Gabrielle Chanel in Britain

During the Summer of 1927, the name of French designer Gabrielle Chanel reverberated throughout fashionable London.

By May that year she had "for the first time in her distinguished career consented to write for the Press", publishing illustrated articles on fashion advice in the leading weekly review, The Outlook magazine. This coincided with another significant development – the opening of her first London salon and atelier both situated in the prestigious Mayfair area.

Article from British Vogue, June 1927. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Gabrielle Chanel chose to emphasise the distinctly British elements of her business, as British and French attitudes to fashion were quite different at the time. In Britain, fashionable society revolved around the social season linked to the Royal Court, with the calendar marked out by key events such as horse racing at Ascot, rowing at Henley, and sailing at the Cowes Regatta – all requiring different attire for town and country. British Vogue noted in June 1927 that this was 'French Chic adapted to English tastes and traditions'. Designs were also taken up by high society including the young Duchess of York (later known as Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mother) who was seen at a Mayfair ball of 1928 in a 'rose coloured Chanel dress of tulle'.

Within the London salon Gabrielle Chanel favoured 'only English mannequins' to show the clothing, whilst the atelier only employed English seamstresses, although they were overseen by senior staff from Paris to ensure creative continuity.

By the time of her official 1927 business arrival in Britain, Gabrielle Chanel had already spent a significant amount of time in the UK. Her first known connection was through her romantic relationship with the English shipping magnate and polo player Boy Capel, who was the first investor in her fashion business, established in 1910. Her early experimentation in jersey, supposedly inspired by elements of his sporting wardrobe, was seen as a radical approach which marked her out from her contemporaries. Capel's death in a car crash in 1919 was a severe loss to Chanel, and she always acknowledged his impact on her life and work.

The designer's close ties to Britain remained after her friend, the socialite Vera Bate, introduced her to the extraordinarily wealthy Duke of Westminster in 1923, and they began an affair which lasted into the following decade. This relationship saw Gabrielle Chanel spend time at his properties in Cheshire, Scotland and London, often partaking in sporting activities such as hunting, fishing and horse riding. This ability to mix in aristocratic circles led to her befriending high-profile people such as politician (and future Prime Minister), Winston Churchill, and socialite Lady Juliet Duff.

Gabrielle Chanel, Winston Churchill and Randolph Churchill, photograph, 1928, France. © Freemantle / Alamy Stock Photo

Gabrielle Chanel embraced the British love of the outdoors and considered British tailors the best for creating sporting garments. Her own riding breeches were made by British tailors including James Pile and Huntsman of Savile Row, whilst photographs of her at the Duke's Scottish estate during the 1920s show her appropriating elements from his own wardrobe, in particular his tweed jackets. At this time she was introduced to tweed maker William Linton of Carlisle, who she then worked with to produce unique soft, lightweight versions of his signature material to incorporate into her popular skirt and jacket suit designs. As with jersey, she was once again transforming a practical hard-wearing fabric into a sought-after fashionable material.

Huntsman Savile Row order book showing Gabrielle Chanel's order for riding breeches and skirts, 1925. Courtesy of Huntsman Savile Row

As well as Linton, Gabrielle Chanel collaborated with other British businesses, designing rainwear produced by David Mosely and Sons and knitwear made by Lyle and Scott's Ellaness range. Having run her own textile factories outside of Paris in Asnières-sur-Seine and Maretz since the late 1920s, she looked to expand her range of textile production. In early 1932 she announced the establishment of British Chanel Ltd – a company which worked with a selection of the best British textile manufacturers. Inviting a roster of over 40 companies to participate, she launched the initiative with an exhibition and fashion show open to the public, which took place over two weeks at the Duke of Westminster's property at 30 Grosvenor Square, London. Over 130 ensembles made from British fabrics were modelled by British Society women, with ticket proceeds going to the War Service Legion charity which trained injured former soldiers in the arts of tapestry, embroidery and needlework.

The British manufacturers that Gabrielle Chanel chose to work with were located across the nation, including lace and tulle producers G.W. Price and Co of Nottingham; the Manchester Velvet company; Ferguson Bros Ltd of Carlisle who specialised in voiles and cottons; Driver, Hartley and Co of Keighley, producers of silk; Marling and Evans and Broadhead and Graves, both woollen producers of Huddersfield; The Old Bleach Linen Company of Randalstown, Northern Ireland; and woollen producers of Selkirk in Scotland, Gardiner and Sons. These companies were invited to produce textiles for her designs, and once she had had first usage, they were permitted to market them as CHANEL collaborated fabrics. At the British Industries Fair of 1932, Queen Mary visited the textile stand of Ferguson Bros Ltd and specifically requested to view the CHANEL fabrics, promptly purchasing some lengths for her personal use.

Portraits of Gabrielle Chanel, gelatin silver prints, by Curtis Moffat, 1932. Museum no. E.296-2009. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

British CHANEL was a short-lived venture, deliberately avoiding the complexities of the original business set-up and continuing to work with several of the producers such as the Manchester Velvet company on a more traditional supplier and client basis. However, she was so impressed with the quality of woollens produced in Huddersfield that she decided to go into business with Broadhead and Graves Ltd, setting up CHANEL Broadhead Ltd. Gabrielle Chanel herself visited the factory located at Kirkeaton, travelling with Designer and Director of her French factories, Ilia Zdanevitch (also known as Iliazd). Gabrielle Chanel extended the company's original factory to increase capacity for her complex patterned woollen jersey fabrics, installing her nephew Ándre Palasse and his young family in nearby Huddersfield to oversee production.

With the onset of war at the end of the 1930s, Gabrielle Chanel closed her couture house and textile factories. When she returned to fashion in 1954 at the age of 71, she was still very much engaged with the creative and material side of her work. During this time the fashion world had changed – rather than meet directly with suppliers, she worked with agents such as Robert Burg to view samples and make orders, and continued to work with Linton tweeds in Carlisle, a relationship which continues in the CHANEL fashion house today. Gabrielle Chanel also worked with Serbian-born, Scotland-based designer Bernat Klein, producing vibrant and expressive experimental tweeds which worked perfectly with the evolution of her classic suits in the 1960s.

CHANEL suit, blouse and skirt ensemble, designed by Gabrielle Chanel, manufactured by Ascher Ltd., Spring/Summer 1964, France. Museum no. T.90&A, B, C-1974. © CHANEL / Photo: Nicholas Alan Cope / Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Although Gabrielle Chanel's first reinvention of the traditional British outdoor fabric occurred almost a century ago, tweed remains the material which is synonymous with her brand today.

Find out more about the exhibition, Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto.

Discover more in our Fashion, Jewellery and Shoe collections.

See CHANEL objects in Explore the Collections.