Karl Lagerfeld on the crisis in luxury
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“It’s a mess.” Karl Lagerfeld’s verdict on the high-speed economy that has lately taken hold of the luxury industry is succinct. “It’s just powdering the something that people don’t want to see anyway, to make a statement. But the reality is you have to give people the time to make their choice, to order the clothes or handbags, and to produce them beautifully, so that editors can photograph them. This way is chaos.”
In truth, the Fendi ateliers have more than the capability to deliver goods to consumers at a pace the market might desire. Fendi has 210 worldwide outlets and the heft of LVMH ownership to make production happen. But Lagerfeld insists that the desire with which a purchase is made is still a closely nurtured thing in which media coverage, campaigns and dialogue are needed before the commodity reaches the cash till.
Which isn’t to say he doesn’t understand the drive to market. The designer is also creative director of Chanel, which delivers an “unseen” pre-collection in-store. This, he says, effectively “replicates the principles of ready-to-buy already”, in that it is unveiled and available at the same moment. He’s also developing a capsule range of 15 pieces for Chanel that will only be available online.
Fendi, which has recently moved to huge new headquarters in Milan and will show a second couture fur show in July, has harnessed the power of the brand to maximise capabilities. “Shops like Fendi can do it, but you have to sell to retail shops,” said Lagerfeld, “and they don’t know what to buy.” For companies that rely on wholesale, the system would spell disaster.
Nevertheless, Lagerfeld is excited by Italian fashion of late. “It has a new energy, don’t you think?” he said of the electric pulse that has shot through Milan in recent seasons. “And Fendi, which is booming, is very much part of that energy.”
Perhaps as a nod to this new electricity, his AW16 collection was inspired by “gravitational waves” all set in a blue and yellow spotted installation that could have recalled Alan Turing’s first computer, or at least a giant game of Connect Four.
His collection swam with waves: “Don’t call them ruffles because ruffles are done like this,” he said, sketching a half moon on a piece of paper. “You cut half moons and then you make them straight.” The waves rippled over every surface, down the arms of fluid silken dresses, over leather boots and across handbags, which were worn with giant studded straps in pastel colours, like the ellipses of a fashion morse code.
Bags were big, and colourful and furry, or midsized and covered with a patchwork of velvets and shaved furs. “I like things to be what they don’t at first seem,” he said of his complicated fabrications. Or else they were teeny-tiny weeny and decorated in pretty florals. Small bags are big business, but these were spectacularly mini. “Very cute, no?!” What kind of woman can carry such a trinket? “They carry a credit card, telephone and cash for the tip.” You know: that kind.
Lagerfeld had used the rich colour palette to punctuate a collection of darker apparel in sober colours: much of it navy and charcoal toned. Scientific frequencies aside, there was a new simplicity in its design. A quilted denim cape coat looked modern and easy. Day dresses were made to stride in, you’d need to make up time after strapping yourself into his extraordinary footwear.
The show closed with gorgeous golden jacquards woven with florals he had found in a book of Japanese botanic paintings from the 18th century. “Don’t ask me where I found it,” he said. “I don’t know but I find everything.”
It had real sensuality, too. “I prefer this to sexy,” said the designer. “So much more refined, and chicer.”
Luxury may be mess, but here was an oasis of calm sensibility and exceptional skill. After 50 years at Fendi, Lagerfeld still knows how to make waves.