“This is like art!” is a comment that has popped up on this blog more times than I care to remember. I am after all, the blogger who sniffs out designers, who can make garments out of balloons (paraphrasing something that Amy Odell wrote on Twitter). However it’s not necessarily a phrase I’m personally prone to using when writing. To liken fashion to art is problematic for me in such that it a) suggests that fashion is not as lofty or as worthy an art form in comparison to fine art and b) that fashion has been rendered unwearable and intangible and that it can only be appreciated on a mannequin and behind glass walls in a museum.
In a season when the two fields – art and fashion – have come into cahoots with each other in ways that are more direct and in some cases deliberately literal than ever before, it’s time to re-examine that phrase. In particular, Karl Lagerfeld confronted it heads on at the Chanel show. Art isn’t always the lofty and idealistic goody two-shoes elder sister that people often think it is and by comparison, fashion shouldn’t be pitted as the less noble, shallow wayward baby sister. Case in point, Lagerfeld built himself an art gallery at the Grand Palais, filled with artworks that were faux but convincing at the same time, as they adopted tropes of familiar contemporary art. If they were transported out of their fashion show context and into the Gagosian Gallery or Haunch of Venison gallery, you would be none the wiser that they were all conjured up out of Lagerfeld’s set design head.
As guests filed in, the #Chanel selfie rampage began. I saw one particular Chinese girl attempt to have her picture taken with every piece of artwork dotted around the cavernous space, as though it were a theme park to ratch up bonus points, by seeing as many artworks as possible. Well, it was of sorts. Some draped their bodies across some of the larger pieces such as the double CC’s sculpture in the corner. I thought someone might start twerking in front of the giant Chanel No. 5 bottle in a bid to get the best #Chanel selfie out there. Art for Lagerfeld, particularly in its contemporary form was a commodity, ready to be sold and consumed, much like everything the house of Chanel produces.
Lagerfeld makes no bones about the symbiotic relationship between commerce and fashion. There was no hoity toity collaboration between Chanel and an artist. Nor were there even artist references that would send journalists to Artcylopedia. He simply looked at art as a thematic subject matter, as a field and and occupation to mine for surface-driven inspiration. So there were flecks of vivid paint around the eyes created by Peter Phillips, socks that bunched up around the ankles, scuffed up and scrawled over backpacks, quilted portfolios and necklaces that resembled pearl-ear headphones for a gang that might have attended an imaginary Central Saint Chanel school. The super rich of this world might actually send their kids to art schools (that only they can afford perhaps given the rise of school fees and reliance on international students) trussed up in this collection.
That didn’t stop the rest of us from yearning for the lot of it for surface’s sake and that’s what Lagerfeld proposed for us to do instead of faffing around with analysis. I’d venture to say that this was one of the best Chanel collections I’ve personally ever seen from a wearing standpoint. More often than not, spectacle takes over the substance of the clothing at a Chanel show, especially in the scale of Grand Palais, where details are easily lost. I’ll come out of a Chanel show having seen the collection but feeling like I need to go on Style.com just to have another visual reminder of the actual clothes. Here, I remembered pretty much everything. The silhouettes, the accessories, the attitude, the fabrics (in particular, the ever techy-tweed flecked with translucent pink pvc) and memorable print motif in the form of watercolour paint swatches, that was sometimes pleated or woven from silk strips. The focus on that one motif towards the end of the show felt fresh for Chanel.
Like I said, when you liken fashion to art, the subtext is that you would prefer to keep said garments at arm’s length. Karl Lagerfeld has excelled at creating things with a desirability factor that means you instantly want to touch and feel what he’s done. These are clothes made to be worn and for those fortunate to be able to afford it, they will fly off the rails. You could say he’s got it down to a fine art.