How to crash a Chanel party
No invite? No problem.
By Mollie Simpson
“Wristband?” the security guard demands. Crashing a party is mostly luck, but it’s also about holding your nerve. “I got a late invite, so I don’t actually have one.” It’s possible he has more questions — he looks like he’s about to embark on a cross-examination, but the other security guard waves me past. “It’s fine — let her in.”
It’s a little after 10pm on a rainy Thursday night, and I’ve just made it into Chanel’s afterparty at Victoria Baths. There are beautiful women on the walls (projected videos of swimmers diving into a pool), and also in person, dancing in cocktail dresses to some blend of disco and afrobeats.
A waiter brandishing a bottle of champagne makes me jump when he appears out of nowhere, tops up my glass — it’s one I brought from home, half empty (a tip I received from an acquaintance who often gatecrashes parties that they’re not invited to).
For half an hour, I barely drink. I’m high enough on having faked my way into Manchester’s most lavish party, and still jittery that someone will realise I’m not meant to be here. Can they tell that my Skims dress is actually a high street knockoff? Or that my coat is acrylic, not wool? But no one gives me a second glance. If I’m here, I must belong here.
A few hours earlier, Chanel debuted its 2023/24 collection at its annual Métiers d'art show, which this year was hosted in the Northern Quarter. Only 600 guests actually attended the ultra-exclusive, multi-million pound show (some of those included film stars Kristen Stewart, Hugh Grant, Tilda Swinton, Sofia Coppola and Jenna Coleman), but its presence in Manchester seems to have created a collective hysteria. I find myself caught up in it too, asking my editor about ways we could sneak into the party, and what we’d ask Liam Gallagher if we got in front of him.
The day before the catwalk is a whole different matter. On the Wednesday, celebrity spotters and paparazzi have flocked to the Stock Exchange Hotel, thanks to rumours that the best lodgings in Manchester have been booked by celebrities, models, and Chanel’s production team. A fleet of Mercedes V-Class cars are parked outside — a driver tells us that 280 of these cars had been sourced from all over the country just to ferry guests, production staff and camera crews from hotels to the show.
“Everyone wants a piece of the pie, everyone wants something out of it,” says Rodolfo, one of the celebrity spotters. He’s a tall thirty-something, leaning against a wall, a camera swinging by his hip.
“Seen anything good yet?” a driver calls over to us.
“Nothing,” I say. “Have you?”
“Tell us who!” Rodolfo says. He’s got his camera app open on his phone, finger poised over the record button. The driver just throws his hands in the air as if to gesture “I can’t say” and crosses the road to say hi to another driver. They light their cigarettes and spend some time examining a tiny scratch on the bumper of his car.
Rodolfo works full time in a private care home specialising in people struggling with food addiction. He doesn’t self-describe as a celebrity spotter, but concedes he’s interested in it as a side hustle. Last year, he was in London for the launch of a new PlayStation game by the Japanese game designer Hideo Kojima when he met a professional celebrity spotter from France who said he was making good money. After noticing Korean pop stars leaving an event, the Frenchman took a video. It started to go viral. He attended more events and filmed more celebrities. He successfully monetised his YouTube channel and started making money from advertisements placed on his videos. Eventually, it became lucrative enough that he could quit his full-time job and start flying around the world to events that big celebrities were attending, just to get footage.
Rodolfo’s YouTube channel has a thousand subscribers, and he’s trying to grow it. Naturally, the Chanel event presents an opportunity. Outside the Midland Hotel, he points out a striking girl with soft auburn hair. “She’s a model,” he declares confidently. How does he know? He shrugs. “Sometimes you can just tell. They’ve got the face, the symmetry, the height.”
At 4:45pm the next day, the pavement outside the Stock Exchange Hotel is packed with people holding cameras, nudging to get closer to the hotel entrance. Rodolfo has a decent view. Five black cars are parked on double yellow lines, the engines left running. There’s a steady hum from the car engines. He’s sure that something is about to happen. The rain is relentless.
A security team gathered around the hotel door in a tight knot unravels and moves out of the way, and Tilda Swinton leaves. Several people audibly gasp. Rodolfo films a short clip. He’s planning to publish the videos as YouTube Shorts — videos under 60 seconds — rather than as a long montage. “People’s attention spans are down the drain nowadays,” he says.
We wait, slowly getting soaked by the rain. I hear Rodolfo sigh. The moment a celebrity steps out is a thrilling five seconds; the minutes and hours that yawn in between, not so much.
Eventually, Hugh Grant steps out in a suit and slicked back hair, an assistant running alongside him holding a black umbrella. By now, there’s still one more car left to leave, so we move in closer. A brunette woman in a two-tone suit steps out, smiling and chatting to her team. For the first time, Rodolfo lights up. “Did you see who that was?” he asks. “That was Sofia Coppola!”
On leaving, we talk about the strangeness of the last two days. “It’s weird, the perception of celebrity,” Rodolfo says. Does he think people just want to feel part of it? “Of course,” he says. “Me included.”
