A Chanel show under the reign of Karl Lagerfeld was always a famously spectacular affair. At one of his Chanel Metiers d’Art shows, that sense of wonder would be magnified multifold.
Introduced by the late designer in 2002, every one of this particular Chanel collection is based around and usually takes place in a far-flung destination connected to the historical French fashion house in some way. That it traditionally occurs in the festive month of December – a presentation independent of the industry’s fashion show schedule and unique to Chanel – only adds to the exoticism.
Held the night of Dec 5 last year, the latest – and what would be Lagerfeld’s last before his passing two months later – transported guests to Egypt by way of New York. In a press release, the Kaiser revealed that he had always been fascinated by civilisation in the Land Of The Nile.
Meanwhile, New York was where Gabrielle Chanel had often said she had made her fortune; its sportwear aesthetic resonated early with her vision of practical elegance. The result was not just sales, but a succession of honours including a place in the city’s Hall of Fame in 1931 and a decades-spanning relationship (the 1969 Broadway musical Coco; the first Metiers d’Art show in the Big Apple in 2005, followed by a Cruise show a year later).
This time, Lagerfeld found an uncanny meeting point for the two geographies in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Temple of Dendur exhibit – an Egyptian monument that dates back to around 15BC and gifted to the New York art institute in 1978. Flanked by a reflecting pool meant to recall the Nile, the eight-metre-tall sandstone shrine formed a dramatic backdrop to Lagerfeld’s parade of slender, plastron-collared skirt suits and glittering gowns inspired by the kalasiris, the form-fitting long sheath worn by ancient Egyptian women. Lashings of jewellery and the colour gold – on leather boater hats, knee-high boots and airbrushed onto models’ legs – gave a further nod to Cleopatra style.
At the same time – because this was all coming together in NYC after all – there were denim aviator jackets and pop coloured cashmere sweaters guaranteed to please the streetwear crowd. The graffiti artist Cyril Kongo created raucous prints that turned up not just on the show invite, but also jackets, bags and drop-waist dresses. Lagerfeld had long been hailed as one of fashion’s most ambitious dreamweavers and – true to his words, “(when) I get inspired by an idea, I make it a reality” – even the most disparate of influences seemed to be able to converge with a wave of his fingerless-gloved hands.
But the fantasy-made-real quality of a Chanel Metiers d’Art showcase doesn’t just lie in its designer’s creative imagination. The annual collection, which hits stores globally around the middle of the year, gets its name from the French term used to refer to ateliers specialising in a particular artisanal craft, with Chanel at present owning 23 of them.
Under a subsidiary company known as Paraffection, the luxury giant has been acquiring such workshops since 1985 with the purpose of preserving their time-honoured, hand-applied skills. Think millinery, embroidery and even pleating techniques as old as over a century, with all ateliers functioning independently and working with other brands in addition to Chanel.
For all its showmanship, the Chanel Metiers d’Art collection exists foremost to celebrate them (crash course on the eight Metiers d’art studios that played a key role in this collection below). What this means is that the garments and accessories are as fanciful in make as they are in concept.
The leather boots that anchored every look in the Egyptian-inspired Paris-New York 2019 Metiers d’Art show, for example, were cut, sculpted and assembled by the 125-year-old shoemaker Massaro. Serving the likes of the Duchess of Windsor and Marlene Dietrich, it’s also behind Chanel’s signature black-tipped beige shoes created in 1957.
The lustre of the collection came not just from the abundant use of gold, but also possibly the most elaborate ornamentation bestowed on a Metiers d’Art line in recent years. Decorations included showers of beads and sequins as well as rainbow-hued glass casts, all laboriously hand-selected and attached onto the finale gowns by the embroidery houses of Lesage and Montex, aged 161 and 70 years old respectively.
The plumassier Lemarie – founded in 1880 and also the maker of Chanel’s iconic camellia – reinterpreted Egyptian paintings into graphic motifs on collars or full bodices with feather marquetry in gleaming shades of red, black and lapis lazuli blue. So meticulous is the workmanship that the plumed texture is only visible up-close.
Of Chanel’s Metiers d’Art collections, the late Lagerfeld said: “It is made in a very artisanal way in the best sense of the word because in artisanal, there is art – the art of doing it well… I think the image of this collection is very much down to this (sort of) refinement, which should be seen close up – almost touched – to understand how it is done and to really appreciate the beauty of this work.” When the trained human hand makes flights of fancy possible – that’s what makes fashion truly spectacular.
Below, eight ateliers that helped put the fancy (and fantasy) into Chanel’s latest Metiers d’Art collection.