Under the glass roof of Paris’s Palais Royal, fashion house Chanel roared to life on Tuesday with a glitzy show of haute couture that hinted at the spectacle and opulence of Romanov Russia.
Moving far away from signature Chanel black wool jackets, white trim and pearls, designer Karl Lagerfeld embraced sequins and baubles in a series of to-the-knee haute couture dresses that seemed defiantly spectacular amid the economic crisis.
Several suits sported gold brocade, intricate embroidery and fur lining. The colors — earth tones and deep reds — were warm and hinted at the darkened corridors of a Byzantine church or 18th century tapestry.
Models paraded under and around a 15 meter (45 foot) high lion — an ode, the designer said, to the astrological sign of the house’s eponymous founder, Coco Chanel.
Despite the opulence, the designer said that the show strove for simplicity, noting that none of the dresses were floor length, a traditional offering of haute couture.
“Everything has been removed…we had to strip a little but without making it dry, minimalist, false or pretentious,” he said to reporters after the show.
Lagerfeld, who is roughly 75 years old and shows no sign of retiring, has turned Chanel into the power house of French haute couture.
Even as some haute couture designers like Christian Lacroix close their doors under the crushing expense of making dresses by hand for a clientele that may number no more than 300, Chanel has grown his couture collection.
“Lagerfeld made Chanel more Chanel than Chanel. What was it before Karl? Status…clothes for your mother. He infused it with fun, rock and modernity. He brought the house to life,” said Aliona Doletskaya, editor of Russian Vogue.
And while other designers seem to be moving away from haute couture — a rarefied world in which one dress can cost upwards of $40,000– Chanel touts its legions of seamstresses who have the skills to create lace, brocade and embroidery by hand.
But several observers noted that Lagerfeld has begun moving further from the essence of Chanel. While he speaks of her influence often — simplicity and comfort — he has begun creating bright designs that play on metal themes.
For every comfortably tailored maroon suit shown Tuesday, there was a gilded dress that stopped at the unflattering knee-line.
“The coats were perfect,” said 34-year old Yelena Grujic who was at the show and aspires to wear haute couture. “The dresses were lovely too. But the problem is where to wear them. If you walk into a room wearing that dress and you are the only one…everyone looks at you.”
Buyers and admirers seemed to hone in on long flowing wool coats, shown at the beginning of the show, rather than the gilded dresses that were presented at the end.
“The coats were beautiful and the clothes were far more wearable than Dior,” said Suad al Ghanim, a buyer of haute couture from Kuwait who said she also bought two Stephane Rolland dresses that day.
But the essence of haute couture was to create fantasy, she added, even if it defied wearability.
“The dresses? They were beautiful to see.”