When showing in the Grand Palaisa soaring dome of a space capable of dwarfing an enormous audience and miniaturizing any runwayKarl Lagerfeld needs to exaggerate to make his theme carry. Thus, a 50-foot set is craned in to announce the season's keynote: in this case, a vast multilevel stack of steel-gray tubes, suggesting organ pipes.
What proceeded, inevitably enough, was a virtuoso fugue in tubular cutting, played up, down, and across every possible scale in Chanel's suiting, embroideries, chiffon, and eveningwear. From the beginning, the clothes took on curvilinear volumes, starting with gray-flecked, cocoonlike car coats over short skirts and trompe l'oeil tweed "suits" with belled skirts, which on closer inspection were actually one-piece coat-dresses. Lagerfeld's irrepressible facility for quick-fire free association in design ideas led to dozens of three-dimensional devices thereafter: huge bunchy cap sleeves, cartridge rolls of material encircling waists or hobbling hemlines, deep scrolls of fabric standing out from skirts, and spaghettilike fringing flying from shoulders.
The general impression was of a collection that had changed key from last season's girlishness to something tuned more to a winter-weight, grown-up frequency. Still, the delight was all in the more light-fingered treatments: delicate fronds of ostrich fringe on a micro-beaded suit, or silvery zigzag embroidery on an intensely sequined belted dress. Couture at this supreme level only gets more incredible the closer you get to it. The frustration is that, paraded at such a distance, the astonishing skill involved in creating these effects is incapable of being picked up by the naked eye. There is, of course, a sense of occasion and anticipation in being invited to sit in the Chanel grandstand, but the genius of Karl Lagerfeld and the unique ateliers of the Rue Cambon might be far better appreciated in close-up.