Paris, Russia and Chanel: three universes that met in the 1920s. Intense intellectual and emotional forces that still resonate today in Chanel‘s latest high jewellery collection, Le Paris Russe de Chanel.
Let us watch this video. Paris, circa the 1920s. We enter Mademoiselle Chanel’s apartment, at 31 Rue Cambon. A gilded mirror surmounted by the Russian Imperial double-headed eagle stands on the wall.
A mysterious lady, wearing a sleek black dress, looks at herself in the mirror, her sophisticated image framed by the baroque fixture. A lavish party is going on, and the lady takes a moment to admire her diamond and platinum necklace.
We appreciate the details of the Aigle Protecteur necklace: two rare shield-cut diamonds, and rows of briolette-cut diamonds are set in platinum and, again, the double-headed eagle motif as a talisman guarding both the lady and the saloon.
Paris, the Russian culture and Gabrielle Chanel: three worlds that intersect in the Maison’s latest high jewellery collection, Le Paris Russe de Chanel. But how did this happen?
Russian émigrés in Paris
The Russian Imperial double-headed eagle was the emblem of Imperial Russia, of one of the most potent ruling dynasty, the Romanovs.
After the Bolshevik Revolution, in 1917, almost 50.000 Russians belonging to the social and cultural élite flew to Europe, and the majority of them sought refuge in and nearby Paris.
These were disgraced people, stripped of their titles, dispossessed of their riches, with nothing but themselves, and their lives to be built from scratch. They were “degraded princes, great ladies selling flowers, officers of the Guard and admirals of the Imperial fleet turned waiters, cooks and porters” as Joseph Kessel described in his Princes of the Night in 1927.
It was in this period that Gabrielle Chanel became acquainted with Russian culture, symbols and fashion. She used to mingle with the most fortunate émigrés who managed to retain huge parts of their fortunes, meeting them in Paris and in Biarritz and in Nice, their resort towns.
A Russian Love Affair
Gabrielle Chanel was fascinated by this culture that was exotic to her, coming from a distant land, and absorbed its lively colours, baroque motifs and spirit.
This fascination for the Russian world, however, did not start by accident. It was kindled by Mademoiselle’s ardent passion for the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, cousin of Tsar Nicholas II – a seductive young man with light-coloured eyes.
Although penniless, Dmitri possessed movie-star good looks and a captivating Russian lure that Chanel found intoxicating.
The pair met in 1911, and again in Biarritz in 1920. It is thanks to her liaison with the Grand Duke that Gabrielle came to know and appreciate those Russian designs that would return so powerfully in her fashion collections.
As an anecdote, it is interesting to remember that Gabrielle Chanel built a strong friendship with Dmitri’s own sister, the Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna. A friendship that became an entrepreneurial venture when Coco urged Maria to open an embroidery workshop named Kitmir, guaranteeing her exclusive production from 1921 onwards.
Not only this. Prince Dmitri introduced Mademoiselle to some more exiled compatriots, and she would later pride herself on employing the Russian nobility listed in the Almanach de Gotha as models and saleswomen – among these was Prince Koutoussoff, whom she employed as her private secretary.
It is the Russian who have taught women that it is not dishonourable to work. My grand duchesses worked for me as knitters.Claude Delay, CHANEL SOLITAIRE, Gallimard, 1983
Le Paris Russe de Chanel
Gabrielle Chanel never visited Russia. However, the fascination with this distant universe remained strong in her imagination, and she transferred it both in her work and in her physical surroundings (the gilded mirror in the opening video hangs on a wall in her Parisian apartment).
Her creative genius allowed her to combine the minimalistic lines of her clothes with the flamboyant, almost baroque colours and traditional embroideries from Russia. This innovated fashion in the most inclusive way, transforming and enriching it.
This is the source of Chanel high jewellery collection Le Paris Russe de Chanel.
The collection reverberates with symbols, evokes the colourful worlds of the Ballets Russes and Russian folklore. It reinterprets motifs from Russian decorative arts, like embroidery in the bright colours of roubachkas (a man’s blouse or tunic traditionally worn by peasants. It is belted around the waist and it is embellished with embroideries on the shoulders, around the collar and on the lower hem).
It also re-works cuts inspired by kokoshnik, a traditional headdress in velvet adorned with pearls and trimming.
These shapes and colours inspired Chanel Fine Jewellery Creation Studio to design necklaces, head ornaments, earrings, rings and sautoirs decorated with the finest diamonds, while other jewels present radiant chromatic effects evoking the exuberance festivity of the Ballets Russes.
Le Paris Russe de Chanel is a collection imbued with a sophisticated nostalgia for a vanished world that lived on the people Gabrielle Chanel met, for a country that she never visited but that had an everlasting impression, echoed in her creative works and in her dreams.