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In Focus: Chanel and the Society of the Spectacle

You may have spotted from breathless Instagram posts yesterday, Chanel’s catwalk show was – inevitably – the talk of #PFW. There’s been much debate amongst the fashion press and attendees about whether this was a hilarious comment on the nature of fast-fashion, or merely the death of the catwalk.

First, let’s take a look at the show: In Paris’ largest and most impressive venue, the Grand Palais (originally built for the 1900 Universal Exhibition as a showcase for French engineering, scientific and artistic power) was transformed into a quotidian supermarket, stocked with Chanel-ified goods – everything from cooking oil to chainsaws.

Over the past few years, Karl Lagerfeld’s direction has increasingly become intertwined with extravagant sets in the Palais: the enormous lion from last month’s AW14 haute couture show; AW13’s icebergs; SS13’s wind turbines; AW12’s reimagining of Krypton; and most memorably, SS10’s Petit Trianon-esque farmstead – complete with Lily Allen performance and a haybale sex romp. The innovative Métiers d’Art shows across the globe (think the most recent drive-in theatre set in Dallas) rely on local crafts and traditions, and have become miniature flashpoints in themselves.

Fashion purists might argue that these kind of things only distract from the collection, but such spectacular sets merely highlight one of the interesting things about fashion in 2014: the fashion is no longer the most important thing at fashion shows, the show is.

Front row slebs remind everyone that the brand is powerful, while big name models (Kendall Jenner was the name on everyone’s lips this season, and Carl closed the show by walking out with Cara Delevigne) keep the spectacle relevant. Putting on a show that grabs headlines and trends on Twitter keeps your brand ‘top-of-mind’ and reinforces its status as something above the rest. Shout louder, and you will get noticed.

This kind of setpiece does unequivocally detract from the clothes. But then, there are only so many ways you can reinvent and repackage a tweed suit.chanel1  Aside from these obvious and many twists on that trademark suit, Chanel showed everything from metallic leggings and space-age tweed-insert dresses to sweetshop-inspired appliqué prints under pearlescent jackets, as well as what can only be described as ‘wool with holes in it’. Take away the notion that this is Chanel and distance yourself from the catwalk looks when you examine the images, and a collection with a few rather questionable looks is revealed: knee-length ruffled dresses for example, or a metallic brown leather short-sleeve housecoat over a heavily-embellished multicolour dress, with black taffeta ankle-detail.chanel2The use throughout of accessory-inspired chains, pearl necklaces and quilting clearly references Chanel’s iconic accessories & jewellery; especially the trainers (a carryover from the haute couture shows) which were reworked in all manner of metallic and tweeds. A man was the ultimate accessory, especially one who carries your Chanel shopping bags, but in lieu of that, this collection’s signpointing to the accessories lines was unashamedly clear: a shopping basket made of Chanel gold chain says only one thing: BUY.

The show did however buck a general trend of Parisian shows this season, as noted by Vanessa Friedman in the FT (in a piece that was written a few days before the Chanel show). It also contrasts starkly with the other big story of PFW: Nicolas Ghesquière’s debut for Louis Vuitton. As the Wall Street Journal noted: “the interior of Mr. Ghesquière’s venue was a hollow box. There was no decoration.”

In this context, some might see the packaging of Chanel handbags as meat in cellophane wrapping to be vulgar (“a tumblr junkies fantasy” as one notable voice commented on Twitter), but the overwhelming feeling was one of dismay, as one insider noted: “when did it all become about building a fashion-set and not about presenting a fantastic fashion collection? If [Lagerfeld] think’s that ‘real’ people wear CHANEL then he is sadly mistaken – nor would he want them to! #fashfauxpas”. Karl seems knows what he’s doing though, as Tim Blanks on Style.com surmised that the show was “an epic celebration of consumerism, [and] also an epic satire of it.”chanel3Lagerfeld knows how to keep an extremely high-end brand like Chanel aspirational, but also interesting to younger consumers – it’s a form of fashion marketing that takes the long-tail approach: reel younger clients in over years of innovative, ‘cool’ displays of power, keep your prices high and your accessories aspirational, and then eventually, they’ll cave and buy a 2.55, or more likely, some perfume in a shiny metallic box.

Maybe it’s time for everyone to accept that the whole nature of the catwalk show as it was back in the ‘80s is changing – catwalk shows are now the brand’s opportunity to communicate with the world; fashion week is no longer a closed tradeshow, only for the exclusive eyes of insiders. Access is instant and global and, crucially, direct-to-consumer. The notion of seasonality is pretty much dead, fast fashion is the diet of everyone from the highest of editors to the most basic of consumers. In fact, the fashion world is not just changing, it has already changed; and it’s learning from industries like music where such an instant digital precipitated the biggest change in the industry since the advent of electricity.

For the final word, we need only look to Gabrielle Chanel herself: “In order to be irreplaceable,” she wrote, “one must always be different.” It’s not just about being different though, as Lagerfeld well understands; it’s about what you’re doing in the context of the wider world. As she said: “fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.”

-       Seb Law







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