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There was a one-minute silence before the start of the AW19 Chanel show, a moment to reflect on the 36 years of service Karl Lagerfeld devoted to the fashion house. Sixty seconds in which to marvel at his sense of showmanship: in his last instructions he had staged his show in a snowy Alpine wonderland. Dubbed “Chalet Gardenia”, it featured 12 Alpine huts with actual smoking chimneys, a mountain cyclorama and real pine trees. It was a moment to sit in wonder. And for those who really knew him, and who have been caught up in a schedule with little time for much reflection, it was a quiet moment in which to grieve.
I did not know him muchly, but I’ll miss him like hell. I interviewed Lagerfeld on about six occasions, most often backstage at the shows and through a scrum of reporters all scratching for his quotes. He always delivered something spicy, either making some sensational pronouncement or voicing some new subject of disdain. He was hugely entertaining. But he could be vulnerable too: he had an unexpected need for affirmation. “Did you like it?” he would ask in his heavy German accent of a piece of clothing or a new construction in the show. “You did? Yes, I thought it was quite good as well.”
More than anything, he hated nostalgia. He loathed nothing more than looking back. In a rare discussion around the idea of legacy, he told the critic Suzy Menkes: “I hate the idea of being heavily remembered . . . I think things start with me, they end with me. After that, the garbage can . . . I couldn’t care less…”
With this in mind, his last show, with its shearling snowboots, sweeping skirt lengths and Alpine flavours was a riddle. Were the motifs a final acknowledgment that the designer might indeed have had a sentimental side? Had he holidayed in Bavaria in his childhood? Was this his Magic Mountain, a fictional sanctuary of creative respite from which he might escape his inevitable demise? Was this his Rosebud moment?
During his lifetime the designer was an inveterate fabulist, some might say fibber, who would mix the facts of his biography about. He never quite confirmed his date of birth, and often obfuscated details of his childhood.
Was this all a homage to his powerful bourgeois mother, born in Munster, around whom so many Lagerfeld myths were built? Or was it a homage to Coco Chanel who conceived her famous blazer when she spied a bellboy on a holiday to Salzburg and the Alps? The full tweed coats and ski-slope knitwear here seemed to play on that era’s Thirties tropes.
Or had he just conjured up a mountain, and the kind of chocolate-box vista that has a global brand identity itself? The romantic Alpine landscape is beloved by clients in all sorts of different markets, and let’s not forget the next Winter Olympics will take place in Beijing in 2022. Yes, Lagerfeld was a romantic. But, he was pragmatic, and a German. And also had an extraordinary business head.
Lagerfeld’s last outing was a riddle with a set that offered all sorts of tantalising clues. It was emotional, without being nostalgic or sentimental. It was wintry, without being cold. Its most unlikely feature was the actress Penélope Cruz, who walked holding a single white flower. But that riddle was quite easily answered — she was signed last year to be an ambassador for the label.
The designer spent more than three decades building the myth of Coco Chanel, and in the process built a $10bn brand. He was a great designer, a brilliant subject and had a genius for branding — and storytelling. Now he’s gone, Paris Fashion Week will never be the same.
On each seat there was a sketch by Lagerfeld of himself and Coco Chanel standing side by side. “The beat goes on …” read the inscription. And so it will. In recent days, Alain Wertheimer, chief executive of Chanel, has appointed Lagerfeld’s head of studio, Virginie Viard, to be artistic director of the fashion collections while Eric Pfrunder will be artistic director of fashion image. Both have long been integral members of the Lagerfeld team. The Wertheimers want a smooth and dignified transition. The implication is that nothing here will change, the Chanel house will continue as it has done. And yet, to imagine future shows without Lagerfeld’s theatrics seems inconceivable. One can only wonder for how long it might go on.
In the meantime, the brand is getting on with business, and those interlocking Cs sell on. As for all the fake snow? Today’s fairytale will be tomorrow’s garbage. Just as Lagerfeld would have wanted it to be.
Jo Ellison will be hosting the FT’s Business of Luxury Summit in Madrid on May 19-21. For more information visit ftbusinessofluxury.com
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