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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Inside Chanel: our exclusive interview with Bruno Pavlovsky

At Chanel's Mademoiselle Privé exhibition in Seoul, we sit down for an exclusive interview with Bruno Pavlovsky, the brand's president of fashion, as well as Frédéric Grangié, president of watches and jewellery

Bruno Pavlovsky, president of fashion at Chanel
Bruno Pavlovsky, president of fashion at Chanel

‘It was N°5,” Bruno Pavlovsky recalls. “I first connected with Chanel through N°5. My mother, her friends and my grandmother all wore it.”

As president of fashion at Chanel, Pavlovsky is one of the most powerful figures in the fashion industry. He has been with the luxury maison for more than 24 years and, together with creative director Karl Lagerfeld, has grown the company into a global powerhouse with a reach that extends far beyond the runway. But sitting across the table from Pavlovsky at Chanel’s Mademoiselle Privé exhibition in Seoul this summer, it is reassuring to learn that he, much like the rest of us, discovered Chanel through the trace of a lingering scent.

With an empire encompassing perfume, jewellery, timepieces, leather goods, make-up and, of course, fashion, the house of Chanel is now a respectable 107 years old. And yet, in spite of its storied past, it is a company that continues to be associated with innovation. Which brings us back to N°5.

Launched in 1921, Chanel N°5 has withstood the test of time because of its revolutionary recipe. Scents of the time tended to rely on a single dominant note, most often a floral or musk, but N°5 featured a bouquet of 80 ingredients, as well as aldehydes, chemical compounds used to intensify the other ingredients. This heralded an important shift in the fragrance industry, and the resultant scent has enthralled women for almost a century.

Years ahead of her time, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel changed the course of fashion, perfume and high jewellery, setting the bar high for those who followed. But the world has changed considerably since her heyday, and companies operating today face very different challenges. So how does a brand that still calls on codes from the 1920s, engage with customers who are obsessed with Instagram?

“Fifteen or 20 years ago, to be able to communicate was very easy,” Pavlovsky says. “Put on an impactful show, with nice images and nice videos, and you are done. Now, every week, we need to develop specific content, specific targets, specific products, because our audience is more and more demanding. This new generation, when they come to the boutique, believe me, sometimes they know more about Chanel than the people working for the brand.

“What is important for the future,” Pavlovsky continues, “is to deepen the relationships we have with our customers and the next generation. That has been our way for the past 30 years – to recruit the daughters of our existing customers. Today, to be able to connect with the new generation, you have no choice but to be digitally minded.”

The Mademoiselle Privé exhibition is a perfect example of how the company is rising to the challenge. Designed ostensibly as an arena to present highlights from the past century, it cleverly shows how Chanel is embracing the future. Tickets are only available via an app, which then transforms into an on-site guide. Proffering facts and information, it even brings Gabrielle – albeit fleetingly and via augmented reality – back to life. Slick and sassy, it is clearly pitched to a phone-carrying audience.

Even haute couture, that bastion of slow fashion, is reimagined and displayed on vertical poles of neon, forcing viewers to literally see the pieces in a new light. It is a bold strategy, but there is an element of risk, too. In its attempts to engage a new audience, might Chanel not alienate the very women who can actually afford couture?

“The customers of haute couture are very well connected,” Pavlovsky explains. “When they are travelling in a taxi or private jet, they have time. And when people have time, they browse. Thanks to Mr Lagerfeld, today our haute couture is modern and for tomorrow. It is not based on the past.”

Lagerfeld is, undoubtedly, forward-thinking, and his willingness to embrace new ideas and methods is proved season after season – but perhaps most obviously in Chanel’s autumn/winter 2015/16 haute couture collection. Here, Lagerfeld used a technique known as Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) to give the classic Chanel suit a 21st-century makeover, by introducing intriguing volume and three-dimensionality to this most traditional of silhouettes. The pieces were moulded, rather than sewed. “The idea was to take the most iconic jacket from the 20th century and turn it into a 21st-century version, which was technically not possible at the time it was born,” Lagerfeld explained at the time.

There is an onus on 21st-century brands to be connected around the clock, and to communicate directly with their consumers, delivering information and updates directly into the palm of their hands. However, for a rarefied company such as Chanel, there is a delicate balance to be had. Brands that are overzealous on social media run the risk of overexposing themselves, and that all-elusive sheen of exclusivity can wear thin. “Our approach is not about being everywhere; it is about being exclusive,” Pavlovsky maintains. “And for me, there is no luxury without exclusivity.”

Arguably the most exclusive segment of the Chanel portfolio, high jewellery is another area where the brand manages to break new ground while staying faithful to its past. At Baselworld earlier this year, Chanel presented a new watch, the Première Camélia Skeleton. Designed to mimic the flowing curves of a camellia, closer inspection reveals that the flower is also the movement. “At Chanel, it all starts with the innovation,” Frédéric Grangié, president of watches and jewellery for Chanel, tells me. “The start of every collection is a code, a number from the house, and then our designers will take it and have fun with it.”

Referring to a new timepiece due to be launched in October, Grangié assures me that it will be something completely unexpected. “When you see it, you will understand that it can only start from creation. If you are just thinking about launching a new watch on the market, this is not what you are going to do. This is the most Chanel watch we have ever designed.”

Looking across the house as a whole, seeing how it consistently melds the old with the new, it dawns on me that perhaps this balancing act is the very essence of the Chanel story. Its success lies in its uncanny ability to create pieces that look classic but feel modern; to find that indefinable and elusive space between modern and historical; and to look forward, while staying true to the past.

The other major houses appear to draw creative energy from a constantly shifting rota of designers, while Chanel has maintained the same team for more than a quarter of a century. Clearly, the partnership of Lagerfeld and Pavlovsky is a winning one.

And after all these years, Lagerfeld’s output shows little sign of slowing. However, at the age of 83, eventually, he will have to ease back on his punishing workload, and pass Chanel to other, younger hands. Although hopefully some way off, clearly this is a thought that has crossed everyone’s mind. “Today, it is Mr Lagerfeld,” Pavlovsky tells me confidently. “He is still active and very inspired. It is always amazing to see the sketches for the next haute couture collection.”

There is a slight pause. “He is a genius. No doubt about that. Think of the work he has done over the past 30 years. He has made the brand strong, he has been able to clarify the direction of the brand, to reinterpret the cult of the brand and to push the brand for the future. So today Chanel is like a jewel, like a diamond. Everything is ready for the future.”