Wealth, creativity, craft.
In concert, extreme doses of the three make for a mighty trinity, a fact on powerful view at Chanel’s Métiers d’Art show at the Park Avenue Armory on Tuesday night.
This story first appeared in the April 2, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
As everyone with even a remote interest in fashion knows, this was a restaging of the Paris-Salzburg show first presented at the Rococo palace Schloss Leopoldskron in December. It lost nothing for having been Take Two — even if the creative genius behind the whole shebang had moved on, intellectually and practically, if not physically. Karl Lagerfeld was, of course, in attendance, the brightest star on a night of stars that featured Julianne Moore; Beyoncé; Pharrell Williams; Dakota Johnson; Vanessa Paradis with her enchanting daughter, ingénue actress Lily-Rose Depp; Patti Smith, Geraldine Chaplin, Lily Collins and on and on.
Lagerfeld walked the vast runway through the one-night-only palatial labyrinth that recalled but didn’t imitate an opulent Austrian palace (“you can’t recreate the 18th century”), all golden walls and gilded seating under the glow of enormous crystal chandeliers. Later, he quipped dutifully with stars at the after party.
But make no mistake: Redux — even one that dazzles, delights and demands attention — isn’t Lagerfeld’s natural inclination. Normally, “I’m not supposed to see this stuff twice because I’m in the middle of the next collection,” he said, ensconced in a corner banquette in the lobby lounge of the Mercer Hotel the day before the show. “There’s an old German line. It’s one of my favorite lines that goes, ‘no credit on the past.’”
Yet no one understands better than he the needs and demands of the moneyed marketplace. It’s part of what has kept him at the pinnacle of fashion influence and fascination, 32 years and counting into his legendary Chanel gig.
Lagerfeld also loves to make known that he knows his place, taking pleasure in verbalizing his employee-only, designer-only status. “The business part, I don’t make business, I don’t take percentages out,” he said. “Bruno [Pavlovsky, Chanel’s president of fashion] and I, we do a decent job. We are not too pretentious; we don’t take ourselves too seriously. Bruno looks like a schoolboy. I never interfere in his job; he never interferes in mine. We don’t have meetings because I think meetings can kill creativity.”
Asked when the decision was made to take Salzburg to Manhattan, Lagerfeld continued the thread: “I don’t know. I don’t make any decisions here. My decisions are limited to the studio. I never interfere in business, never ever, but nobody interferes in the studio.”
That clear division of responsibility works to apparent perfection. Yet if all facets operate independently, all revolve intrinsically around the personality and production of the house’s number-one employee, its creative genius and its face to the world. It’s an arrangement unique in fashion. In an age when brand dominates designer unapologetically (and understandably) at every other turn, Lagerfeld stands alone at the non-ownership pinnacle of power, a post made possible by Alain Wertheimer’s obvious and complete trust in him, that trust in turn secured and maintained by Lagerfeld’s remarkable decades-long track record.
Yes, Lagerfeld’s “working class” status has worked well for him; most of us can only dream of experiencing a day in the life of the pampered Choupette. (She travels with her own maid.) But season after season, show after show, Lagerfeld sings for his supper as intensely and obsessively as in those days long ago when he had to.
“You have to continue to make an effort,” advised the notorious workaholic. “I cannot get any satisfaction from what I did. I can only get satisfaction when I’m doing it.” Once finished with a project, satisfaction flees, and he lives “in a permanent state of ‘I could do better, I could improve, I need a kick in the ass.’ I wake up not pleased with myself. It’s very funny, no?”
Yet he resists any inclination to indulge in glum. There’s “no time to be disappointed because I have to start immediately again. The minute the thing is over, it’s ‘what’s next?’”
A Chanel production is nothing if not labor-intensive. In the past several years, Lagerfeld has taken to doing mega sets, essential, he said, in this day of global fashion. “You have to do your shows with the big sets today,” he said. “You have to give something visual. Because girls coming out on a runway — there’s nothing wrong; it’s interesting for people in fashion. But for the rest of the world who buys the nail polish, the lipstick for a global label, it’s a problem to show something that looks [plain]. That’s our time….You have to adapt, we have to adapt. I am an opportunist so I adapt easy. A professional opportunist. One has to be.”
To that end, every Chanel show has a sizable client roster among its invited guests, a reality immediately obvious to anyone exiting one of Paris’ top hotels an hour or so prior to one of Chanel’s spring or fall ready-to-wear shows. Each season, legions of chic, non-industry women turn out in their newest Chanel purchases and settle into their cars for the brief ride to the Grand Palais. There, one-third of the typical seating of 3,000 is reserved for clients.
