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VENICE — Settling into a joint interview with architect Zaha Hadid at the atmospheric Palazzo Contarini Polignac here, Karl Lagerfeld accidentally tripped over Hadid’s black fringed handbag, which she had placed on the floor next to her chair.
“We live in the century of bags,” Lagerfeld joked.
It was an apropos gesture and comment, given the subject at hand: a massive Chanel art project, dedicated to the house’s classic quilted handbag, that will travel the world in an otherworldly Hadid structure.
At a press conference here Saturday on the opening weekend of the art Biennale, Chanel lifted the veil on the collapsible, futuristic pavilion for its “Mobile Art” exhibition, slated to make its debut in Hong Kong in January for a two-month stay before traveling to Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles, London, Moscow and Paris — a journey that will take until 2010 to complete.
The scale model of Hadid’s “contemporary art container,” a gleaming white, UFO-like structure, was greeted with spontaneous applause, led by Lagerfeld, who urged everyone to stand up to get a closer look.
“For me, it’s perfect. It’s a huge sculpture and I like it even better empty,” Lagerfeld said in an interview, repeating the sentiment during the press conference, evoking a few gasps from an audience of mainly art journalists. “I think design and architecture are the real art today.”
Nevertheless, Chanel has commissioned 15 contemporary artists and given them carte blanche to create works inspired by its most iconic handbag, famous for its chain handle, quilted leather surface and rectangular shape. But the artists’ names won’t be revealed until October during a press conference in Hong Kong, where the pavilion’s setting also will be revealed.
Fabrice Bousteau, editor in chief of Beaux Arts magazine and curator of the Mobile Art project, said the artists come from all points of the globe, are well known to curators and are strongly represented at the Biennale.
All of them were invited to visit Chanel’s principle leather goods factory in Verneuil, France, just outside of Paris, to help get their creative juices flowing. According to Bruno Pavlovsky, Chanel’s head of fashion, the project is designed to “surprise” customers, communicate the brand’s heritage in a new way and energize one of its most iconic products.
Chanel plans to invite its top customers to discover Hadid’s project, but the exhibition is open to the general public and free of charge. Pavlovsky said up to 2,000 people a day can be accommodated. Boasting exhibition space of more than 6,000 square feet, the 7,500-square-foot pavilion also will house a cloakroom, reception area and rest rooms.
Chanel declined to reveal the cost of the venture, but Pavlovsky acknowledged the quilted bag, introduced in 1955, remains a perennial bestseller, constantly refreshed by Lagerfeld. Leather goods represent roughly 30 percent of the Chanel business, he noted.
The Hadid project represents tightening links between the fashion and art worlds — and its sheer scale trumps previous Chanel projects, which include commissioning artists to create works for boutiques or to help unveil new collections of fine jewelry.
Still, Hadid and Lagerfeld assured they plan to stick with what they know best.
“I’m not an architect. There’s a job for that,” Lagerfeld said in his rapid-fire manner. “A poorly cut dress is not dangerous. A poorly built building can fall and even kill people.”
A longtime fan of Hadid’s avant-garde work — her undulating, pony-hair settee has long been a fixture in his photo studio — Lagerfeld has been itching to do a project with the Iraqi-born, London-based architect for years. They finally crossed paths in the lobby of the Mercer Hotel in New York last year, and conceived the idea spontaneously.
“She liked the idea of this kind of container,” Lagerfeld related, dressed in a black jacket over a white shirt and pants, the graphic inverse of Hadid’s ensemble. “I never saw a project realized so quickly.”
In the interview, Hadid acknowledged that some of Chanel’s best-known motifs — its iconic perfume bottles, packaging and graphics — are based on block shapes and straight lines, but, she deadpanned: “We are not a square office.”
She described her design for Chanel as a “Taurus” with a defined “loop” configuration through which visitors pass, exiting the same place they entered. Thanks to digital technology and manufacturing advances often stemming from the automotive industry, Hadid is now able to realize designs that even until recently were impossible.
Pavlovsky drew a parallel between Hadid’s hard-to-construct architecture and Chanel’s short-lived 2005 bag, a futuristic, ergonomic Lagerfeld design from 1998 that was perhaps ahead of its time, and certainly difficult to manufacture.
Lagerfeld credits Hadid with making a visual “break” from the Bauhaus principles that have defined architecture for decades.
Hadid, an avid collector of handbags and shoes, confessed she has toyed with the idea of fashion. “I used to buy fabrics and pretend I was going to make clothes,” she said. “I think pattern cutting is the most important component of making clothes. But I don’t want to compete with someone who is good at it.”
Nevertheless, Hadid said barriers between once discreet realms such as art, architecture, design and fashion have been erased, evident in how many artists now express themselves with installation-based works. “I have the feeling we were more segmented before,” she said.
Still, in an era of statement architecture for hotels, museums and concert halls, Hadid said the fashion world generally lags behind. “There are not that many really great stores,” she said. “They think minimal is the best way to exhibit their work.”
For his part, Lagerfeld said buildings and clothes are great design bedfellows.
“Architecture and fashion are like Russian dolls,” he said. “One fits inside the other.”