DUBAI — When Karl Lagerfeld decided to unveil Chanel’s cruise 2015 collection in Dubai, home to the world’s tallest skyscraper, “it couldn’t be some basic show in a hotel,” as the designer put it — an understatement of Burj Khalifa proportions.
Rather, the designer and the fashion house on Tuesday created a desert fashion spectacle to remember — and beam to the world via Instagram. The show unfurled at dusk in a gold-and-glass structure, its roof supported by a forest of artificial palms, on a man-made island offering a view of one of the most futuristic skylines in the world.
A party, and a frisky performance by R&B musician Janelle Monáe, rounded out the evening.
“With the highest building, I thought there was a reason to show the highest fashion, ha-ha-ha-ha,” Lagerfeld said during a fitting on Monday as assistants nestled crescent moon brooches (some in double-C formations) into bouffant hairdos and dangled minaudières resembling giant pearls from models’ wrists.
“You know, before Japan took over for pearls, this place was famous for them, so Chanel is very at home here,” he noted, as accessories maven Laetitia Crahay darted in and out adding knotted strands to some models’ throats.
“A romantic idea, without any folkloric touch, of an Orient of my imagination of the 21st century,” was how Lagerfeld described a collection built on gauzy fabrics and flowing, enveloping silhouettes — lit up by intricate metallic embroideries and dense patterns.
Although founder Gabrielle Chanel had scant ties to the Middle East, her penchant for Oriental textiles like gold lamé — and layering tunics over pajamalike pants — was enough to spark Lagerfeld’s imagination. Arabic paving stones and tiles from the 11th and 12th centuries inspired graphic motifs on filmy scarves, or gleaming and colorful embroideries on a swing coat. Quirkier Middle East touches included quilted leather handbags shaped like jerricans — a wink to the region’s oil riches.
“My job is not to do what she did, but what she could have done,” Lagerfeld explained. “The good thing about Chanel is it’s a spirit you can adapt to many things.”
The show had a dreamy, otherworldly quality apt for Dubai. Like the city itself, Chanel’s oasis set, which took two months to construct, rose from a rectangular patch of bare sand about a half a mile from shore. There were palm trees, cactus and henna plants; beige Bedouin tents appointed with cushions, rugs and water pipes; and, for the runway venue, a lattice of woodwork incorporating Chanel’s logo as in traditional mashrabiya windows.
“We built everything — toilets included,” Lagerfeld noted. “I think those islands in the middle of nowhere are quite poetic. It’s kind of an Oriental Atlantis.”
Celebrity guests, ferried to the venue in rickety, open-air boats known locally as abras, were captivated by the setting — and the clothes.
“The collection was like a magic carpet ride, very fantastical,” said Tilda Swinton.
Before settling into a sunken banquette with the likes of Dakota Fanning, Freida Pinto had a confession: “I was taking so many pictures on the way in, I was holding up the entire crowd behind me,” referring to the candlelit path to the show pavilion, with its Arab-style majlis seating.
Like many international guests, Monáe was discovering Dubai for the first time, and marveled at its seaside garland of spiky towers: “The city reminds me of science fiction — the future.”
French singer Vanessa Paradis paid particularly close attention to the 80-some looks. “It was so beautiful. I’m about to go on tour so I’m looking for stage outfits,” she said. “There was a lot of gold in there. They’re made for the stage.”
While the collection skewed dressier and more elaborate than some recent Chanel cruise outings, flat sandals — and groovy Marisa Berenson circa 1970 hairstyles — projected an attitude of nonchalant, bohemian glamour.
Layered looks prevailed, including blousy versions of classic cardigan jackets and slim-lined dresses and tunics resembling the thawbs (or dishdashas) worn by Arab men.
The collection was modest and respectful of local dress customs, which prize modesty, although Lagerfeld noted he rarely veers into Crazy Horse territory. “We don’t really do sex explosion here,” he deadpanned.
Lagerfeld wove keffiyehlike patterns, the ones found on traditional Middle Eastern headdresses, into Chanel’s signature tweeds, and the floral tile patterns into long cardigans.