Of Monday’s audience of 650, 200 were clients. They got an up-close look at Métiers d’Art, one of the fastest-growing areas of Chanel’s business. After the couture, it’s also the most elaborate, highlighting the work of the Métiers companies owned by Chanel via its Paraffection subsidiary. When on the road — Salzburg, Dallas, Edinburgh — Lagerfeld typically incorporates elements of local tradition into his lineup. Yet no matter how fanciful the Maison Michel chapeaux or how regional the inspirations behind the Lesage embroideries, he keeps the clothes chic and real, a fact driven home as the models negotiated the aisles and turns of the Armory’s temporarily palatial chambers.
This is where the craft comes in. If Lagerfeld can imagine it, these jewel companies can create it and the Chanel studio can execute it to Lagerfeld’s exacting standards. Passing by: one exquisitely embellished jacket after another, from spins on the house classic to an intensely feathered, flowered, flyaway gem; gorgeous sweaters including one buttoned back with a white frill down the front; Keira Knightley’s Golden Globes butterfly dress (what was wrong with all those social media haters?), a series of bow-marked LBDs that were anything but basic. Within the razor-sharp focus, Lagerfeld exhibited why his Chanel has such cross-generational appeal, showing, along with elegantly adult looks, others delightfully young in spirit if not in price. Some featured leather lederhosen-HotPants or knickers; many were shown with thick, flower-strewn tights, likely the work of Barrie cashmere.
The audience reveled in the visual extravagance, a mood right for the moment, according to Lagerfeld. “Minimalism [has limits], because people will die from boredom,” he said. “I’m not against it, but there is a minute where fantasy is needed. Fashion is like the sea. There are waves.”
With Métiers d’Art, Chanel is taking full advantage of that wave, according to Pavlovsky. He noted that the collection is among Chanel’s fastest-growing enterprises, and the individual companies, all profitable and primed for growth. “It’s very special,” Pavlovsky said. “The items you see in the boutique are quite unique. Our customers are looking for very special outfits and they can find this sophistication through this collection. That doesn’t mean they cannot find it in other collections, but this one is special. It’s only Chanel who’s doing that, with Métiers d’Art. It’s something we give the customers. There’s space for that today in the fashion world.”
Asked about the cost of staging a Métiers’ show versus the regular ready-to-wear, Pavlovsky acknowledged the obvious, that both are “a big investment,” but beyond that, not surprisingly, no details. “We don’t even talk about delivery-of-investment,” he said. “We talk about the capacity to have a specific story, a story that is meant to move. That is more important than talking about money.”
And well worth it, on many levels. Clients from California, Florida and Texas in addition to New York attended the show, according to John Galantic, president of Chanel Inc., the house’s U.S. wing. Such events are hugely exciting for people “who realize that Chanel has come into their city and into their world,” he said. “The appeal of this collection is very much tied to the uniqueness of the clothes that goes beyond the ordinary ready-to-wear, with this heightened sense of exclusivity that really sets Chanel apart.” Galantic added that customers are well informed on the special nature of Métiers d’Art. “We have clients who love everything from the life of Coco, to the modernity that Karl is infusing into the collections,” he said. “They talk to their sales associates about the Métiers d’Art individual artisan houses. They’ll know a Lesage embroidery is a special kind of embroidery.”
Given such local enthusiasm and the global attention these shows garner, it makes sense that the house would want to schedule second showings on a regular basis, but Pavlovsky said no such master plan is in the works. “Each time we have to find the right reason to [repeat] a specific show. We are not into duplication,” he said, adding that though Seoul is little more than a month away it’s too early to decide about that one: “Fashion is about agility.”
Lagerfeld couldn’t agree more. He keeps his thoughts on the future — the next collection and the next, sometimes waking up in the morning with plans for his next set fully formed in his head that he sketches out immediately.
For Seoul, he decided to avoid too much reliance on history, noting, “For me, Korea is the world of the future.” Thus, he’s opted to show not in a location rich with ancient resonance but in a Zaha Hadid-designed museum. “I’m not doing a cultural thing — no, no, no, no, no. There may be a few influences but they are not used like a cultural homage to the country. This is in fact, futuristic.”
But pragmatist that he is, Lagerfeld’s not talking a space odyssey. To him, futuristic in fashion means looking ahead six months. “Not even six months anymore,” he auto-corrected. “Now it’s three months-three months-three months.”
Though the pace should be exhausting, Lagerfeld never gives any outward sign of fatigue, either physical or creative. “It is no problem for me because I have a strong voice,” he said. Then there’s that super-human work ethic that drives him to turn out one Chanel extravaganza after another, many in remote parts of the world, and work in all kinds of outside projects, from his beloved photography to artistic direction of the upcoming Hyères Festival of Fashion and Photography.
He wouldn’t have it any other way. “I spend time nowhere except where I’m working,” Lagerfeld said, lest one wonder if he’d take in a museum exhibit or Broadway show while in New York. “I’m not a tourist. It bores me. And I cannot walk in the streets. I don’t want to do selfies with 300 unknown people, you know?”