Ever since Chanel announced they had chosen Manchester for its Métiers d'art show, I’ve wanted to find out as much as I could. A neighbour, who can always be counted on for good gossip, told me in the staircase as we walked up to our flats that she’d heard the event would be held on Edge Street, and all the restaurants and bars would have to shut for a weekend to accommodate it. (This turned out to be not quite true — the event was held one street away, on Thomas Street.)
Soon, the word spread that the show would be held in the Northern Quarter. Journalists and fashion writers rushed to the restaurants and bars for confirmation. Some told us they had signed NDAs and weren’t allowed to say anything — but yes, something was coming, something big. Chanel’s PR office wouldn’t confirm or deny it.
It was the talk of the town, but the event felt impenetrable. Even on the day itself, no one knows what time it starts. “We’ve been told it’s starting at 3pm, 5pm, 7pm,” a girl in a designer scarf tells me at the top of the Northern Quarter Car Park. It’s a little after midday, pouring with rain, and the air smells like dust and stale cigarette smoke. We’re peering out over the balcony, hoping to catch a glimpse of the show unfolding, but the view is blocked by flats. Jan Chlebik, an architectural photographer, tells me his invitation said to arrive at Thomas Street at 5pm, so I pass this on to the girl.
At the north end of Thomas Street, producers swaddled in waterproofs start to ask the crowds to move on — the streets are about to close. “Where’s the closest I can get?” I ask a security guard. “I’m really sorry,” she says. “But you’re not going to see anything.” It’s a bizarre thing. An event that takes up most of the city centre, but locks off the majority of people who actually live in Manchester.
In the end, I have to watch a livestream on Instagram, on a tiny screen soaked by rain. Then, 15 minutes later, it’s all over. Black cars started to leave the city centre, heading for the afterparty at Victoria Baths. Everything feels hazy. Chanel’s representatives had told me earlier that the event was at capacity and they wouldn’t be able to accommodate me, but fashion people get such a crazy rush from saying no that I don’t entirely buy it. I climb into an Uber to try my luck.
‘If you’re two people away from Chanel, you’re two people away from anyone’
Champagne’s good for the nerves. This is the sort of thing you’ll learn if you make it inside a Chanel party (and maybe you already know it — at 26, and without acres of disposable income, I did not, prior to this week). Two glasses deep, I take myself on a tour of the building. There’s a striking room, bathed in soft pink light from neon signs, packed tight with plants and elegantly mismatched sofas. In one corner, a woman lights a cigarette and leans across to whisper in someone’s ear. A waiter floats past me with a tray of tiny canapes.
The actress Jenna Coleman walks past, wearing dark blue sequins. In the gloom, she shimmers. For a moment, we’re standing right next to each other, but somehow, she still seems as distant as when she’s on the screen. And then she’s gone, I’ve missed my chance to talk to her.
On my way to the bathroom, I walk past a beautiful boy who can only be Liam Gallagher’s son. His eyebrows are two shag rugs, glued onto his forehead, and since walking is reserved for lesser mortals, he swaggers. Later, I spot him in the smoking area, ringed by models.
Speaking of — outside, a model with a French accent asks me for a cigarette. I ask if walking the runway was as freezing as it looked. “Yes,” she says, lighting the wrong end of her cigarette. Without blinking, she asks for another. “Backstage, we had the heaters on, but out on the runway we were cold.” Later, I’ll think of her, seeing a tweet of a picture purporting to be a briefing from the show’s nutritionist, advising the models to eat hearty breakfasts, modest lunches, sparrow-like dinners. You’d be cold, too. Then she disappears. Everyone is wearing signature pearls, tailored jackets or gold earrings with the Chanel logo. The air is humid, but their hair stays perfect.
I get chatting to two girls who tell me they worked the show. One tells me she found an invite left on the floor as she was leaving the event that belonged to someone called Berndt Hauptkorn. When she looked him up later, she found out he was the president of Chanel’s Europe division. The security guards glanced at the invite and let her through.
We swap stories about who we’ve each spotted — we agree that Hugh Grant in the Peveril of the Peak and Kristen Stewart in the sofa room are the best sightings. Later, we move on to the six degrees of separation — the theory that two total strangers are only six social connections away from knowing each other. One girl is sure that now, we’re closer to the inner circle of celebrity, just from being at this event. “If you’re two people away from Chanel, you’re two people away from anyone,” she says.
The inner circle
The waiter is no longer hovering near me and trying to top up my drink; the models start to leave, talking about needing to catch the next flight back to Paris the first thing in the morning. The afterparty is winding down.
A technician with a mod bowl cut offers me a cigarette. Next door, there’s a high rise of modern student flats with floor to ceiling windows. Two flats have a perfect view of the smoking area, where young people are huddled by their windows, taking photos of us.
The technician asks me how I ended up here. I tell him, truthfully, I don’t know how I got here or what I’m doing here. This doesn’t seem to satisfy him. He asks what I do, and I say I’m a writer.
“That feels like a kind of brutal environment,” he says. I ask what he means. He describes it — I’m no closer to discerning what ‘it’ is — as an inner circle, where you’re either in or you’re not. “What’s that like?” he asks. I tell him I wouldn’t know. I’m not in any kind of inner circle.
“Well,” he says, smiling, taking a drag of his cigarette. “You must be if you’re here.”