The plotline of a Chanel show is familiar to regulars of the haute couture catwalks in Paris. Attendees entering the Grand Palais are greeted by a grand set imagined by Karl Lagerfeld and a stiff monochrome bag containing perfume on every seat. Next there is a frenzy of pre-show Instagramming as facelifts in fur coats wave at each other across the runway. Then the show begins, and the not-so-subtle theme is revealed.
It is unfair of course to be so reductive about the Chanel story. These are clothes which are produced by hand – les petites mains, as the atelier workers are known at couture – and take hundreds of hours to produce. And the catwalk set isn’t some wonky fodder for an amateur dramatics production: it is often an exquisitely produced modern art installation in itself.
This season was no exception. Guests walked into a giant terrarium containing what seemed to be giant white origami tropical flowers, palm trees and banana leaves. But what makes the Chanel show story most compelling is that there is humour and wit there too. Why else would Lagerfeld have scripted an opening sequence of four male gardeners carrying quilted watering cans to “water” the plants which then opened up and bloomed into colour? He knows how to raise a smile among the po-faced wealthy.
As the show began, the couture-in-bloom theme continued. There were lady-of-the-manor gardening hats bound with tulle, floral beanie hats, crystal floral encrusted tweed jackets, and suits in the sugary and pastel colours of a tropical bouquet of flowers.
At times the theme was pushed too hard in the floral direction. Multicoloured giant crystal flowers on the hem of a coat weren’t so delicate. But for the most part there was a lightness to the clothes – it can’t be easy to make a tulle crinoline hooped skirt swagger around a model’s hips and look modern. Best were the ankle-length chiffon shirts worn open over midi skirts and cropped tops and belted nonchalantly at the waist. Pastel tweed skirt suits had cheeky flashes of millefeuille tulle tucked up their sleeves, allowing the wearer to decide whether the suit was pared back or very fancy. Evening gowns which looked like 3D hanging paper decorations were craftmanship at its best.
Lagerfeld is adept at making couture feel modern in his styling touches. He has the business sense to know that not only must he dress the richest fiftysomethings in the world, he must dress their daughters too. This is the man who recently put couture trainers into his customers’ wardrobes to embrace what was happening in all other levels of fashion.
This season he made the signature Chanel tweed suit in various skirt lengths, and he cropped the jacket above the waist to flash bare midriff. It wasn’t how all his customers will wear it, but there will be some. Sugary pink princess coats with black details had something of the Alexa Chung about them, while beanie hats encrusted with flowers were worn baggy at the back to echo the way off-duty models are photographed for street-style blogs.
Lagerfeld kept it modern to the last. He has form for injecting a little wit into the couture tradition of closing a show with a wedding gown. Last season the Chanel bride was pregnant. This season she walked around the catwalk with four male gardener bridesmaids in tow, each carrying a huge tropical bouquet of flowers. A theme, a little subversion, a nod and a wink and the credits rolled.
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