PARIS – The interior of the Grand Palais was transformed into a city street. Trompe l’oeil Beaux Arts buildings rose up from a fake sidewalk and puddles of real water lay stagnant by a mise en scene curb. Once again, Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld had given his audience an eyeful to look at besides the clothes. But this season, he also gave his guests a few thoughts to consider.
The theme of the spring 2015 collection was feminism. What does that mean in the realm of designer fashion, where so much of the business is wrapped up in a subtext of female imperfection and insecurity? Is there a kind of empowerment in a $5,000 bouclé suit and a pair of golden sandals? Can this be anything more than a gimmick when it comes from a designer who reportedly called singer Adele “a little too fat” when she did not ask for his expert assessment of her weight?
The show began with a symbolic gesture – having the models walk the street-turned-runway in groups. Instead of one woman strutting along in a kind of competitive walk-off, the women – except for a few stars such as Gisele Bündchen, ambled along chatting with one another, looking like a bunch of exceptionally well-dressed colleagues heading toward an afternoon appointment.
The clothes were gorgeous: an entire group of olive-drab jackets and skirts, a series of pop-art prints in bold fuchsia, glittering silver dresses constructed of tiny rectangular paillettes that called to mind concrete blocks. An ivory skirt suit was enhanced with a layer of pale pink spangles. A black skirt was layered over narrow black trousers and worn with a trim little black jacket and a crisp white shirt. Black pinstriped walking shorts were matched with lavish white blouses.
The shoes were made for walking. The golden sandals were practically flat. The black slippers had a solid block heel. The models carried sleek portfolios, wore wire-rimmed glasses and had their hair styled simply.
But this was not a somber collection. It was full of color and frivolity. And in keeping with the Chanel spirit, it offered freedom of movement and was infused with an independent spirit. But it adamantly celebrated the pleasure of fashion.
As the final models disappeared from sight, the sound of Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman” began to blast over the speakers. It was abruptly interrupted and after a moment of expectant silence, the models reappeared en masse, marching with picket signs with slogans such as “Feminist But Feminine,” “Be Your Own Stylist” and “History Is Her Story.” The models paraded down the runway, many of them laughing and giddy. Who wouldn’t guffaw at a sign reading, “Boys Should Get Pregnant, Too”?
The scene was played for laughs, which was expected. And that’s too bad. Because buried under the paillettes, gold and glitter are very real questions about the role fashion plays in empowering women and in diluting what power they have. The topic of feminism and fashion has been explored before, but typically it has been done within the realm of esoteric brands, T-shirt slogans, designer philanthropy and in the condescending chatter of academics. In the late 1990s, the literary critic Elaine Showalter penned an essay for Vogue, “The Professor Wore Prada,” in which she explored (confessed) her affection for fashion. Discussion boards practically exploded in scholarly outrage.
The subject, however, deserves a fair hearing – and a thoughtful one. It doesn’t require a lengthy dissertation on female control, the feminist body or the evil of high heels. A company need answer only a simple question: Is the fashion industry doing all it can to make its customers’ lives better?