‘. To this end, she intends to promote her work by showing several collections each year in London and by so doing attract both American and Continental buyers. In addition, she believes that a liaison between herself as ‘one of the dictators of women’s fashion’ and British textile manufactures will ensure that only the most suitable dress-making materials are supplied. ‘
All of the above, the press release concludes, is an indication of the ‘extensive activities ‘that Mlle Chanel hopes will be ‘of as great advantage to the British textile industry as to herself’.
This statement of Chanel’s future intentions reflects the designer’s canny business sense. Textiles manufactured in Britain were probably cheaper and of better quality than their equivalents in Europe or America. She also recognised that fashion conscious women on a budget were far more interested in chic French designs from Chanel than the products of lesser designers. The initiative paid off. Chanel’s empire expanded over the following decades, transforming the former impoverished child from a broken home into one of the world’s wealthiest women.
Interestingly, one of her models, Lady Pamela Smith, was the young daughter of the great barrister and parliamentarian, Lord Birkenhead, who had died in 1930. She later married Lord Hartwell, owner of the Daily Telegraph. Vera Arkwright was more interesting still. A beautiful socialite and a distant relation of the royal family, she worked for Chanel as a PR consultant until the pair fell out in 1930. In Mussolini’s Italy she was arrested for spying; later, during the Second World War, she herself accused Chanel of spying for the Germans. [R.M.Healey]