Robin Givhan, The Washington Post’s Pulitzer-winning fashion critic, is covering Paris Fashion Week. Read her Fashion Week stories as she makes her way from runway to runway, and follow her on Twitter: @robingivhan.
PARIS — Design houses have been full of angst, despair and braggadocio this season about its relationship with social media. To cave in to the bacchanal of flamboyance or to remain mies-en-scene free and pure? What to do?
It’s a false choice.
There is no such hair pulling at Chanel, one of fashion’s most venerable brands and — in this era of designer comings and goings — surely its most stable. It has long balanced high culture with low, penny-pinching aspirational shoppers with money-is-no-object princesses.
Who doesn’t own a bit of Chanel? There are the power brokers in their discreet suits, red carpet walkers in their glorious gowns, the nouveau riche who can’t resist a track suit with interlocking Cs on their rump or the modest middle class gal with her pick-me-up lipstick or her bottle of Chanel No. 5. All of them see something special in Chanel.
There is arguably no fashion brand that has permeated our popular culture so completely.
The credit for that, of course, goes to designer Karl Lagerfeld, who has been steadfast in his refusal to go retro or to allow the house to become frozen in its own traditions. And yet, his collections are always immediately — from 50 paces and more — identifiably Chanel. There are the collar-less, loose-fitting jackets, the skirts that have a girlish swing to their silhouette, the exploration of tweeds and boucles in all their possible iterations, the strands of pearls and jewels worn like so much junk jewelry and the logo itself.
But more than anything, Lagerfeld treats Chanel like a living, changing entity. It is not so precious that it must be kept under glass — but rest assured the company jealously guards its trademark. He has situated it in our imagination by connecting it to those things to which we can all relate. He is adept at crafting sets that are contemporary and popular — sets that comment on our consumption habits, our politics and our increasingly disjointed lifestyle.
His Chanel shows are catnip for the Instagram crowd not simply because his backdrops are flashy but because we recognize something of ourselves in them. They are familiar locations, not fantasy lands. They have reflected topics that are part of the daily conversation. Lagerfeld doesn’t get ponderous. He simply stays relevant with his lavish, visual quips.
In recent years, he has given his audience a supermarket set stocked with boxes of Chanel rice and cans of Chanel tomatoes. There was an art gallery set that “sold” paintings of Chanel perfume bottles, as well as, a bistro and a Paris street where models protested for women’s rights.
And for spring 2016, he built an airport tableau for his faux Chanel Airlines — an idea that arrives in the aftermath of Air France strikes and in the midst of the airline’s current labor crisis that had workers recently storming a meeting full of executives who were discussing massive layoffs.
The Chanel set captured the sterile environment of an airport, the travelers sitting not quite next to each other on metal benches as they wait for their flight. There was a departure board — and even a dress in a print inspired by it — baggage carts and uniformed desk clerks.
As the models whizzed through the airport, some of them pulling Chanel rolling suitcases, they recalled air travel from a different time — when it was an adventure worth dressing up for rather that an ordeal to get through. The models zipped along in richly woven jackets, skirts in abstract prints and others embroidered with glittering rods.
Red, white and blue patterns called to mind flight attendant uniforms that have been reimagined as something extravagant and luxurious — or simply as droll accessories. Sandals had soles that lit up like the lights on an airport runway. The models wore aviator sunglasses, baseball caps flipped backwards and denim printed with the shadow of flowers.
The show offered plenty of visual candy and a few nods to our daily coffee shop conversations. But there were clothes on the Chanel runway as well — some fanciful others wholly wearable. All of it unmistakably Chanel.
Some houses make finding that balance seem so complicated. Or, perhaps, Chanel just makes it look terribly easy.