Once upon a time, Karl Lagerfeld showed his Chanel couture collections at the historically resonant Ritz, and later, at various spaces about Paris, this pool, that abandoned school, the Tuileries Gardens. At some point, he decided that staging mere fashion shows wasn’t enough (no matter how great the clothes), and that he would make each one an extravaganza, a world unto itself imagined in the mind of Karl, realized beneath the glass dome of the Grand Palais.
This season, several designers are discussing the need to make couture relevant with clothes that resonate beyond the red carpet and within the context of the real lives of real women. The notion that couture should not be immune to the practicalities of life may be novel to some, but not to Lagerfeld. He has always viewed the genre as one that, though steeped in tradition, must embrace and achieve currency. For fall, he addressed that belief in the title of his show — “The Old World and the New World” — and used his set to drive home the point. Guests walked into an ancient theater, its forlorn “stone” walls crumbling, windows broken, musty stage curtain disintegrating at the hem. All seemed under the cover of long-settled dust, which in fact was contrived brilliantly, no less deliberate a surface texture than a thick embroidered tweed. (“The seats just look dirty,” offered one chic p.r. “They’re not.”) Once the crowd settled into the haute mustiness, the curtain opened to reveal the vista of a dazzling 21st-century city, no one place in particular, but a place “like in the Far East,” Lagerfeld said during a preview. The old and gray provided entrée to the new and dazzling.
Metaphors are swell, especially giant visual ones so stunning they awe. But if the clothes don’t stand up to the theatrics, quelle bust. Here, not a chance. After spring’s romantic reverie, Lagerfeld toughened up a bit, his girls now with thick brows and hair done for rockabilly height, the better to show off his new two-cornered picture hats. These were worn atop graphic, linear layers. By day, this collection was about two things — the suit and mesmerizing, meaty fabrics, the spoils of remarkable couture craftsmanship. Though jackets varied, they were worn almost always over a short skirt, slightly longer suede underskirt and thigh-high legwear — not boots, said Lagerfeld, but “stocking shoes,” held up by garters. The constant accessory: a wide belt that brought attention to the hips. As for those fabrics: ribbons, wools, silks, sequins and more embroidered into tweeds that flaunted their couture status while looking, dare we say, practical in their context. Lagerfeld worked mostly in grays, whites and blacks, occasionally interrupting the neutrality with shots of pink and green.
Evening, too, focused on the hips, though here the volumes and surface happenings sometimes ran amuck. Not so with a soft-skirted dress with a hint of Seventies and the ease of a T-shirt, its embroidered striped tulle as intricate in its discretion, the look both ultrafresh and ultra-Chanel. But then, as Lagerfeld offered in explanation as to how he makes so many new ideas fit like an archive-worthy glove, “Chanel is an idea, not a reality.”