While the ballooning pants were not always flattering, the collection cast a spell with its holiday spirit that read either nomadic or poolside.
Lagerfeld was last in Dubai six years ago, tapped by an investment company to decorate a residential complex that never materialized — vanished like many projects during the real estate crash and financial slowdown that gripped the region in 2009. Now Dubai is back on a strong growth track, and the designer is pleased to be a part of it.
“It’s a new world, and fashion is about new,” he said. “The highest building in the world used to be in Paris, the Eiffel Tower, and then New York, and now it’s in this part of the world, in the Far East, so we follow the movement.”
Local fashion fans have been in a tizzy ever since Chanel and Lagerfeld revealed they would be heading to Dubai for cruise, with some likening the event to the opening of the Burj Khalifa in 2010, or of the Palm Jumeirah artificial island in 2008. Word has it some local women shopped up a storm at Chanel in recent weeks in an effort to graduate to VIP client status and secure one of the coveted 1,000 invitations to Tuesday’s show, held on an island privately owned by Sheikh Hamdan, the hereditary prince of Dubai.
The ambitious undertaking was done with logistical and administrative support from the government, helmed by Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the constitutional monarch of Dubai, and the prime minister and vice president of the United Arab Emirates.
Chanel’s cruise event should help kick off Dubai’s quest to become a regional fashion hub.
It coincides with a “booming” business here for Chanel, according to Bruno Pavlovsky, president of fashion at Chanel. Present with a boutique in the Dubai Mall since 2009, Chanel added another in the Mall of the Emirates last year and a shop-in-shop at the Level Shoe District, the world’s largest footwear store, in 2012. At the end of this year, it is to add a fourth location, at Dubai International Airport.
Privately held Chanel does not give figures, though Pavlovsky cited double-digit momentum and acknowledged that some of its stores in the region are already too small to handle the surge of shoppers — often with large entourages in tow — who arrive from 4 to 10 p.m., typically the busiest shopping hours here.
“We have to adapt our organization to be able to adapt to everyone,” he said, citing high volumes of tourists from China, Russia and India, in addition to numerous shoppers from neighboring emirates.
Chanel sells all product categories in Dubai, and is fine-tuning assortments to meet client demand — and exploit opportunities.
“We know we have a big potential in ready-to-wear,” Pavlovsky said, adding, “Shoes here is definitely one of the most important categories.”
Looking ahead, Chanel plans to explore its potential with couture in the Middle East, and possibly bring its collection to Dubai for order-taking in the next year or so, as it does in New York and Asian capitals. “Wherever we have a large customer base, we know we have an opportunity with haute couture,” Pavlovsky said.
Today, the brand is hosting an exclusive client event in Dubai, spanning a dinner and exhibition, that will highlight its latest high jewelry collection, Les Perles.
To be sure, the Dubai fashion show yielded a bonanza of media coverage, with about 300 journalists in the audience, and a flurry of immediate social media activity. Pavlovsky noted that Chanel’s visibility on social media exploded with its spring 2014 “art” collection, with its gallery setting and inspiration. Its more recent large-scale shows, the Metiers d’Art event in Dallas in November and its fall supermarket-themed fashion spectacle in Paris in March, generated “huge buzz” and traffic on Twitter and Instagram in Japan, China and beyond.
Pavlovsky said its shows are no longer events for the city hosting them or the “happy few” invited. Dubai is a case in point: “One operation in the Middle East, in Dubai, for the world.”
Chanel began its Middle East focus last year, stopping off in Dubai with its “Little Black Jacket” exhibition, dovetailing from the photo book Lagerfeld did with stylist Carine Roitfeld featuring a host of famous people donning the iconic, cardiganlike topper.
Pavlovsky estimated that project, which visited cities around the world, generated publicity worth about $100 million.
Rumor has it Chanel will leave behind the heat of Dubai, where the mercury pushed past 100 degrees on Tuesday, and repair to the cooler climes of Austria for its next Metiers d’Art show in December.