Like many French schoolchildren, Chanel’s creative director Virginie Viard was taken on an educational tour of the storied Chateaux of the Loire. At the time, she was more impressed by the splendors of Chambord than the more intimate charm of the fairytale Château de Chenonceau. Revisiting Chenonceau earlier this year, however, when the castle was planned as the setting for an in-person Métiers d’Art show (it has subsequently become virtual), Viard was struck by how closely the atmosphere of the place evoked La Pausa, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel’s own fabled house in Roquebrune in the south of France.
The 16th-century Chenonceau is known as the Chateau des Femmes (the Women’s Castle) because of its association with some powerful ladies through its storied history, notably Diane de Poitiers, the influential mistress of King Henry II, and her rival, Catherine de Medici, the king’s Italian-born, taste-making wife. The chateau is flanked on either side by gardens created by De Poitiers who is said to have maintained her legendary beauty by bathing in the River Cher. Viard took the flowers and parterre designs as embroidery motifs, reimagined with what she playfully describes as a touch of Disney.
Viard was especially impressed by the chateau’s kitchens: De Medici, after all, was said to have transformed the French culinary landscape. It was also De Medici who expanded the relatively small castle by building a vast gallery room that served as a bridge over the river. It was in this astounding room, with its distinctive black and white checkerboard floor, that the Métiers show was staged. No wonder that Viard was thinking of something “a little princess-y!” with this collection.
During a Zoom preview, the designer wondered, “Did Chanel really admire the women of that time?” The 1930s portraits of Coco dressed in dark velvet suits with white piecrust ruffs at the neck evoking the court artist François Clouet’s portraits of De Medici and her ladies that Viard was rifling through certainly suggest that Chanel appreciated the “magnificent simplicity” of the period. “You can find so many details,” notes Viard. She was astounded to discover, for instance, that Catherine de Medici’s symbol, repeated throughout the chateau, is a linked double C—very similar to the iconic Chanel logo that is so much a part of the brand’s DNA. (Viard has worked with photographer Juergen Teller this season to document many of these potent details).