In recent seasons, Chanel catwalk productions have transformed Paris’s Grand Palais into a supermarket, an airport, a Paris bistro, an iceberg, a fairground carousel, the interior of a jet, an art gallery and a casino. Karl Lagerfeld, the fashion house’s creative director, is a man for whom fashion is an endless parlour game, a visual feast of in-jokes. The supermarket show featured Coco-pop cereal, shopping baskets suspended from chain straps used for 2.55 bags, and Rihanna posing in a shopping trolley.
But for the Chanel haute couture catwalk show on Tuesday, Lagerfeld took fashion literally, for once. The setting was a recreation of the ateliers at the Rue Cambon where the collections are made, complete with desks and dummies, mirrors and pattern-cutting tables.
As the audience waited for the show, seamstresses in blouses and sensible shoes draped and sewed, tape measures hung around their necks, spectacles pushed up on to their heads. Models, barefoot and bare-faced in white robes and ballet-school buns, stood patiently as toiles were pinned.
The workshop came to life in all its messy glory: bolts of fabric were propped against cutting tables, desks were crowded with mismatched biros, lint brushes, stray pins. The bins overflowing with scraps of tweed were equal parts Coco Chanel and Tracey Emin.
The effect of this preface, once the catwalk models appeared, tracing a path between the audience and the atelier, was to draw attention to the detail and skill that goes into the creation of each piece. At the more allegorical Chanel shows the clothes can seem secondary, little more than stage costumes, but the mise en scène of the atelier at work drove home the fact that every detail – the three-dimensional jewelled embroidery on a jacket, dense and elaborate as cornicing, or the daisies rendered by puffs of black organza stitched with skill and artistry on to a gown – was done by hand.
Point made. But a showcase of the extraordinary skills of the atelier did not make for Chanel’s most convincing fashion message. Gorgeous though they were as works of art, the breadth of the silhouette and density of detail on these clothes did not make for a sense of easy wearability.
The finest moment came at the end, when Lagerfeld shared his victory lap with the heads of his ateliers, rather than a supermodel in a wedding dress. Moments of human warmth like that stand out in the ice palace that is haute couture. The unusual bow will doubtless fuel the retirement rumours that inevitably swirl around an octogenarian designer.
But this haute couture week has been notable for anti-elitist moves – the Vetements show featuring Hanes T-shirts and Juicy Couture tracksuits being a case in point – which Lagerfeld, with his formidable instinct for reading the zeitgeist, may simply have tuned into before most.
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