Talk about a homecoming.
Karl Lagerfeld won a standing ovation after showing his latest Métiers d’Art collection for Chanel on Wednesday at the Elbphilharmonie, the spectacular concert hall designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron that overlooks the port of Hamburg, the town where he was born.
Celebrities including Kristen Stewart, Tilda Swinton and Lily-Rose Depp jumped to their feet as the designer took his bow with his godson Hudson Kroenig, while models in sailor caps stood in formation around a live orchestra conducted by British cellist Oliver Coates, who composed a special score for the occasion.
“It’s honestly, I think, the most beautiful Karl Lagerfeld Chanel collection I’ve ever seen,” Swinton said. “We’re in Hamburg, which is where Karl Lagerfeld is from, so it felt like a very balanced and organic and intimate, relaxed event, and it was a real privilege to be a part of it.”
Though Lagerfeld played down the sentimental aspects of this return to his roots, the show was rife with personal significance. The collection was a poetic homage to the city’s seafaring history, bookended by Coates’ interpretation of the Spanish song “La Paloma.”
“It’s the hymn of Hamburg, in a sense. It was the song that sailors sang when they went to sea and I have heard it all my life, and it’s very, very pretty. The lyrics are pretty, too; it’s the sailor telling his wife, ‘Don’t be angry at me, but I’m married to the sea,’” Lagerfeld said during a preview.
Like the song’s protagonist, Germany’s prodigal son set sail in his teens from Hamburg — billed as the country’s “Gateway to the World” — to France, where he has lived ever since.
But while he switches with ease between speaking German, English and French, Lagerfeld’s soul remains as northern European as the austere palette of the collection he showed in the futuristic main concert hall of the building.
“The port of Hamburg is quite poetic, even if it’s changed a lot, because it wasn’t like this before. But I love it, and when I was a child, I went to school with the sons of ship owners, and we would come here and play on the boats, so all this to me is very familiar,” the designer explained.
“I don’t feel any nostalgia. It’s not that I want to come back, or to come full circle, or anything like that. To me, it is simply the most interesting building in Europe right now,” he said of the structure, which consists of a metallic top half — reminiscent of a water wave — set atop an old warehouse building on the water’s edge.
Those port surroundings fed directly into the collection. Stretchy knits in shades of rust, red and bright blue came in grid patterns inspired by brick warehouses and cargo containers, which also appeared in miniature format as witty novelty bags.
The Elbphilharmonie’s gleaming facade translated into metallic accents such as the sequins glinting from a structured gray tweed jacket, or the silver chains and anchors cascading from models’ necks.
Speaking of architecture: The construction of a blue hourglass jacket, worn over nothing but a pair of tights, was a masterpiece of cut and proportion. Lagerfeld wisely chose to strip it of all accessories, except for a captain’s hat delicately shrouded in a veil of black tulle.
Stewart, dressed in a white tank top with frayed white patchwork pants and high-heeled sandals, picked up on the workwear-inspired elements of the show, which saw models circling down from the rafters in a complicated circuit that took in every level of the auditorium.
“A lot of the stuff was very utilitarian, and I don’t want to say buttoned-up, implying that it’s stuffy, because I’ve never seen anything remotely, like, surplus-y, look so beautiful,” she said.
“It was really cool that the models came right up in front of the band like they were almost dancers for them, and it was very confronting, because they’re really addressing the audience rather than just the photographers at the end of a line, which is kind of typical for a fashion show, so I liked the interactive nature of it,” the actress added.
Kaya Scodelario, who came with her husband Benjamin Walker, checked out the opera glasses handed out to each guest, but opted to leave them in her gift bag, which also included a book of photographs of Hamburg by Lagerfeld’s muse Amanda Harlech, titled “The Renaissance of a City” and published by Steidl.
“Luckily, we didn’t have to actually use them because the models were right there in front of us, which was my favorite thing about this show, because I’ve always wanted to see the clothes up close and personal, and to get to be that close to them, you can really appreciate the textures and the fabrics and the workmanship a lot more,” she said.
Walker felt right at home in the venue. “My mother’s a classical pianist. We went to the Steinway museum and factory today, so we’re lovers of classical music. We also have a young boy. In the education of a child, classical music is very important,” the American actor said.
Deploying the full spectrum of its specialty ateliers, Chanel showed an array of tweeds that ranged from opulent evening versions glistening with metallic threads, sequins and appliqués, to daytime options like a foggy gray jacket casually paired with oversize denim culottes.
