A modernist in the true sense of the word, Chanel ascribed primacy to function and materials. While a straight, linear silhouette characterizes her designs of the 1920s, her dresses of the 1930s appear more feminine and romantic. Also on display is a series of works that reference Chanel's inspirations, such as her famous "Gypsy" dress, with details borrowed from lingerie and underwear. Even in these languid gowns, however, Chanel asserted her modernism by revealing their construction—exposing the seams and other "mechanics" of the garments.
Chanel not only established the canon of modern dress, but she determined a typology of clothing styles, such as beach and evening pajamas, the chemise dress, the little black dress, the two- or three-piece suit, and evening dress that combined both tailoring and dressmaking practices. A wide array of these "icons" of design is on display, as well as such signature accessories as the quilted bag, the two-tone pump, the gilt chain belt, pearl necklaces, and crystal Maltese and Byzantine crosses. The exhibition also focuses on the iconography of the Chanel style that, over time, have come to include bows, stars, camellias, and lion heads. (The lion was Coco Chanel's astrological symbol; she was born on August 19.) Just as much as in her fashions, these motifs asserted Chanel's creativity and individuality, promoting a design vocabulary that is both instantly distinguishable and instantly recognizable.
The exhibition is comprised of a series of architectonic modules in a strict modernist grid, as devised by the creative consultant Olivier Saillard. Each module addresses iconic Chanel designs, iconographic details that have become indelibly associated with the House of Chanel, or materials and techniques that are Chanel signature elements. Video wallpaper projections by the artist Marie Maillard give a poetic vision to the presentation of mannequins in several modules, underscoring their conceptual presentation. More assertively, video cubes in the same dimensions as the modules are interspersed in the grid: their walls appear dematerialized with projections that introduce design details and concepts that have come to characterize the House.