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Was Mademoiselle Chanel inspired to create her simple, buttoned, bouclé wool jacket after spying a similar garment on a lift-boy while holidaying at the Schloss Mittersill hotel? No one knows. There is no hard documentary evidence to support such a theory. While the designer holidayed in the Tyrolean Alps, we cannot know for certain the genesis of her most famous creation.
But who cares anyway? Because when Karl Lagerfeld deems an apocryphal tale to be fashion truth, it must become so. He probably didn’t wear Lederhosen as a child growing up in Hamburg, either, but if it suits his creative vision to say that, then so be it. Fashion is 90 per cent perspiration and 10 per cent fabulation.
Salzburg, the tiny Austrian city famed for being the birthplace of Mozart and the all-singing von Trapp Wunderkinder, added a new birth to its illustrious registry this week: the arrival of Chanel’s Métiers d’Art show.
The Alpine landscape inspired Lagerfeld with another layer of narrative to weave into the Chanel mythology and, more importantly, a collection of some Tyrolean-style demi-couture clothes.
Staged in the candlelit chambers of the Leopoldskron Castle, in rooms refurnished with baroque furniture and tables groaning with food, Chanel Salzburg was a breathtaking reimagining of baroque opulence and Alpine chic: wood smoke clouded over the Leopoldskroner Weiher lake (the location in which Maria tips over her boat of charges in The Sound of Music), as guests were served freshly grilled waffles by comely waitresses in traditional dirndls.
The refrain of “Do-re-mi” echoed throughout the collection of embroidered Lederhosen, loden jackets, Tyrolean hats with extravagant plumes, adorable woollen sweaters and tights embroidered with edelweiss and other mountain flora. There were Heidi-style coiled braids, buckled clogs, suede knapsacks that might befit a goatherd and, of course, the fabled jacket — lift-boy style and worn with wide-legged striped trousers.
Cara Delevingne, the newly crowned British Fashion Awards model of the year, sucked a strawberry as she paced around in a tiered, white gown that recalled the Empress Elisabeth of Austria, whose moniker Sissi (pronounced “Cee Cee”) had provided Lagerfeld with another strand of narrative appropriation and inspired a short film co-starring Pharrell Williams.
Originally conceived as an off-season collection in which to celebrate the savoir-faire of the 10 specialist ateliers Chanel acquired in 2002 under its subsidiary company Paraffection, Métiers d’Art is presented as a unique collection of demi-couture clothes. The show both highlights the artisanal skill of the couturiers and unveils a new historical facet of the house.
It’s a myth-building exercise. But it’s also proven a fantastic opportunity to ensure dedicated media attention outside the busy show schedule, and fill the boutiques with an extra season’s worth of stock. There were 85 looks at Salzburg, and with the brand’s emphasis on craftsmanship, the collection’s slightly dearer price point has made its success all the more deliciously sweet.
“Métiers d’Art is quite sophisticated, with quite sophisticated clothing,” says Bruno Pavlovsky, Chanel’s global president of fashion, of the true value of the house’s purchase of the ateliers once so endangered by the decline of the couture industry. While the workshops (among them milliner Maison Michel, embroiderers Lesage and more recently Barrie cashmere woollen mills in Scotland) are allowed to work for other brands, Chanel’s ownership of the group puts the house in a unique position.
“Chanel’s strength is in being able to sell all these clothes,” continues Pavlovsky. “There are 189 Chanel boutiques throughout the world. With the couture it’s different; you don’t need to ask yourself whether the pieces can be duplicated or redone. With Métiers d’Art, we sell 10, 20 to 30 units for each look, and all the looks will go into production and into all the boutiques in the world, more or less. At the moment, Chanel is the only brand that has the means to produce all of this at that level of sophistication, which makes us very special.”
Special it is. However profitable or materially advantageous the Paraffection initiative might have been, few shows are as shamelessly romantic or nostalgic as the Métiers d’Art.
A combination of Lagerfeld’s curation, the focus on the petites mains and Chanel’s sheer muscle power have combined to create an event that carries a deep emotional resonance — as the teary-eyed seamstresses gathered in the library to watch the show would attest.
Previous collections, staged under starlit skies in Edinburgh or lone-ranger style in Dallas, have been no less magical. But why is such a production, a mere one-off that requires — at Pavlovsky’s estimation — about 2,000 employees to stage, deemed necessary?
“To proliferate an idea all the way down to the shop sales: you must have something at the beginning,” says Pavlovsky. “You need a strong message. If you have the collection, the story, the decor, you can create something very powerful at the boutique level.”
In cultivating the Métiers d’Art, Chanel has pioneered a new era of showmanship. And its success hasn’t gone unnoticed. Other luxury brands are now following suit with similarly far-flung spectacles: Dior will stage a pre-fall collection in Tokyo next week (an inaugural outing for the house) while Valentino is en-route to New York to mount a couture collection that will be shown in the label’s new flagship store in Manhattan. The fashion calendar, already enlivened by the rising prominence of the cruise shows (another Chanel initiative), is getting busier. But Pavlovsky is wary of taking responsibility for redrawing it.
“If we were the first one to organise a cruise show, and the first to organise a Métiers d’Art, it’s because we have something to say,” says Pavlovsky. “It’s a true collection. It’s unique. If you are not part of the fashion mix, you need important content. You have to have something very important to say.
“It took us 13 years to be where we are,” he continues. “You have to work on the legitimacy, and convince the press and buyers that what you have is something unique: Métiers d’Art is doing very well. We are not just doing a show, we are selling. It’s important.”
In other words, the fantasy lingers — and the tills are alive.
Slideshow photographs: Benoit Peverelli