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On the Trail Of Chanel's Famous Blazer

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 5, 2005; Page C01

PARIS, March 4 -- The designer Karl Lagerfeld plays with the cool kids. He resides at the center of the fashion industry's concentric circles of influence. And while he has his own collection called Lagerfeld Gallery, his singular source of fame is his work for Chanel. It is a legendary house that is privately held and, in addition to the classic fragrance Chanel No. 5 and its signature quilted handbag, it has capitalized on the iconic Chanel blazer which is essentially a boxy, collarless jacket stitched out of boucle.

To purchase a Chanel jacket is to buy into fashion history and all of its attendant mythology. And so each season, one arrives at the Chanel show to watch the house, led by Lagerfeld, protect the mystique of the jacket and prevent any dust from settling on it. Over the years, Lagerfeld has worked magic with the jacket, tweaking it in subtle ways so that it always looks right for the times and always appeals to a new, younger generation of women.

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One arrives at the Chanel show on Friday morning to find that security boys are requesting identification, preferably a passport. They are border control and this is the entrance to Chanel-land. As the guests assemble, one magazine editor notes the hubbub that always surrounds this show and the feeling that one must get gussied up. Oops!

One comes to watch the glorious jackets go by. And sometimes, the parade seems endless. For fall 2005, there are long jackets that come down over the hips and there are oversize ones that have the feel of a loose-fitting car coat. And of course, there are innumerable versions that have been trimmed in fringe, woven with metallic threads and stitched out of an exaggerated plaid.

While it is fine to occasionally broaden one's field of vision to take in the pretty, gamine-inspired cocktail dresses that are on the runway or to check out the gentleman in the audience who is dressed like a Vegas-based yogi, it is generally best to keep one's eyes trained on the jackets. Do not look at the banal pleated skirts. And turn away from the tweed knickers that are almost as silly as the granny bloomers that made an appearance in Milan at the Giorgio Armani show.

Armani has a lot in common with the Chanel brand. He also made a name for himself with an iconic style of jacket -- unconstructed, loose-limbed, wool crepe -- and has spent the last few decades tweaking it so that it keeps up with the times. The difference, of course, is that Armani created his style. Lagerfeld is keeping someone else's style alive. And there are times when it seems that Lagerfeld will do anything to keep up a buzz about the jackets. Once again, he sent men down the Chanel runway wearing versions of the womenswear. They even had large Chanel satchels draped across one shoulder. (Note that one will not find Mr. Lagerfeld toting a Chanel purse.) Some would argue that a Chanel jacket is far more creative and stylish than a subdued Armani blazer. And that may be true. An Armani jacket is the epitome of restraint. A Chanel jacket, as it has evolved over the years, is a statement of wealth and prestige, with its silk chiffon trims, sequined hemlines and glittering tweeds. But the different opinions may also have to do with Lagerfeld's ability to throw himself into the center ring of fashion, to put on a charm offensive and to absorb popular culture and exploit it to his own ends.

Lagerfeld puts on a flamboyant public image marked by vaguely swashbuckling attire. He took his bows Friday morning with his white hair tied back in a ponytail and wearing black trousers and jacket, a black scarf looped around his chest, thick-soled alligator boots that came up to the knee and fingers full of jaw-breaking silver rings. He is a mishmash of gender-bending masculinity. Johnny Depp in "Pirates of the Caribbean." Prince. Tom Cruise as Lestat. Lagerfeld's public persona is compelling, but a little creepy, too.

Lagerfeld powers Chanel with his design talent -- it is no easy feat to reinvent a simple blazer one season after another -- but also with his keen ability to pinpoint what is hip at the nanosecond that it reaches its pinnacle. Lagerfeld effortlessly manipulates, packages and polishes.

With his own label, he is out to show that he can create a personal vision from raw materials. His Lagerfeld Gallery collection is not new, but it has been more of a pet project than a business enterprise that has commanded industry attention. It has been a murkily defined collection of long lines, sharp angles and a dour point-of-view. Lagerfeld once partnered with Diesel to create jeans, but that seemed more a dalliance related to his newly svelte physique than a serious desire to go into the denim business.

But with a small collection he designed for the low-priced merchant H&M selling well, he made bold plans. He sold his label to Tommy Hilfiger Corp. last year with the long-range goal of transforming it into a global business. But what does Lagerfeld stand for? In the Lagerfeld Gallery collection he presented Wednesday morning, was there any reassuring sign of a definitive aesthetic? One that is not Chanel and one that is not based on vanity?

The coats, with their high dramatic collars, were sophisticated and urbane. But there was also a chocolate brown shearling with a wide collar that folded over to softly cradle the shoulders. His color palette, which ranged from black to sweet strawberry pink, was a surprising departure from his typically dark, brooding aesthetic. Lagerfeld likes to look forward. Rarely does he rely on vintage clothing bins and yellowed photographs for his inspiration. He imagines new ways, quirky ways in which technology infiltrates people's lives. Low-slung belts with a continuous digital readout scrolling across their small screens were worn with mannish trousers. But there were also feminine dresses in raspberry pink with sunburst pleats.

The collection alternated between hard and soft, between straight and curved. Lagerfeld wasn't exploring gender or dabbling in androgyny. But he was making note of the various facets of a woman -- her ability to muscle her way down a crowded street with her coat pulled around her like armor, as well as her desire to walk into a room with such beauty and elegance that the crowd parts.

The difference between Lagerfeld Gallery and Chanel is that the former cannot rely on a single garment to sell itself. It hasn't earned that luxury nor does it bear that burden. Lagerfeld Gallery is in the midst of formation and it is full of possibilities. Chanel, no matter what else is on the runway, is always about the jacket.

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