Chanel decamps to Manchester in search of a bit of northern grit

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Sometimes this job takes you down unexpected avenues. And so it was that I spent much of Thursday night squinting at a blurry picture of a man in an expensive coat who might be Timothée Chalamet, before concluding that I don’t know what Timothée Chalamet looks like. 

This is what happens when the global brand that is Chanel holds its latest fashion extravaganza on a Manchester back street. Like virtually everybody else in the city, I was not among the lucky few invited to watch the show, so much information had to be gleaned from half-rumours and bad selfies taken by people who weren’t sure who they were standing next to.  

Despite a multitude of non-disclosure agreements, Chanel’s plans for a Manchester takeover had been widely known for months. A block in the city’s Northern Quarter, a jumble of former textile warehouses that has built a reputation for edgy creativity over recent years, was to be closed off for its Métiers d’Art showcase of artisanal designs, in a nod to the city’s industrial legacy. Manchester has a reputation for grit, too, and doubtless a brand as silky-smooth as Chanel also wanted a light sprinkling of that. 

The city greeted Chanel’s arrival in its traditional fashion: with rain. The entourage descended on one of those December days where the sun never truly comes up and the clouds are simply biding their time. With the fashion show due to start in the early evening, I decided to loiter outside at 3pm, shortly after the heavens opened. As well as the hoardings surrounding the site, there was a glaring security guard on every corner. 

“Where are you going?” one of the operatives demanded, as I stood on a public highway, looking vaguely down a public street, slowly realising that there was a leak in my left boot. My alternative attempt to secure a vantage point from the hulking multistorey car park next door — even Chanel hadn’t been able to get rid of that — was thwarted by a different security guard. Fashion had spoken. And the answer was no. Even people with balconies overlooking the catwalk had reportedly been ordered not to go on them, which in Manchester in December probably isn’t that much of an ask. 

This level of secrecy around an event that comprised little more than ten minutes of catwalk action simply meant rumour filled the vacuum. Kate Moss had been seen, according to the internet, in the Aldi on Great Ancoats Street. Kim Kardashian was going to land her helicopter on top of the car park of the Arndale, Manchester’s decidedly unglamorous 1970s shopping centre. 

A few yards away, the Millstone — a pub with a resolute commitment to all-day karaoke that has only hardened as the Northern Quarter has gentrified around it — was bouncing in its normal way, but now also displayed a sign confidently welcoming Chanel, on the off-chance Naomi Campbell fancied belting out “Last Christmas” at 3am. A few steps further away, the Love Boutique adult shop, a remnant of the days when this area was considerably grittier than Chanel will have found it in 2023, cheerfully advertised “homemade DVDs” of Kim Kardashian.

As I settled on a wet wall near to the Millstone, I began mentally sorting passers-by into “Chanel guest list” and “not Chanel guest list”. The woman in the sunglasses who looked like a budget Anna Wintour, and had a man with an earpiece holding her umbrella for her, was definitely guest list. But the man in the Christmas elf outfit? Hard to say.

I texted the only person I know who had managed to get in. They responded with a picture of Hugh Grant. This was good: I know who that is. They then sent me a picture of someone they claimed to be Timothée Chalamet, who eventually turned out to be the son of former Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher. I retired to the pub. All things considered, Chanel were probably right not to invite me.

jennifer.williams@ft.com

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