The magic of Chanel, perhaps the superbrand of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, is undeniable. So well known is it in all corners of the world, and so well understood its message of ultimate French luxury, that if you ever needed to introduce the concept of fashion to a visitor from outer space, the linked double Cs would be a natural starting point. Equally at home outfitting a female president at a military parade and adorning a communion of well-to-do ladies who lunch, Chanel is so central to the very idea of luxury that it has become impossible to imagine the business of fashion without it. Which other company in the world will ever see its inception mythologised in not one but two feature films that hit screens at the same time?
But to be Chanel, today, requires a great deal of hard work. The number of products in each category is mind-blowing: from couture dresses priced like an average four-bedroom home in England to stocking fillers such as keychains, from sunglasses to beauty products to costume jewellery, the list is long and the logo omnipresent, somehow without being common. On top of the effort, investment and imagination required to juggle all those balls, Chanel is also lucky enough to have been worn to bed by Marilyn Monroe, as the recent Christmas advertisements reminded us. Still, fame machines need maintenance, like any other.
A recent trip to Dallas, Texas offered an intriguing glimpse under the hood. The choice of destination may be surprising, but Chanel has historical ties to the city: in fact, it could be credited with having saved the house. In 1954, when Coco returned to designing after a hiatus of more than a decade, it was not to ringing endorsements from Parisian critics. But Neiman Marcus, the vast, legendary US department store that started in Dallas and served the wives, daughters and close friends of its oil executives and their newly burgeoning wallets, supported her and introduced her to the biggest market in the world. American women loved Chanel, and Dallas was delighted to have made the introduction. There is even a reconstruction of Coco’s summer house from the south of France in the Dallas Museum of Art. It is gorgeous, of course, and slightly eerie, as though she has just stepped out and is about to return.
The occasion for the trip was one of Chanel’s annual Métiers d’Art shows, which celebrate the specialist techniques that underpin its couture business. It is, in some ways, a surprising event. Why invest in showing your commitment to a form of production widely agreed to be in terminal decline? In the face of severe recession, while every other label is busy perfecting its virtual presence, Chanel does the opposite: it curates a massive, opulent live spectacle, a tribute to the traditional crafts that make the house’s level of creativity possible. While other brands invest in digital, Chanel is investing in digits, in the form of the highly trained and skilled hands that make its products. It both cements the house’s control of its supply and production, and secures its enviable position as the industry’s ultimate expert on craftsmanship.
Under the Paraffection umbrella, Chanel owns 11 of its key suppliers, including legendary embroiderers Lesage, gold- and silversmith Goossens, shoemaker Massaro, haberdasher Maison Michel, feather house Lemarié, button specialist Desrues and glovemakers Causse. All of them produce items for other couture houses as well as Chanel. After their acquisition by the house, many were moved into new, airy premises, offering better storage for their precious archives and improved lighting for the artisans who can spend hours creating floating, feathered confections or sewing on 4,000 buttons a day. The latest supplier to join the group is the Bodin-Joyeux tannery, which specialises in the plongé lambskin used for Chanel’s iconic quilted handbags – a key acquisition in light of ravenous global demand. When I ask Karl Lagerfeld, the house’s creative director since 1983, about it, he simply says: “When selling over a million handbags a year, you need a lot of skins.”
So what is it like when Chanel comes to town? Well, the city (or at least the prettiest and most iconic parts of it) is transformed with a generous application of fairy dust, just as a woman in Chanel becomes a glossier, more glamorous version of herself. For both devotees of the brand – there were more pilgrims in town than could ever be accommodated at the official events – and fashion hacks from all over the world, there was a Texan-inspired, Texas-sized fashion show, displaying craftsmanship as fine as any human mind could dream of. There was also the premiere of a Lagerfeld-directed, 30-minute film, The Return. “This is a real movie,” Lagerfeld told me. “It starts with a flop and ends with a triumph.” Geraldine Chaplin, daughter of Charlie, stars as Coco Chanel, her face lined with weary yet determined ambition. We are given DVDs the night before the screening, but Lagerfeld asks us to wait for the official preview: “It’s very different seeing it on the big screen.” I have to agree: never mind the screen itself, the premiere, in Dallas State Fair park, is set up as a drive-in cinema, with 74 vintage cars serving as our seats.
The idea behind such road shows is, like a Papal tour, to reassure the faithful, convert the doubting and gently evangelise to the community at large. It is symbolic, functional and instructional all at once. Does it have any commercial impact? No one knows, nor particularly cares. It is an especially graceful move from a commercial behemoth, the biggest in fashion by a wide margin, that never actually looks as if it is trying to sell you anything. Chanel may spend more per square foot of retail space than any other brand in its palatial Bond Street flagship, designed by the architect Peter Marino with no expense spared, yet the shop is also known to deliver the greatest income per square foot of any luxury fashion retailer.
Lagerfeld is absolutely crucial to this dominance. Since taking the helm, he has piloted the brand from an arguably dusty and lacklustre position, successfully mining its DNA to make a Chanel piece key to any successful woman’s wardrobe. Rather than the Pope, however, Lagerfeld is the Warhol of fashion: not merely the most prolific designer, with more collections than months in the year, he is also a couturier, illustrator, photographer, filmmaker, interior designer, publisher and erstwhile pop-philosopher. Like Andy’s, Karl’s aphorisms are legendary. Traded widely as Karlisms, they even have their own page on his website. “I am not interested in what I did, only in what I am doing”; “I never learned from anyone, only from my own mistakes”; “personality begins where comparison ends” – you get the picture. The Yoda of fashion is as wise as he is ageless. Again like Andy, Karl is an engine of creative hyperproduction and an acute observer of the here and now. The very perky 80-something has an unquenchable thirst for the new that would exhaust a 20-something hipster. The past tense does not exist for him: it’s always and only ever about the newest, latest, hottest.
Chanel is Lagerfeld’s fantasies made flesh. He says he “doesn’t do research” – rather, his creations bounce from brain to paper as sketches and are realised by the impressive machine that surrounds and supports him. His fashion family includes his long-standing muse Amanda Harlech, the shoe designer Laurence Dacade, the model Brad Koenig (whose two young sons are running around Dallas), the hairstylist Sam McKnight, the make-up artist Peter Philips and the artistic director of Maison Michel and head of jewellery and accessories at Chanel, Laetitia Crahay.
Lagerfeld is the eye of the storm: the energy, egos and hyperbole pulsate around him. He shows me the Lemarié feather work on a chiffon dress, which from afar and in the many runway photographs will merely look like a print: it is actually delicate pockets of feathers sewn into quilted, diamond tile patterns on lightweight fabric. But he has no time to wonder at the craftsmanship, as I do; within a breath he is placing the final touches on a model’s look for the show the next day:
“Put on the little gloves, let me see?”
“She needs a feather – add a feather to her hair.”
“She needs something on her neck! Try on the scarf!”
“Are there any more gloves around?”
“You look chic like this.”
“Are there some bracelets?”
“Can you move a little?”
“She’s perfect in that – maybe we’ll put on a belt,
just at the point where her hips meet the lace.”
Why and how would anyone attend to that level of detail when working on such an impossibly grand canvas? The answer is, simply, Chanel. The big picture is in such sharp relief because each tiny pixel is so perfectly and lovingly crafted. §