Nun story: Chanel rediscovers its convent girl chic

Fiachra GIBBONS
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Mother superior: American model Gigi Hadid wears a nun's habit dress with a claudine collar at the Chanel haute couture show in Paris

Virginie Viard finally put her mark on Chanel on Tuesday with a beautifully restrained Paris haute couture show that summoned up the convent girl childhood of the fabled French label's founder.

The discreet designer, Karl Lagerfeld's righthand woman in his twilight years, shook the Kaiser's ghost from her shoulder to produce some of the most subtle and refined clothes seen on a Chanel catwalk in quite some time.

With white sheets hung on washing lines around the spare set of a convent cloister evoking the orphanage where Coco Chanel grew up, this was a thorough spring clean.

Viard quite literally went back to the source, travelling deep into rural southwest France on a pilgrimage to the abbey at Aubazine where Chanel learned to sew, and where her little black dress had its genesis in the nuns' habits.

"It was a very touching and inspiring place. I felt good there," said Viard of her time communing with Chanel's spirit.

While Lagerfeld felled forests, reproduced rockets, ocean liners and the Eiffel Tower almost to scale inside the vast Grand Palais for his legendary Paris shows, Viard recreated the convent's humble little garden gone to wild.

- Chicly unshowy -

Rather than Cecil B DeMille sets, her clothes did the talking.

With models in sensibly heeled loafers with built-in white ankle socks, the early looks -- almost entirely white -- had an Edwardian schoolgirl elegance about them.

Chanel tweed suits in black and white, dresses and pinafores with bertha collars. All appeared terribly simple, ascetic even, until you saw the cut and sparkly sophistication of the flower detailing.

Then there was Gigi Hadid, discipline personified, as a kind of mother superior enforcer in a killer black buttoned-up habit dress with a claudine collar.

The American supermodel seemed to lap up the role, having confronted a gatecrasher who slipped onto the runway at the last Chanel show.

Then came the couture dresses assembled with a rare and restrained ethereal beauty, their fine embroidery carrying echoes of stained glass and filtered ecclesiastical light.

Even the Paris weather seemed to have caught some of the chill of Chanel's convent rigour, with Kaia Gerber and other models swaddled in thermal foil blankets backstage against the biting winter cold.

But that did not deter a front row jammed with celebrities, from French actress Eva Green to Japanese and Thai stars Nana Komatsu and Nittha Jirayungyurn to singers Pharrell Williams and South Korean rapper G-Dragon.

- Austere glamour -

"The idea of a boarding school, of schoolgirls, of the children's clothes from long ago appealed to me," Viard said of her spring summer wardrobe.

Gabrielle Chanel -- who would later restyle herself Coco -- was sent to a former Cistercian abbey at Aubazine after her mother's death in 1895.

"In that place outside time, the young Gabrielle was marked for life by a rigour, a sense of purity and a whole aesthetic that never left her, and was one of the major sources of her inspiration," Viard added.

Indeed the wedding dress that traditionally finishes haute couture shows had more than a hint of a bride of Christ about it.

Haute couture shows happen only in Paris and are regarded as the pinnacle of fashion, with hundreds of hours of work going into every piece painstakingly handmade.

Only the world's richest women can usually afford dresses from the little more than a dozen permanent haute couture houses allowed to use the label under French law.