PARIS — What better way to showcase cruise than on a cruise?
That, at least, was the thinking at Chanel this season, but the plan ran into a snag: the house could not secure a ship fit to host its floating show. So instead, creative director Karl Lagerfeld brought the boat to dry land, constructing a 330-foot-long ocean liner in the middle of the Grand Palais.
Named La Pausa, after the villa in the South of France built by founder Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel in the Thirties, the replica ship was the spectacular backdrop for Chanel’s cruise collection on Thursday night, which drew guests including Margot Robbie, Kristen Stewart and Lily-Rose Depp.
But it was another appearance that set tongues wagging: Lagerfeld took his bow with his longtime fashion studio director Virginie Viard, in a move sure to fan rumors about his potential retirement — though a spokeswoman for Chanel said he had done it before, and there was no special significance to the gesture.
By now, the designer’s outsize imagination should come as no surprise to any regular guests at his Chanel shows, which in recent seasons have featured a space rocket, a waterfall and a reproduction of the Eiffel Tower. But this was a blockbuster, even by his standards.
The sound of seagulls, fog horns and creaking ropes filled the air as dusk settled over the soaring glass-and-steel roof of the Grand Palais. After the show ended, gangplanks were lowered and guests filed into the hull for the after party.
“It’s amazing, but it doesn’t surprise me,” said Depp. “Karl, every time it’s something so different and elevated. His sets are above and beyond. Everything is so realistic, down to the lights that look like water, with the stars and smoke and everything. It really makes Karl’s incredible imagination come to life.”
During a preview at the Chanel studio the day before the show, Lagerfeld laid down some stats for a wide-eyed Robbie, in town to attend her first Chanel show since being named an ambassador for the house in March: capable of holding 1,000 people, the cruise liner took two months to build.
“Jesus,” the actress whispered in awe. Peering at an image of the set on Lagerfeld’s iPhone, she conjured Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in the famous scene from “Titanic” where they lean on the prow of the ship. “Is someone going to stand at the front and do this?” Robbie asked jokingly, flinging open her arms.
Lagerfeld thought it had more in common with the mythical Italian trans-Atlantic liner Rex, which makes a memorable appearance in “Amarcord,” the 1973 comedy-drama directed by Federico Fellini. “But the one in ‘Amarcord’ is made of cardboard, whereas this one is built like a ship,” he stressed.
Not that he’s a huge fan of the real thing. “I like the idea of boats, of ocean liners during the interwar period and the rest, but in real life, I like houses on solid ground with my stuff all around me. I get claustrophobic [on boats] because you feel like you’re cut off from the world,” he demurred.
Still, he tackled the nautical theme with his usual verve, blending relaxed sportswear silhouettes with elements of Sixties pop such as miniskirts, white tights and silver or white Mary Janes, including a version with faintly clinical rubber soles. “On boats, there is less dirt and dust than elsewhere,” reasoned Lagerfeld.
Almost every look came with a handbag, including roomy cordage sacks and a round purse shaped like a lifesaver.
The collection hinged on what he called the “flexible dress” — a design consisting of a separate top and skirt that revealed a sliver of midriff. An evening version contrasted embroidered sailor stripes with thick clusters of confetti sequins at the waist and sleeves.
The show’s leitmotif, a medallion featuring a stylized black-and-white image of the liner, appeared on items like a white vinyl messenger bag and was worked into the colorful print on a pajama set.
The design was inspired by Vorticism, a little-known early-20th-century British art movement, as well as the Op-art style dazzle camouflage patterns used by Allied warships during World War I. Those eclectic influences found their way into other graphic motifs, such as the blue-and-white zigzag pattern on a summer dress.
Chanel bowed to the ubiquitous streetwear trend with items including shredded jeans, leather shorts with a frayed denim hem and tracksuits gussied up in the manner of its traditional tweed suits, including a chic navy-and-black version worn by Bella Hadid.
As an Italian disco track pumped over the speakers, the collection strayed into “Love Boat” territory with tongue-in-cheek outfits like a red lamé leather jacket and pants, and sheer black rhinestone-dotted harem pants.
Closer to its heritage were items like smocked cotton shirts, knee-length pleated skirts and a sequence of striped sailor pants with white sweaters. They brought to mind the kind of no-fuss outfits that Coco Chanel wore to go sailing on the Flying Cloud and the Cutty Sark, the yachts belonging to her lover, the Duke of Westminster.
In fact, the designer was among the first to tap into the need for clothes designed for holiday destinations. In 1913, she launched jersey outfits inspired by sailor suits in the seaside resort of Deauville. Six years later, she showed her first small line made to be worn on the shores of Biarritz, the French Riviera or Venice’s Lido beach.
“She didn’t liberate women’s bodies — that was [Paul] Poiret,” Lagerfeld said. “But it chimes with her era, so she’s still the standard-bearer for that.”
Lagerfeld revived the dormant cruise concept when he took over the brand in 1983, and recently added two other collections — Coco Neige and Coco Beach — to cater to demand for season-specific clothes.
