PARIS — Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld on Tuesday laid out a sumptuous, Indian-flavored fashion spectacle so transporting that one could well imagine being in the faded palace of a maharaja rather than some forgotten wing of the Grand Palais.
Guests sat facing each other at long tables set for high tea, while a central buffet groaned under the weight of candelabras, tiered fruit platters, jars of sweets and jasmine spilling out of silver vases. On its periphery, a small silver steam train — adorned with double-C logos — circled with its freight of liquor in crystal decanters.
Around this bounty, Lagerfeld paraded his Paris-Bombay collection — full of luxury clothes that were just as rich and appetizing. Avoiding the gaudy flash of Bollywood and other clichés of India, he stuck mainly to an imperial theme, borrowing heavily from the costumes of princely rulers and referencing colonial times, too. Except for the odd shot of fuchsia and an intoxicating petrol blue, the colors on the runway closely resembled what was laid on the table: pots of clotted cream and jam, burnished silver trays and antique gold flatware.
“It’s all about refinement,” Lagerfeld said during a preview of his métiers d’art collection, the annual pre-fall range launched in 2002. Among his references this season was a palace constructed by German architect Eckart Muthesius in the Thirties for the maharaja of Indore, which blended modernity — including furnishings by Eileen Gray and Le Corbusier — while preserving the exoticism of the populous nation. “It’s the Paris version of the idea of India,” Lagerfeld added. “It’s not a trip for documentation. I’m against reality. My life is already a reality show.”
Coco Chanel’s fondness for Indian jewelry is well known, but with his encyclopedic knowledge of her design canon, Lagerfeld found more fodder. “In the late Fifties, early Sixties, she designed several Indian-inspired outfits — and that was enough,” he said.
While Lagerfeld has never been to India, he summoned the refinement of a culture still largely untouched, using the couture ateliers Chanel owns to full effect. “Most of the inspiration is from Indian men’s clothes rather than women’s clothes. They’re easier to wear,” he noted.
He opened the show with a suite of terrific tweed dresses and coats flecked with metallic thread and rough-hewn embroideries — swags of pearls swishing across the hips or adorning pockets and cuffs. While a few of the looks were perhaps too literal and overly embellished, Lagerfeld mostly winked to traditional Indian dress, banding skirts or dresses in the metallic fabrics seen on saris, for example.
Their eyes rimmed in kohl and their hair whorled into dreadlocks with spilling chains, some of the models had a bohemian allure, emphasized by military-style or Nehru jackets with long, full skirts, and tunics over leather or brocade pants in a high-fashion version of the salwar kameez.
Terrific sweaters in black or ivory with jewel-like embroideries grounded the collection in reality, while a series of cream dresses with handkerchief hems and delicate, hand-painted floral motifs were the summit of haute dreaminess.
Whether sheer coincidence or how-did-he-do-that prescience, the lineup arrives at a time when India is very much in the news, as its government seeks to loosen restrictions on direct foreign investment for retailers and luxury brands. Yet Bruno Pavlovsky, president of Chanel fashion, characterized India as a country it would tackle step-by-step and at its own pace. “It’s not an easy market to develop, but it will become a strong opportunity for the future,” he said.
Indian nationals rank within Chanel’s top 20 clienteles, mainly shopping at its boutiques in Singapore, Dubai, London and Paris. Chanel operates one boutique in India, which it opened at the Imperial Hotel in Delhi in 2005, and it is posting double-digit growth, Pavlovsky said. The executive noted that it’s primarily a handbag-driven business within India, whereas Chanel wishes to ultimately assert itself there as a fashion house.
Meanwhile, Pavlovsky cited robust demand for its pre-fall line, Chanel’s first fashion volley for the fall selling season with a luxuriously long selling window, and a collectible factor — limited quantities of embellished styles will be produced, with retail prices that could reach 30,000 euros, or about $40,000 at current exchange.
“Our customers in general appreciate all this know-how,” Pavlovsky said, referring to the ateliers Chanel owns under its Paraffection affiliate. As reported Monday, the number of ateliers grew to eight with the acquisition of embroidery house Montex.
While declining to give figures at Chanel, which is privately held, Pavlovsky cited “very strong sell-through” of the Paris-Byzance collection from pre-fall 2011, its best to date. “People want to have very exclusive pieces, and this collection is perfect for this kind of approach,” he said.
In addition to the spectacular runway pieces, roughly half of which feature embroideries, Paris-Bombay also includes knitwear and tweed jackets in price ranges similar to other Chanel collections.
“Oh, it’s like the curved doorways of the Taj Mahal,” cooed Sonam Kapoor, one of the VIPs who stepped through a faux stone doorway into the resplendent set. The actress is filming “Players,” a remake of “The Italian Job,” with Indian movie star Abhishek Bachchan. “He’s a real hunk. It was so funny, when Tom Cruise went to Bombay for the premiere of ‘Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol,’ everyone was shouting, ‘Tom, Tom.’ Then Abhishek turned up and suddenly everyone was shouting, ‘Abhishek, Abhishek,’” laughed the actress, who was accompanied by her sister, Rhea, with whom she is designing a fashion line that will be distributed in India and the Middle East. “It’s more of a high street line,” she said.
Cat Power, who said she was in Paris to mix her latest record, had one word for the set: “Magic.”
Meanwhile, Freida Pinto marveled, “Oh gosh, did you just see the little train go by? My first impression was, Oh, I’m in a fairy-tale world. It’s really like you want to be lost for as long as possible in this world, but you know it’s going to be gone in minutes.”