I doubt that anyone arriving at the Grand Palais this morning for the last Chanel show Karl Lagerfeld worked on before his death two weeks ago knew what to expect. Would it be sad? Emotional? After all, great couturiers are few and far between, and their passing has tended to happen off stage — after retirement, as it did for Cristóbal Balenciaga and Yves Saint Laurent — and not in the middle of the fashion-show season. As it turned out, Chanel got the tone just right.
But then, there has never been a couturier like Lagerfeld, who played the role to the hilt, not only in the way that he styled his image — the “Kaiser,” with the ponytail that he used to powder and then let go white, the dark glasses, the high-collared shirts and slim suits, the antique stick pins, the hands covered in rings or fingerless gloves — but also in his funny and sometimes brutal comments. The French public generally adored him. That has been evident from the flower memorials at the entrance to the Chanel haute-couture salon, in a window at the Galignani bookstore, and smaller, random displays this past week around Paris. Outside the Grand Palais today, I saw young and old people holding photos of him as they leaned against the police barricades. Paris has been too long the capital of fashion for even its ordinary citizens not to know that his death marks the end of a significant chapter.
I arrived at the Grand Palais early, like a lot of guests. The set was an alpine village, Gstaad in miniature, with wooden chalets covered by a foot or so of fluffy movie snow, and the whole thing set against a blue-sky panorama of the Swiss alps. There were people I wanted to see and I quickly found them — friends in the Paris and U.S. Chanel press offices; Lagerfeld’s longtime butler, Frederick; his dedicated assistant and security man, Sébastien Jondeau; and Alain Wertheimer, whose family has owned Chanel since the 1950s and who hired Lagerfeld in 1983. For me it was a way, a small way, of paying respects and circling back to a man who was a big part of my Paris life.
At roughly 11, the show began with a tinkling of bells and the first models stepping out of “Chalet Gardenia” and gathering in front. Then someone on the P.A. system requested a moment of silence — I noticed almost everyone actually put down their phones — and after a minute or so, there was a recording of Lagerfeld talking in French about how nobody had taken over a brand like Chanel when he did it in 1983. It ended with the words, “like walking in a painting,” which is apparently the way England’s Queen Mother once described Lagerfeld’s gardens in Brittany to him when she came over for tea. Lagerfeld often said that the ideas for his collections came to him in dreams. Given that Chanel has created extravagant sets around rocket ships and Paris monuments in recent years, it’s surely meaningful that some of the last backdrops that Lagerfeld conceived were based on the seasons.
And now we were in the stillness of a wintry landscape, accentuated by the serene Philip Glass soundtrack. The clothes, which he had worked on with his studio chief (and now successor), Virginie Viard, were both classic Chanel and relevant — with wide-leg, exaggerated houndstooth trousers and jackets; sweeping coats in black-and-white windowpane check; dirndl skirts; fleece ski boots; cheerful knits with puffer jackets; some beautiful long black capes; and a finale of white embroidered snowball dresses, including one worn by the actress Penélope Cruz, who is the latest Chanel “brand ambassador.”
I imagine that, as the models and Cruz were walking the length of the Grand Palais, people in the audience — Jondeau, the Wertheimers, Chanel staff members, Anna Wintour, Claudia Schiffer, journalists — were thinking their own thoughts of Lagerfeld. Thousands of thoughts silently going around the room and, perhaps, connecting.
There were not many tears until the end, when the models, led by Cara Delevingne, swept back out in a group to Bowie’s “Heroes.” At which point the audience stood and applauded. They continued in that vein for several minutes, even after the runway was empty.
I thought it was all handled well by Chanel: solemn but not maudlin, respectful but also mindful. As KL himself noted on a sketch of himself and Coco Chanel that was included in the press folder of collection images: “The beat goes on…”