How do you describe an indescribable loss? That’s the question many editors, myself included, were asking themselves on the eve of the first Chanel show without Karl Lagerfeld — indisputably and irrefutably the most legendary designer of all time, whose 36-plus years at the greatest fashion house in the world came to an official end this past Tuesday.
To say this posthumous show was the ultimate high and low moment of the Fashion Month calendar would be a massive understatement. The entire industry waited for weeks on end, after Lagerfeld’s sad passing, to witness the brand’s first presentation (and ultimate farewell) after his death. And what a presentation it was.
Inside the Grand Palais, where a snow-covered, après-ski mountain setting was built in typical grandiose Lagerfeld form, the show began with a slow wind chime sound — akin to the sound of an icicle melting, drop by drop — as Chanel’s newest generation of models and muses, many of which Lagerfeld himself discovered and championed — descended upon the steps of a faux cabin called Chalet Gardenia. As they stood still, it felt like time completely stood still, too.
Then, a voiceover of Lagerfeld played over the speakers. It was a soundbite from one of his last interviews, for a Chanel podcast incidentally, where he described the universal love that Chanel acclaims. In his unmistakable French accent, he recounted that even the Queen Mother of England was mesmerized by the brand and its extravagant displays, switching over to English to quote the Queen Mother as saying, “It’s like walking into a painting!”
Indeed, Lagerfeld’s sets for Chanel are very much like walking into a painting — from his awe-inspiring supermarkets to real-looking jet planes and airport terminals. Knowing his penchant for working on a show the minute the last one had ended, he probably had the idea for this serene setting as far back as several months ago. Given more recent shows — a springtime waterfall, a summertime beach, an autumnal forest, and now, this winter wonderland — you couldn’t help but feel he’d anticipated his own death and used the passing of the four seasons as an analogy for life (his own, especially) coming full circle. With his characteristic sense of humor, you couldn’t put it past him to include a playful commentary like that just to remind us all that even in death, he controlled his own story.
As a somber minute of silence was observed to honor the man, the myth, and the legend, it became increasingly evident that the show had to go on. Lagerfeld, a deeply unsentimental pragmatist who detested the idea of a public memorial, wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. In fact, a sketch he drew of himself and Coco Chanel with the words “the beat goes on” was included in the show notes as a reminder that his mortality was, like the passing of the seasons, inevitable.
It’s been reported that Lagerfeld, with his longtime right hand, Virginie Viard (now his successor, chosen by the man himself), started this collection but ultimately could not finish it. Viard had the unfortunate task of completing the pieces, and tell-tale signs in the styling of the clothes served as a reminder that a woman (younger, too) was now at the helm of the house. Out walked a teary-eyed Cara Delevingne, sporting a black-and-white tweed coat and voluminous trousers — the first departure from the historic skirtsuit that usually opens the show. Subsequent looks featured an explosion of houndstooth, menswear plaid, snowy tulle, and snowball skirts, but where these pieces used to be typically reminiscent of “traditional” Chanel, they looked more modern, fresher — even younger. Some models had a silk scarf tied in the form of a bandana around their necks, and one look even featured a shrobed puffer jacket. Shrobing? At Chanel? That was definitely a first.
Viard may have very large shoes to fill, but if the interrupted pleasure of witnessing the clothes was any indication, she’s definitely on to a strong start.
But did the clothes even matter? Was anyone looking at the collection? In my ten years in fashion, this was the first time I’d experienced fewer phones in the audience, as everyone was absorbing the moment for what it was. A beautiful tribute, which happened to have really beautiful clothes. Viard may have very large shoes to fill, but if the interrupted pleasure of witnessing the clothes was any indication, she’s definitely on to a strong start.
The five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, the first four of which we had been experiencing for weeks. For a show to evoke so much emotion, in 20-odd minutes, while simultaneously respecting Lagerfeld’s wishes not to be overly emotional, is a remarkable feat only a house like Chanel could engineer. Yet, as David Bowie’s “Heroes” played during a poignant and moving finale, all 2,600 audience members gave a standing ovation lasting around ten minutes, even after the models had walked off and the show had finished. It was as if leaving the Grand Palais meant our hero’s chapter had finally reached its end. With great reluctance, we accepted.