10 iconic chanel shows we'll never forget
Today will be Karl Lagerfeld’s last show for Chanel. Here’s a few of his greatest…
Of the myriad roles that Karl Lagerfeld juggled throughout his impressive career, none is more iconic than his revival of Chanel. Lagerfeld joined the dormant fashion house in 1983, the first designer to do so since the death of Coco Chanel. It was a time when brand revivals weren’t de rigeur. “People tend to forget,” the designer famously recalled, “that once upon a time, Chanel was old hat. It was only Parisian doctors’ wives who still wore it. Nobody wanted it, it was hopeless…”
At Chanel, he developed a vocabulary of Cocoisms, many of which he exaggerated and amplified to instantly recognisable leitmotifs: camellias, braid-trimmed tweed suits, quilted bags and pumps, ropes of pearls, gold chains, monochrome, boater hats, costume jewellery. Many of those Chanel archetypes were never really in the founder’s lexicon, yet Lagerfeld made the world believe they were historical symbols of iconography. Perhaps most significantly, he turned the interlinked CC logo into the sartorial equivalent of Esperanto, recognisable all over the world in every language — and he applied it to just about everything, from surfboards to boomerangs to espadrilles.
As well as being the last couturier who learnt the trade in the 50s from those who learnt it in the 20s, Lagerfeld was also one of the first truly modern designers to inaugurate a new fashion system and business model. In the early years, he was a chameleon-like designer without a label of his own, swiftly becoming the quintessential creative director for Chanel, Fendi and Chloé.
After the turn of the millennium, Chanel upped the number of its runway shows. The cruise collections started to go global. So far, they have been held in a Parisian bus, Grand Central Station in New York, Santa Monica airport, the Lido in Venice, the Grove of Three Fountains at Versailles, Dempsey Hill in Singapore and The Island in Dubai. There has also been the house’s travelling métiers d’art shows, which are spectacular displays of the artistry of ateliers such as Lesage (embroidery), Lemarié (feathers and flowers), Maison Michel (millinery), Causse (gloves), Goossens (costume jewellery) and Massaro (shows) — all of which Chanel purchased in 2002 a bid to preserve traditional French craftsmanship.
Yet the ready-to-wear and couture shows have taken place in a singular location for the last two decades: the glass-ceilinged Grand Palais in Paris. Here is where ephemeral worlds are created, where Rome can be built in a day.
At 3pm on 25 January 1983, a handful of guests gathered in the elegant surroundings of 31 rue Cambon, the very building where Mademoiselle Chanel would perch at the top of the mirrored staircase and oversee her intimate salon couture shows. They were there for Karl Lagerfeld’s debut for Chanel, which put the fan-holding, sunglass-wearing designer in the spotlight. “It’s like doing a revival of an old play,” Lagerfeld told Suzy Menkes at the time. “You have to try to see with the eyes of the first audience, but you should not have too much reverence. “It’s important for young people to touch her style -- it must be fun.” The key look was the braid-edged suit in bold hues -- blue, white and red -- but its Coco proportions were subtly altered: the shoulders were broadened, the waist emphasised and the skirt length adjusted.
Gold-buttoned jackets were worn with cycling shorts, leotards and leggings, and Lagerfeld dubbed the look “city surfer, because it's perfect for diving into the nightlife from Paris to Rome to London to New York.” It marked a departure for the designer into a more playful interpretation of Chanel, which would define the early 90s. Linda Evangelista came out with a Chanel-branded surfboard, which Lagerfeld said was to add humour and wit to the show. It also asserted just how collectible that double-C motif was for a generation of logomaniacs.
This was the season that the Chanel suit went mini! And it was paired with a pair of 90s roller blades. “Fashion today is more about attitude than detailing,” Lagerfeld said at the time. There were double-C string bikinis, low-slung Chanel denim, leather chain belts and branded suspenders holding up baggy shorts.
Around this time, the mid-00s, Lagerfeld really honed in on the monochromatic mod look at Chanel. It was the time of narrow legs, androgynous tailoring and poker-straight hair, which Lagerfeld borrowed from the Youthquaking Sixties (think Penelope Tree). It was a fashion moment. Indeed the models are wearing the Chanel boots.
A carousel is an apt analogy for fashion, and especially Chanel. As Sarah Mower wrote, “It was a fitting metaphor for the timeless turning of the house classics, and for the unstoppable machine fashion has become these days.” This merry-go-round didn’t have horses, though. Instead, it had the icons of Chanel style: bows, quilted bags, boater hats, strings of pearls, the Chanel jacket et al. “The basis of Chanel is still very French, we had all the symbols typical of Chanel,” explained Lagerfeld. “But in the show there was almost nothing, just one small handbag, because fashion has to change.”
Such is the monolithic power of Chanel that the house was able to bring a giant iceberg to the Grand Palais. Models in shaggy “fantasy fur” (Karl didn’t like the word ‘fake’) walked around it. One almost expected a polar bear to appear. It was perhaps a comment on climate change, but Lagerfeld was never one to politicise his work. Instead, it was significant for introducing faux fur to the biggest luxury house, and preceded Chanel’s decision to stop using real fur and exotic skins last year. “Fake fur used to be hideous, but there has been enormous progress,” Lagerfeld explained. “There is no reason not to use it nowadays.”
Perhaps Chanel’s grandest set, the supermarché was a witty comment on fashion’s consumer culture, inspired by the imagery of Pop Art, Andreas Gursky’s 99 Cent and all things Andy Warhol. “I think a little humour is needed,” Karl said. So over 500 different produces were stocked the aisles: Lait de Coco (coconut milk), bottles of Eau de Chanel mineral water, rubber gloves with camellias attached, Coco Choco rice cereals, Paris-Londres gin, Paris-Bombay basmati rice, Paris-Dallas ketchup. The clothes were youthful and sporty, and accessories were playful: supermarket trolleys embellished with Chanel chains to shrink-wrapped handbags covered in ‘100% lamb’ stickers and buttons in the shape of tin-can lids. “At Chanel, we can play with everything and do whatever we want -- nobody tells us what to do,” Karl declared.
How did Lagerfeld follow up that supermarket spectacle? With ‘Boulevard Chanel’, of course. “We had to go back to the street,” he said of the set that was complete with pavements, scaffolding and 25-metre high Haussmannian buildings. This was a paean to protest, with the finale coming out with megaphones and placards demanding gender equality, inspired by the spirit of Paris in May 1968. One placard read: “Women’s rights are more than alright.”
What is more French than the quintessential brasserie? ‘Brasserie Gabrielle’, named after Coco’s real name, was a fully functioning Parisian café in the style of Maxim’s and La Coupole, where Chanel herself was part of glittering ‘café society’. The clothes took their cue from the archetypes of the bourgeoisie, as well as from French waiters: grosgrain-belted aprons tied around the waist, three-piece suits, and even embroideries echoing the tiles of such establishments.
“I am very much down to earth, just not this earth,” Karl Lagerfeld once quipped. This show seemed to prove just that, as the designer put a full-scale Chanel rocket in the Grand Palais. And it actually appeared to lift off. It was a fitting analogy for one of fashion’s most starry personalities to go far and beyond anyone’s expectations.