Robin Givhan: Lagerfeld Riffs on Fashion and Art at Chanel


The expansive scale of today's Chanel fashion show, under the glorious dome of Paris’s Grand Palais, risked dwarfing the spindly models on their prim little heels, but designer Karl Lagerfeld created a collection and a mood with enough color, texture, and cultural references that they held tight to the audience’s attention. 

Lagerfeld’s set mimicked an art-gallery opening — complete with passed hors d'oeuvres and drinks — whose white walls were dominated by paintings and sculptures inspired by the iconography of Chanel. Three-dimensional interlocking black CC’s stood twenty feet high. An oversize quilted handbag was installed on a wall with its chain-link strap trailing down onto the floor. An impressionistic painting of a two-tone Chanel pump hung on one wall; and, a little farther down the way, there were paintings of camellias. On the other side of the room, a textile installation mimicked one of the house’s signature bouclé jackets.

Among the multitude of characters and story lines fueling Lagerfeld’s twenty-minute (or more?) runway show were: the starving artist, the artistic life, and art itself. Gray, square-collared dresses suggested the faded smocks of a romanticized artist living humbly in a garret; paint-“splattered” dresses recalled the working artist; tidy suits made one think of the unabashed wealth of the art patron. And graffiti backpacks and offbeat styling – such as Technicolor eyeshadow — called to mind the arty gamine.

Lagerfeld’s ability to riff on the Chanel jacket knows no bounds. The clothes were recognizably and reassuringly Chanel, but he presented them in a manner that offered his guests a little more to consider than simply whether the violet knit dresses on the runway were appropriate for a business meeting and if the pastel woven ones were too bohemian to be practical. Theshow’s soundtrack featured JayZ’s “Picasso Baby” – the song he turned into performance art by allowing his improvisational skills as a rapper to unfold in a series of one-on-one encounters before an audience assembled in a New York gallery.

The performance and the resulting film showed the give-and-take of rap — its demand that one read an audience and respond to the energy in a room — merging with the fluid creativity of the visual artists, dancers, and actors. But it also explored the subtext of a millionaire businessman exploiting the modern ethos of art as a financial investment and as a form of braggadocio. It was art as art — but also as commerce and commercial.

The music, and all of its history, informed one’s understanding of the Chanel show. The spring 2014 presentation toyed with the age-old question of whether fashion can be art. (Perhaps the only reasonable answer is: sometimes.) It also reminded the audience of how fashionable art has become. Is there any designer of significant means who has not become a collector?  

But ultimately, as the models marched by one Chanel bedecked guest after another, one couldn’t help but admire Lagerfeld’s skill at artful commerce.