There’s an ironic twist when the Grand Palais, in all its resplendent opportunities for scale and spectacle, is pulled back down to earth to recreate the intimacy of the couture salons of 31 Rue Cambon. This season, Karl Lagerfeld has opted to recapture the intimacy and exclusivity of a Chanel experience – hence the #frontrowonly name of Fall/Winter 2016’s runway show. Seats were arranged so every member of the audience had the privilege of saying they sat front row on gold seats at Chanel. It can be read into as a reaction against the democratisation of fashion and the erosion of elitism. Here was Chanel flexing its financial muscle to say that yes, it can afford to combine the impressions of opening up the floor while maintaining its authority.
If you have the opportunity, get your hands on a copy of Chanel Catwalk, published by Thames & Hudson. The tome is a beautifully wrought overview of Lagerfeld’s history at the brand, charting his debut collection in the Spring of 1983 to the most recent Seoul collection. It’s a great look at what makes Lagerfeld’s version of Chanel work, and a telling ode to the disappearing number of creative geniuses like himself. What it also is, is a great contextual companion to better understand the ideas behind the clothes at FW16. I’ll break it down for you, anyway.
Chanel has had a shocking number of seasons that, looked at now in hindsight, are shockingly ugly. They’re ugly to our 2016 eyes because they mark so specifically the periods they were made in – which is exactly the strength of Lagerfeld. Despite the plethora of house signatures (beige, camellias, pearls, quilting… on and on), what Chanel really stands for is liberating clothing that women want to wear.
This collection read like an espousal of that spirit and the culmination of the styles Lagerfeld has developed over his 33 years with the house. In the opening look was the modern tweed skirt-suit – shoulders streamlined and waist nipped for a longer, slenderer silhouette. In others, you got cropped jodhpurs that played off equestrian roots for a more urban effect. Then there was the dropped waist, key to Chanel dresses. Lagerfeld’s genius is taking a flapper-era idea and turning it into a figure-flattering and elongating feature only really seen consistently from Chanel. Leather quilting, as in the FW11 apocalyptic collection, was treated less mademoiselle and more tough and alien. The evening and cocktail dresses were a look at the place of frills in today’s environment of less-is-more reductive minimalism. Weightless and ethereally bouncy, they embodied a spirit of feminine decoration recalling Coco’s designs in the ’20s and ’30s, before sharp tailoring kicked in.
But where #frontrowonly stood out was in the looks that speak to the times and understand the place of the brand today. Consider Kristen Stewart, face of both the makeup and the “Paris in Rome” fashion campaigns. Her Chanel outfits at the Cannes Film Festival this year were young and exciting without losing the sense of French prestige.
This was best seen in looks 61 (navy cape as-dress with a white trim – nautical, perhaps), 79 (Mariacarla Boscono in a plain sloped-shouldered blouse and a feather-effect tweed skirt), 90 (white T-shirt worn under an organza-light and vaguely Byzantine-embroidered bustier and skirt) and 92 (Lindsey Wixson, in a similarly light and embroidered black number with a pleated blouse and loose, flowing sleeves). Here, one could feel the founding values of Coco Chanel refracted for today: ease of movement, lightness, elegance, the impression of effortlessness, the complete absence of vulgarity and, most of all, the combination of all these that make the clothes believable.
And if the line and shape of these clothes didn’t say enough about contemporary relevance, there were emojis, too. Immortalised in zany accessories and abstracted through repetition in prints used on skirts and blouses in decidedly mature colourways, they were an ironic nod to the iconography we live with now. The way the brand is interpreting zeitgeist – how long, do you think, before we get interlocking double Cs on our smartphone keyboards?