“My contract with Chanel is for four collections a year, and I do 10. I don’t mind. I want it to work, to be updated all the time, and for the brand to offer a choice that you can’t find elsewhere. That’s what I’m interested in,” he said.
Bruno Pavlovsky, president of fashion at Chanel, said the cruise collection has a galvanizing effect on the company’s network of 200 stores.
“When we relaunched cruise at Chanel, it was in response to a real client need. At the beginning, it was really designed for wealthy Americans who were going to the Caribbean — all very elegant. And then, bit by bit, it has become a unique moment in the stores,” he said.
The brand has been holding separate shows for the cruise collection since 2000. Landing from Nov. 15, the colorful clothes carry the promise of warmer climes. “It always has a magical effect on clients,” Pavlovsky said.
In the past, Chanel has amplified the collection’s escapist connotations by showing it in exotic locales such as Havana, Venice or Seoul. But in recent years, the French fashion house has made a point of supporting Paris, which watched tourism crumble in the wake of a series of terrorist attacks in France in 2015 and 2016.
Though the number of visitors has picked up in the last year, the strong euro and prolonged strikes at national carrier Air France and railway operator SNCF threaten to take the luster off France as a holiday destination once again. Pavlovsky said the latest Air France strike on Thursday had no impact on guests attending the show.
“It’s annoying. These repeated strikes, whether it’s Air France or SNCF, aren’t good for France’s image, but I think the French are showing that they can find solutions for everything,” he said, noting that commuters and travelers have become creative. In the meantime, it’s business as usual for the luxury house.
“Paris for us is the number-one Chanel city worldwide. The reason why it’s very important to invest regularly in France and to make the brand attractive to French people is that it is fundamental. Foreigners look at the brands that French women are drawn to,” he said.
“The Frenchwoman remains a beacon of elegance worldwide, so there is a strong connection between Chanel and the French customer,” Pavlovsky added. “And it’s the reason why it’s very important for us to have beautiful stores in France.”
It’s also why Chanel is investing a lot in the French capital, even though its domestic luxury market lags in size behind the U.S., China and Japan, among others.
In addition to its support for the upcoming renovations of the Grand Palais and the Palais Galliera fashion museum, the house is building a site in the north of Paris to house the specialty ateliers it controls through its Paraffection subsidiary. It has also embarked on a three-year cycle of renovations to its local store network.
Its new flagship on Rue Saint-Honoré is set to open in September, and Chanel’s historic boutique on Rue Cambon will be closed for renovations beginning in 2020. A third store in the area, on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, is set to be refreshed in 2019, and Chanel plans to overhaul its beauty store in the Marais district in two years.
Pavlovsky will closely oversee the work in his new capacity as president of Chanel SAS, the company’s French unit, effective from September. The post is held by financial director Luc Dony, who will remain administrative president. “It’s logical in light of the evolution of our activities,” Pavlovsky said of his promotion.
But Chanel plans to be equally active on the international front. On May 31 it is scheduled to show its Métiers d’Art collection, unveiled in Hamburg in December, in a repeat show in Moscow. And it has no fewer than three stores opening in China in the next year: in Beijing, Xi’an and Harbin.
In a sense, though, the seemingly endless possibilities offered by the Grand Palais preclude the need to seek out distant locales.
“The idea initially was to take over a real cruise ship and to go on a 24-hour cruise, except that we had certain requirements for the type of cruise liner we wanted to use and it was absolutely impossible to find the ideal ship as we had imagined it,” said Pavlovsky.
Indeed, it would be hard for today’s megaships to match the charm of Chanel’s creation, which featured onboard entertainment including a nightclub, a piano bar and observation decks. Guests including Simon Porte Jacquemus propped up the bar as Sébastien Tellier tinkled the ivories, before singer Corine launched into a disco set.
“For us, the Grand Palais has become a real studio: a film studio with movie sets, movie special effects and with the magic of cinema,” Pavlovsky said.
Not to mention the guaranteed absence of bad weather and its corollary, seasickness. “Here we are protected from the reality of external events and we are doing something poetic that corresponds exactly to the image that Karl wants to convey with this collection,” he added.
“I adore the Grand Palais,” said Lagerfeld. “I remember when I came here as a child with my parents for a car show, and I found the place fascinating. I never thought that one day I would be doing runway shows there.”
Responding to criticism that its megasets are wasteful, Chanel plans to get maximum use out of the La Pausa during its short existence. The collection will be displayed inside the vessel over the next three days for clients, staff and students to peruse.
In a first for the company, the seamstresses, embroiderers and other artisans who worked on the collection will be able to bring along family members to show them their handiwork.
“The entire set will be recycled, upcycled and repurposed,” said Pavlovsky. “This reaction is not new for Chanel, but it comes after the mini controversy that followed our last show featuring real trees, which was unfair to the brand, and so we want to demonstrate our commitment.”