Karl Lagerfeld has never been to India. "It's much more inspiring not to go to places than to go," he said today after a Chanel presentation that spectacularly evoked the sights, smells, and sounds of the last days of the Raj. OK, Michel Gaubert's sitar-free soundtrack might have been a stretch (unless the Raj was rocking to David Lynch's new album), but the towering tiers of fruits, sweets, and flowers that filled the center of the room definitely had a sense of palatial excess. They were circled by a toy train bearing decanters of…what was it that maharajas drank? scotch?…which rang true as a decadent detail, conveying the notion of a privileged few playing while empires crumbled. Sound familiar?
Lagerfeld resisted such topical insinuations, but he did concede that fashion historically tends to come into its excessively creative own during difficult economic times. A perfect moment for him, in other words. And this collection, an annual salute to the work of the craftspeople who make Chanel happen, including the recently passed François Lesage (hence the name, Métiers d'Art), was definitely a feat of creative excess, from the jaw-dropping set, which turned a curved space under the dome of the Grand Palais into a corner of Rajasthan, to the clotted silver embroideries, the gilded laces, the lustrous silks that determined the character of the clothes.
It's easy to imagine a canny designer making the decision to aim such shine and glitter at an emergent market feeling its fashion oats (I'm talking about India, BTW), but Lagerfeld's post-show declaration that bling was dated made it clear that he had something else on his mind. The theme "Paris-Bombay" was a reminder that Europe's fashion industry has increasingly turned to India to produce extravagantly handworked pieces as it has become prohibitively expensive to make them at home. Lagerfeld's fiendish plan was to flip the equation, so that everything that looked intricately Indian was actually made by Chanel's ateliers in Paris. That was some kind of tour de force.
All that aside, Paris and Bombay blended beautifully in pearl-swagged tweeds, in a raw silk tunic over leggings (they were actually sinuously bootlike, so we should probably call them beggings or loots), in sheer paisleys, or side-draped asymmetry in ivory silk. The elegance of a lightly peplumed jacket and matching skirt in ivory silk had absolutely nothing to do with geography. It was simply French chic. Not everything worked—there was a queen-of-the-fairies moment that felt like a malfunction of Florence's machine—but the sheer prodigious extravagance of the dream world that Lagerfeld pours onto his catwalk collection after collection allows for the flaw—the merest flaw—once in a while.