In a nod to the city’s famously harsh weather, Lagerfeld offered quilted versions of Chanel’s signature black-and-white satin jackets, or a fur-trimmed biker coat.
There were sailor motifs aplenty, from the middy collar on a burlap-style tweed jacket, to the rows of buttons on inky jumpsuits and wide-leg pants. Lagerfeld softened the more masculine aspects — chunky cable-knit sweaters and military-style overcoats — with matching leg warmers and curve-heeled shoes festooned with jeweled bows.
“It’s as [Johann Wolfgang von] Goethe said, ‘Make a better future by developing elements from the past,’” he said, citing one of his favorite quotes from the German writer and philosopher.
“Nobody ever wore jewels like that on this type of hourglass-heel shoe, but it feminizes it a bit. I wasn’t going to do ‘Querelle de Brest’-style guys,” he quipped, referring to the classic of gay literature by Jean Genet.
In fact, he did send out some of his favorite male models, including Brad Kroenig and his bodyguard Sébastien Jondeau, in sailor uniforms straight out of central casting, but no matter. With their large duffle bags and peaked caps, they provided moody counterfoils to the chic nightbirds that emerged later on.
The evening looks ranged from casual — think navy and white sweaters with flowing black chiffon skirts — to exquisitely ornate, as in an intricately knotted bustier dress that sprouted jet black feathers at the neck and hem.
The classic sailor stripe top — “which Chanel did before Jean Paul Gaultier,” Lagerfeld noted — was given a decidedly upscale and feminine treatment, in the shape of a dress covered with bands of contrasting feathers.
It was one of the few references to the label’s founder in this collection. While the Métiers d’Art show typically travels to a destination — Edinburgh, Salzburg, Rome — and recounts a chapter of the house lore, real or imagined, this time the designer mined his personal history, though he wasn’t about to get too literal.
“I like the idea of Hamburg, but I don’t go into the details,” said Lagerfeld, who once owned a house near his childhood home but rarely used it. “I like the idea. The reality is not for me: I don’t have the time. It’s part of my DNA, of my spiritual heritage, if you will, but I don’t make use of it in that sense. It’s an element, but it’s only an element.”
Indeed, this itinerant pre-fall ready-to-wear line is only the starting point of a rich storytelling exercise, which increasingly plays out on social media channels as Chanel seeks to recruit a new generation of Millennial customers.
It started with the after-show party, which took place in a fish auction hall decked out like a sailor’s tavern, complete with rough-hewn wooden tables set with wine bottles covered in dripping candle wax. As a male choir belted out traditional songs, guests lined up to get stencil tattoos of motifs including a Chanel-branded anchor.
“We like to dream,” said Bruno Pavlovsky, president of Chanel fashion. “We are the only ones to have a Métiers d’Art collection. It’s our way of expressing the brand, so each time, we want to make it something exceptional.”
Chanel has been in Germany since 1992 and now has six stores here. In addition to renovating its stores in Düsseldorf, Frankfurt and Munich in recent years, the house is poised to reopen its shop inside KaDeWe as part of the Berlin department store’s ambitious renovation.
“The image of both Karl and Chanel in Germany is very strong, since the two are closely linked, so we have always had the privilege of performing well on the German market,” Pavlovsky said.
While Europe is back on a stronger footing following a spate of terrorist attacks on the continent in 2015 and 2016, the executive noted it was a mature market. “We don’t expect from Europe an explosion in terms of sales. We really expect a structured and solid development for the years to come based on a local customer base,” he said.
Nonetheless, Chanel is on track to post a banner year.
“2017 will be by far the best year on record at Chanel, particularly in terms of fashion, with a very strong double-digit increase in almost every country worldwide. That’s very positive, especially after a flat 2016, during which we felt the impact of our decision to harmonize prices worldwide,” Pavlovsky revealed.
Much of the growth has been fueled by top-of-the-line products. “Chanel, at the end of the day, is all about the product. The product has to be exceptional. It has to carry the values of the brand,” he added, pointing to the example of the brand’s research on tweeds.
“A lot of work goes into it. I think today, we are the only ones to be able to do it this way. And I think that the luxury of tomorrow will be more and more about that: authenticity, creativity and the capacity to fuel our customers’ imagination through these products which they wear, they touch and they have at home,” Pavlovsky said.
Lagerfeld, meanwhile, is already on to the next thing. Next year, he wants to stage a show at the new law courts complex in the north of Paris designed by Renzo Piano. “It’s not well known, but it’s very, very good,” he said.