French fashion house Chanel have been noticeably absent from Metaverse developments. Whilst brands such as Gucci and Balenciaga have been creating digital assets like NFTs (non-fungible tokens) and 'skins' for gaming platforms including Roblox and Fortnite, Chanel have made little noise when it comes to virtual fashion. Last year, Balenciaga launched a Metaverse Business Unit, however Chanel's President Bruno Pavlovsky told Vogue Business that 'Chanel will never be the first one. Metaverse is a revolution in the digital world. The day we are ready, we’ll probably come with our own contribution.' Quietly carving out their own strategy in the space, Chanel have now sponsored and designed virtual costumes for Le Bal de Paris, a virtual experience now showing at London's Barbican centre.
Choreographed by Blanca Li, Le Bal de Paris is a virtual experience encompassing music and dance, with members of the public playing an active part in the performance alongside two principal dancers, all dressed in Chanel. 'Just like for all my stage shows, I knew what I was looking for...Virtual reality just gave me a lot more freedom to imagine and be creative in all these aspects', Li explained in a statement. 'After visiting the VR section at Venice International Film Festival in 2018, where I could see the state of the art, I chose to work with BackLight Studio who had a solid background in creating full-body awareness avatars in real-time for location-based experiences, and we started working together.'
With producer Etienne Li and visual creation director Vincent Chazal also on board, the Barbican's head of theatre and dance, Toni Racklin, joined the mission to create a virtual reality show about four years ago. 'Trying to immerse real dancers and spectators together inside a virtual reality show, it was something totally unheard of, which existed only in my imagination', they explain. Now, that vision has been realised to instrumental effect, with Le Bal de Paris receiving the Lion award for Best VR Experience at the 78th Venice International Film Festival.
Dance is central to the experience, as attendees wearing VR headsets and body-tracking sensors find themselves transformed into characters, actively exploring a series of fantastical virtual worlds whilst following a love story acted by the Blanca Li Dance Company. The house of Chanel has a long-reaching history with performance, principally dance and opera. Gabrielle Chanel was a patron of Serge Diaghilev, founder of the revolutionary 20th century Ballets Russes company, and the designer also created costumes for numerous ballets, working with figures such as Vaslav Nijinsky and Serge Lifar. Since 2021, Chanel have been a patron of the Paris Opera Ballet, supporting their dance season for some years prior.
Although Balenciaga created a video game for their A/W 21 show, titled Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow, few brands have been able to maintain agency over the environments in which their digital creations are shown. The first-ever Metaverse Fashion Week hosted on Decentraland earlier this year featured brands like Etro, Tommy Hilfiger and Philipp Plein, however the four-day online event was widely critiqued for it's glitchy, lo-fi aesthetic. Le Bal de Paris works hard to make sure this isn't the case with Chanel. 'The costumes are a key element because every spectator can choose his Chanel outfit for the duration of the story...BackLight had to work a lot to make the movements of the fabric feel real and beautiful,' Li explains. With guests to Le Bal de Paris transported to a grand ballroom and the cobbled streets of Paris, the experience maintains Chanel's reputation as a high-end French couture house.
I attend the hour-long performance on a Saturday afternoon - each day there are roughly eight group slots. Alongside twelve others, we are led into the backstage theatre space of the Barbican. Members of the Blanca Li dance cohort strap body-tracking sensors to my wrists and ankles, before I'm instructed to put on my VR headset which visually transports me into a dressing room lined with red velvet curtains. My human companions now have metallic heads reminiscent of rabbits or foxes - slightly Thom Browne-esque when paired with the Chanel suits on display, I must say. Whilst in reality I am walking around a make-shift room in the Barbican, in Le Bal de Paris I am reaching out my hand to 'activate' and try-on Chanel gowns and suits. Li explains that 'I wanted to have an incredible haute couture costume collection by a fashion designer, and I asked Chanel, which has a timeless elegance and audacious identity, and matched the concept of my show.'
I go for a long white column dress with a black dropped-waist band - an iconic Chanel avant-garde silhouette - featuring the house's camélia flower motif, first introduced in the 1920s. Simple, yet elegant, it's intrinsically Chanel, and house ambassador Kristen Stewart wore a sexier, sheer take on the gown in Monaco for the after-party of the Cruise 2023 collection earlier this month. As a brand well out of mine and most other normal folks' budget, wearing Chanel, albeit in digital form, is an experience in itself.
When I look down, I can see the dress ripple as I twirl my hips. Around me, I see my companions, dressed up and transformed. We all look noticeably more elegant than we do in reality. One woman remarks that she never wears high heels, isn't this exciting! At this point, I can only describe it as like being inside a video game, where you can be someone, or something, you may not be in real life.
IRL, we must only be walking about 10 steps forward, but in our new reality, we're travelling down a long colonnade lined with harps. There's no roof; instead we look up to see an endless starry night, as the moon glistens on the water around us whilst we hurtle towards a golden lift at the end of the room. As the lift takes us up, the sound of a party gradually gets louder, before the doors open up onto a huge ballroom. Standing on a platform, we are taken into the centre of the room, placed high above a host of dancers. Leaning over the balustrade, the effect of the space feels so real I have a moment of vertigo. A grand moving staircase is akin to the magic of Hogwarts.
This is the first of three acts. Soundtracked by a classical waltz orchestra, scored by Tao Gutiérrez echoing late 19th century ballrooms, music continues to run as a narrative throughout the experience as we follow the lead protagonists who dance their way through proceedings. We board a boat to take a trip across a lake, before entering through a humungous set of garden gates which are the stuff of fairytales. We wind our way through a maze, and take a train to the streets of Paris, finishing in 'Mimi's' nightclub in Paris to the sound of jazz and Cancan dancing.
Chanel's virtual costumes are beautiful, but admittedly lack the detailed craftsmanship one would find on a Chanel bouclè jacket or embroidered couture dress. However, at this point, it doesn't really matter. Visitors to Le Bal de Paris are there for the 360 experience, and Chanel's late artistic director, Karl Lagerfeld, was a masterful world-builder. He set a precedent for fantastical real-life fashion shows, transforming the Grand Palais in Paris into spectacular new worlds which permeated how the public imagine 'fashion' to be. These cinematic runway shows featured feats such as a 265-tonne iceberg for A/W 10 and a giant supermarket for A/W 14, also leading the way for the annual travelling cruise shows to destinations like Dubai and Monaco, where his predecessor Virginie Viard held the brand's latest escapade. In supporting Le Bal de Paris, Chanel have been able to create virtual versions of their designs and house them in a fantastical world only possible in the digital space, without undermining their brand image.
Gradually hiking up the prices of their handbags since 2015, at an average of 71% since before the pandemic, desirability and exclusivity are key for Chanel, and it's worth noting that Le Bal de Paris is a ticketed event with a limited run. However, having held off on advancing blindly into the Metaverse in order to protect their authenticity, Chanel's involvement in Le Bal de Paris shows how fashion brands can still engage in virtual developments whilst maintaining their core values.