“The Russians Fascinate me”
- Coco Chanel
The Russian Civil War in 1917 took a toll on the vast empire. Due to corruption and economic difficulty, around 1.5 million Russians emigrated from their home country, with 400,000 of them settling in France. Living under harsh and unfavourable conditions, most of the emigres were aristocrats, artists, and intellectuals who tried to escape violence. Using their talent and knowledge, the Russian diaspora became very influential to the French community. Little did the world know that a Russian Paris will soon begin to emerge.
When Russian culture started to make a presence in France, Chanel’s curiosity for Russia grew. While she was networking around Paris, she met composer Igor Stravinsky, art critic Sergei Diaghiliev, and pianist Misia Sert. Inspired by their artistic talents, Chanel began to explore more of the community. She later met the man who introduced her formally to the culture, then known as Grand Duke Dimitri Pavlovich. Her friendship with Pavlovich soon turned into a short-lived, but impactful relationship.
When Chanel’s fashion brand increased in popularity, she employed many Russians on her team. Prince Koutosso, a friend she met from Pavlovich, held a private secretary position while Ernest Beaux, the Tsar’s perfumer, helped her to formulate the infamous No. 5 perfume. After meeting Pavlovich’s sister, the Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, Chanel tried to convince her to participate in a clothing collection. Soon enough, the Grand Duchess listened and found her own embroidery workshop named ‘Kitmir.’ When Chanel and Pavlovna became close business partners in the early 1920s, Chanel’s usage of symbols and patterns began to alter into a more Imperial Russian aesthetic. Furthermore, her roubachka blouses and fur coats were designed with a ‘babushka’ twist.
The country she loved and explored changed her perception of fashion but not her adventures. Surprisingly, Chanel never went to Russia despite her curiosity towards the culture. Instead, she viewed Russia as a land in her imagination. The double headed eagle in her apartment fueled her mind for new designs and creations.
But little did she know that her director in the future, will one day turn her imagination into reality.
After a century later
Patrice Leguereau found himself in Russia trying to study Slavic culture and beading techniques in Russian jewelry. As the director of Chanel Jewelry Creation Studio, he was given the task to create a new collection inspired by Chanel’s passion for Russian culture.
After many drafts and rough sketches, he designed around 63 jewelry pieces separated by two sections: one outlining Russia’s emblems and medallions, and the other emphasizing Russia’s motifs in visual arts. One of the most memorable pieces of the collection is the two-headed eagle. The jewellery was inspired by Baroque art and built with gold and pearl tassels.
Another signature motif worth mentioning is the Sarafane headpiece fabricated with white gold, pearls, and diamonds. The Perle technique commonly used in Russian beadwork was replicated to create the headpiece. If observed closely, the accessory resembles the ‘Kokoshnik,’ which is a traditional Russian headdress worn by royalty and ladies-in-waiting.
Furthermore, the Ble Maria brooch crafted with a bohemian aesthetic represents the revolutionary period of Russia. Resembling a Russian military badge and adorned with a yellow mandarin garnet in the centre, the accessory is a synopsis about the friendship between Chanel and her Russian colleagues.
The three pieces were part of a jewellery collection named ‘La Paris Russe de Chanel.’ Leguereau wanted to not only reiterate Chanel’s mission but also tell a story about Chanel’s affinity towards Russia. The story is not only interpreted as a jewelry collection but is also the inspiration behind a Russian ballet performance. In an interview, Leguereau stated that customers often identify Chanel as a luxury brand but are not familiar with the meaning behind the designer’s mission statement. By introducing ‘La Paris Russe de Chanel,’ the director retold Chanel’s relationships and inspirations with jewellery designs. The collection is a delicate blend of culture, luxury, and art, three traits best exemplified by Chanel herself. As Chanel’s brand continues to grow, more stories will be told throughout different collections. However, Chanel’s passion for different cultures and ongoing curiosity must never be forgotten by designers.