CHANEL: C’est magnifique! Quite simply, it took your breath away.

When Karl Lagerfeld is on for couture, his collections deliver a very specific kind of magic — the magic of perfected reality. The collection he showed on Tuesday radiated just that, from start to finish. It was remarkable in a number of ways — its breathtaking beauty, its powerful restraint and its sexual drama, no less potent for its subtlety. But then, the collection was about contrasts. "Serenity and frivolity, vice and virtue, sacred and profane," Lagerfeld wrote in his program notes. He knows that, with a nip here and a tuck there, a nun’s habit suits a French maid. And he knows that, with a dazzling vision and impeccable execution, the same clothes can dazzle client and press alike.

Lagerfeld showed in Chanel’s couture salons, a setting that delivers a retro sensibility marked by comfort and calm the way it must have been back when. While there’s a danger in reading too much into a single location—in the past, Karl has flaunted his haute wares in a crumbling boys’ school, a tent in the Tuilieries and the riding ring at the Bois de Boulogne—the venue matched the message: one of refinement, breeding, and proper manners, at least on the surface. It all started with— guess what?— the suit. As far as Karl is concerned, it’s the best way to go right now, and he made one heck of an argument while playing to that serene and frivolous dichotomy. His key look: a small jacket and flared skirt worn over layers of tulle or lace with fanciful beaded frills. These came out one stunner after another, the delectable variations distinguished by fur trim; capelet jacket; crisp, monastic collar. Karl also translated the idea to coats over dresses. One, a fabulously simple beige wool, came off to reveal a black lace dress that dipped to there in back, just one of many killer evening looks. Another: the smoking in black crepe with an exaggerated white tuxedo bib. Of course, Karl wove in the occasional digression —the divinely pleated silk shirtdress, the elaborately embroidered pants. And it all held together without a moment’s confusion.As for Lagerfeld’s favorite effect, the underpinning with frothy, bejeweled hemline is a motif he launched last spring in a light-as-air collection. Here he carried it further, turning otherwise austere looks in sober black, navy or tweeds intriguingly celebratory. One could sense that, while this woman loves being covered up and done up — she wears her hair piled haute high, giant baubles on thumb and pinky finger and elaborately jeweled anklets over sparkly fishnet hose — she also loves shedding her clothes quickly in the throes of passion, with the right person to release the mile of tiny pearl buttons down her back.

Of course, passion takes different forms. In her front-row seat, Donna Karan could barely contain herself. As the clock ticked, she suggested to the nondesigners around her possible reasons for Karl’s late start. Once the show began, she turned euphoric, gasping, oohing, ahhing and elbowing those to her right and left when a detail caught her fancy. "Now this, this is couture," she said. "God bless couture." If God finds a slow moment in this messy world —perhaps."

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