PARIS, France — Karl Lagerfeld’s favourite part of his job is fittings. “I make very precise sketches, then I like to fit with them in the ateliers and see the piece of paper come to life,” he said today after a couture show whose set transported those ateliers to the Chanel catwalk at the Grand Palais.
The whole kit and caboodle: every sewing machine, every pattern-cutting table, every bolt of fabric, every pin and needle along with the 200+ seamstresses, les petites mains, who use them every day. (Lagerfeld claimed he knew them all by name.) The scale of military operation necessary for such a dislocation can scarcely be imagined, even if Chanel has made a speciality of the unimaginable with its super-scaled shows.
But this one was different. As big as it was in concept, it was intimate, humanly scaled in execution. The recreated ateliers were arranged in a circle around the audience, so you were only ever looking out at a couple of petites mains fitting one model. “That’s exactly what I wanted,” Lagerfeld insisted. “People talk about couture as a luxury. No, it’s a job and many people work for that industry.” He contradicted himself slightly when he added, “It’s a very precious job, and very few people know how to do it.” But that is something he is keenly aware of, if only because Chanel’s couture ateliers have never been busier and they’re in need of ever more expertise.
Just what kind of expertise was clear from the first outfit, an angular-shouldered tweed tunic over culottes. By now, we should know that it was not actually tweed we were looking at, it was embroidery, loomed not woven, so much lighter and just one of the technical achievements that has changed the nature of couture at Chanel.
Lagerfeld pointed out that the cut-outs on the clothes and the clots of floral embroidery were laser-cut. “You can’t do that by hand anymore.” But such modernity was turned to the service of a collection that reinforced what now looks like a Lagerfeld signature: a lean, languid historicism, often with a cropped jacket over layers tiered to mid calf. Here, there was a hem that dipped into a tail, “like birds”, the designer said. There were birds too in the froth of feathers that sprouted from the shoulders of the more elaborate evening pieces and lined the train of Edie Campbell’s wedding dress. Belle Epoque? “No, the shape is wrong.” Alright then, Karl Epoque, suggested a colleague. Cue laughter all round.
Shoulders were where this collection’s emphasis lay. Those angular examples (fishing around for the correct English word, Lagerfeld settled on “beveled”), or squared-off or lightly pagoda-ed, and none of them with any padding at all. Utterly simple in effect and appearance. Almost two-dimensional, in fact. The complexity was, said Lagerfeld, all internal. “They’re flawlessly made,” he added, in a rare moment of pride. But that was why the collection was shown as it was today. Lagerfeld wanted us to know exactly who and what it took to create the clothes that the world is happy to give him credit for. It was a generous gesture. And, if you wanted to read a subtext into such an action in the chill aftermath of Brexit, you could say that it was Lagerfeld’s way of reminding us that no man is an island. He wouldn’t be the Mighty Karl without his petites mains.