Chanel Puts Art on the Runway
by laurie brookins
Karl Lagerfeld at the Grand Palais, which he transformed into a Chanel art gallery
Karl Lagerfeld may not have had Miami specifically in mind while planning his Spring/Summer 2014 show, but you would be hardpressed to pinpoint a collection better suited to the Magic City and its Basel-centric attitude. In October, Lagerfeld transformed the Belle Époque-era Grand Palais, traditionally the setting for the label’s shows, into a cavernous Chanel art gallery, its starkly white walls adorned with 75 contemporary-driven works inspired by the codes of the house. Each conceptualized by Lagerfeld, they called to mind artists ranging from Koons to Kandinsky, Duchamp to Warhol, from a robot featuring a torso erected out of a giant Chanel No. 5 bottle to an oversize and inverted 2.55 bag, its leather-laced chain spilling onto the floor. Fold in the red “sold” stickers on several pieces, the impossibly hip crowd, and Jay-Z’s “Picasso Baby” blaring from the soundtrack, and one easily could have mistaken the scene for early December in the Design District. Even, and especially, the unspooling of the collection itself, as fashion continues to play an increasing role on the Art Basel Miami Beach schedule.
Lagerfeld, of course, intertwined the marriage of art and fashion with his typical aplomb. “[Designers] want to be part of the art world, but the art world doesn’t want to be taken for fashion—but this is ridiculous, because art is also something in the zeitgeist,” he said after the show. “The only one who understood it was Andy Warhol, who really got the right idea that those things can very well live together. So my idea was to make a collection that could be right for a woman to go to an opening of different artists.”
A look from Chanel’s Spring/ Summer 2014 show
Such thoughts are indicative of a constant conversation at Chanel, how to seamlessly blend modernity and contemporary, street-influenced ideas with those iconic elements—pearls and camellias, quilted handbags and No. 5 bottles, to name a few—so closely associated with the house. Earlier this summer, the brand debuted another chapter in the dialogue, one equally artful to Lagerfeld’s more overt statement, and which also offers all the promise of spawning another icon within a language already rich with signatures.
Sous le Signe du Lion (“Under the Sign of the Lion”) is a 58-piece high-jewelry collection that explores Coco Chanel’s love of the animal, found in abundance in statues around her apartment above her atelier at 31 rue Cambon. “I was born under the sign of Leo,” she once explained (her birthdate was August 19, 1883). “I am a Leo and, like a lion, I use my claws to prevent people from doing me harm, but, believe me, I suffer more from scratching than from being scratched.”
Interior of the Chanel boutique at Bal Harbour
Sous le Signe is indeed a terrific example of the woman who inspired it, brilliant jewels in both look and technique. Two years in the making (a trio of capsule pieces appeared in last year’s commemorative 1932 high-jewelry collection), this latest inspiration sparked conversations that had never occurred in the Paris ateliers in which Chanel jewelry is crafted. “The lion’s face presented its own unique set of challenges,” explains Benjamin Comar, international director of Chanel Fine Jewelry. “If there were too many hard edges, his face became like RoboCop, very robotic-looking; too few edges, and there was no character to his face.”
Comar points to pieces such as the Lion Céleste brooch in white gold and diamonds, one paw perched on a globe, its open work allowing the sizable statement to still feel light and easy to wear—principles Chanel herself always demanded, he says. “Diamonds are not heavy; it’s how you work the metal that affects the weight of the piece,” Comar explains. The Lion Talisman group, meanwhile, combines several Chanel codes, with one look featuring the lion’s head crafted as a medallion mixed with golden, ivory, and Tahitian black pearls in a lengthy necklace that is nothing if not tactile, longing to be touched. And then there’s Lion Mosaique, which Comar calls “the other masterpiece.” Examine the seemingly abstract intricacies in the collar-like necklace, and you suddenly realize the lion’s head has emerged in relief from its center. Barbara Cirkva, president of Chanel’s fashion division, calls it “a technical wonder. It’s quite a bold statement, and yet so feminine and fragile. Coco Chanel said she loved to use diamonds because they represented the highest value in the smallest space.”
Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel wearing her lion jewelry in Paris, 1937
Cirkva points to Miami as a market that—no pun intended—continues to garner the lion’s share of the brand’s American focus: Its Bal Harbour boutique, which underwent an expansion and redesign earlier this year, consistently ranks among Chanel’s best performers in the US.
While the debate over the union of art and fashion wages on—you’re sure to encounter spirited discussions at a bevy of Basel parties this month—there’s little argument over the value of an icon to both a house and its fans. Might the lion be next in line for icon status? “Elements like the camellia or two-tone shoes have become synonymous with Chanel, but more than all of those, the lion was perhaps most personally connected to her,” Cirkva says. “We see this as an element that will work its way into the collection for many years to come.”
photography by pascal le segretain/getty images (lagerfeld); chanel (runway look, jewelry, boutique); roger shal/chanel (coco chanel)