Chanel's Crash Course in How to Make Heritage Go Viral
Storytelling is no doubt one of the most important mediums in fashion. It is what attracts us to the glamor and frivolity of fashion, even when our moral compasses (or purse strings) direct us elsewhere. Karl Lagerfeld is known for his extravagant storylines—be it the luxury casino that served as the backdrop for his Fall 2015 collection; the Chanel Airlines “terminal” in which he showcased Spring ’16; or the digital archives models navigated in Spring 2017. Each mise en scène possessed a well-timed cultural relevance, as well as no-expense-spared staging that fully immersed the audience in Lagerfeld’s vision for the season. Yet, in spite of their high production value, there often seems to be a disconnect between the scenery and the Kaiser’s designs.
For the final runway show of 2016, the Métiers d’Art collection or Pre-Fall, the scene was set in The Ritz Paris during an undefined time period surely more glamorous than today. Seated guests dined in one of the hotel’s newly renovated dining salons as the models wove their way through a sea of round banquet tables. A natural partnership, both Chanel and The Ritz are essential figures in the last century of Parisian fashion history. The late Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel held residence at the notoriously beautiful hotel for many years, almost three decades, before her death in 1971. Opting for two smaller, humble rooms side by side instead of the prestige suites “under the eaves” (as they say), Coco filled these apartments with her own furniture in her signature favourite shades of beige and gold. (Owing to their historical significance, these apartments stand untouched even today.) Each morning, Coco would cross the Rue Cambon from the hotel to her own Couture house, using the hotel’s back entrance.
With this much romanticized, mythologized tale of Chanel and The Ritz, this setting for the show made perfect sense. However, presumably to avoid the obvious, Lagerfeld chose to overlook the history between the house and hotel. The collection, titled "Paris Cosmopolite," was something of a love letter to the other guests at The Ritz. Lagerfeld’s was a tale of the rich, perhaps famous guests, and the moments in which their lives collided.
This story is a potent one—perhaps so much so that it overshadowed the actual garments. Indeed, the reviews of Lagerfeld’s spectacle rarely mention the garments in any significant detail, but linger on the backstory and magnificent staging. Perhaps a fabric description here, or a technical detail there, surely regurgitated from the press release. Interestingly, however, although Lagerfeld’s collections rarely diverge much from the obvious Chanel hallmarks—strings of pearls, an innovative take on the classic Chanel suit, toe-caps and quilting—this one felt quite fresh in places.
A gold glitter tuxedo jacket, with matching cropped pants. A fluffy, fuzzy wool coat in a boucle-esque mix of taupe, grey, and black. A cream, quilted puffer jacket that could even sway the girl disgusted with Balenciaga’s red snow-baller. Without waxing lyrical on the fabulous craftsmanship, the clothes were rather impressive, but they were completely overshadowed by the spectacle that was the show—one which this season included yet another distraction.
Chanel has always relied heavily on its muses: from the models gracing the catwalk to the actresses, musicians, and it-girls filling the front row. The casting for pre-fall, however, marked a new incarnation of the Chanel spectacle, providing nearly as much clickbait content for tabloid news sites as Yeezy Season Three. Cara Delevigne, following her longstanding relationship with the couture house, opened the show. No biggie. The casting list that followed, however, was a combination of both models and, as coined by Vogue contributor Sarah Mower, daughters-of .
Lily-Rose Depp was in the lineup, who like her mother, Vanessa Paradis, has fronted campaigns and walked in the Fall 2015 show previously for Chanel. A model in the making, she strutted with gaudy faux-confidence through the room in a gold sequined cropped peplum and midi skirt, flaunting her taut teenage abdominals. The exaggerated shoulders seemed to swamp her tiny frame, only emphasizing her youth and reminding us, however, that she is definitely not a model. Also walking were Sofia Richie, daughter of Lionel; Ella Richards, granddaughter of Keith Richards of Rolling Stones fame; Selah Marley, granddaughter to the late Bob Marley; Sistine Stallone, daughter of Sylvester; Gray Sorrenti, daughter of Mario; Lottie Moss, half-sister to Kate; and Georgia May Jagger, model in her own right but also daughter of Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall. You can only imagine the girlish squeals emanating from backstage as these girls had their first runway exposure on perhaps the biggest stage of them all. While the experience was certainly magical for the girls involved, it begs the question, why was Lagerfeld relying upon such amateur talent?
For Fall 2015, Karl invited a gaggle of his long time muses; Kristin Stewart, Rita Ora, Stella Tennant, Julianne Moore, and the aforementioned Vanessa Paradis to his casino where they opened the show by simply walking up to a central casino table and taking a seat. Each woman was dressed by Karl in a design of his own making which he claimed he had created to reflect how he saw them. It was sweet, and poetic. It added depth to the collection, and pulled us further into the story he was spinning for the brand. It made good sense from all perspectives.
Comparing this thoughtful strategy to what he did for Pre-Fall—that is, using a group of teenage girls who are not models (and who have done little to cut their teeth otherwise)—seems anachronistic. Perhaps Karl was trying to reach out to a younger audience and therefore views the girls’ collective mass Instagram following as an easy way in. Lily-Rose Depp alone has 2.3 million followers on the social media app; her ‘gram of herself walking alongside a gracious thanks to Lagerfeld reached over 162,000 likes. It was a culture clash of epic proportions: the fabled house being launched into the twenty-first century.
Undoubtedly though, this strategy probably sold little, if any, couture bouclé suiting. A glorified social media “moment” the show undoubtedly introduced countless young girls to the brand (not unlike Yayoi Kasuma’s highly-Instagrammable Infinity Mirrored Room, which has introduced leagues of young people to the 60s performance artist)—perhaps driving sales of “gateway” products, like perfume and nail varnish. But, honestly, to me, it feels somewhat like a desperate bid by Lagerfeld to keep the brand at which he has held the reigns for over thirty years relevant and in the media’s line of sight.
Chanel, perhaps more so than your “average” couturier, appears to rely heavily on its own brand history, even as they stage ever-grander spectacles with each passing season. Yet, I would argue, it’s ultimately not these stagings—no matter how fabulous, beautiful or timely—laid out by Karl and his team that persuades you to buy those pearl tipped mules or that supple leather quilted purse. It’s the story laid out a century ago, just across the street from The Ritz. It’s the bottle of No. 5 on your mother’s dressing table that you, aged six, spritzed with reckless abandon when you thought she wasn’t looking. It’s the nonchalant French girl you see crossing the street, via street or screen, with perfectly mussed hair and grandma’s vintage 2:55 in tow.
 Sarah Mower, “Chanel Pre-Fall 2017,” Vogue (December 6, 2016), accessed January 23, 2017, http://www.vogue.com/fashion-shows/pre-fall-2017/chanel.