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July 30 2014

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Before Chanel Cruise, A Catch-Up With Coco

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The Karl caravan has arrived in Singapore. Lagerfeld and forty-seven models are set up at the city’s famous Raffles Hotel, the gorgeous nineteenth-century English-colonial hotel, with enough hardworking dressers, stylists, and global PR reps attending them to put you in mind of a postcolonial Downton Abbey. Today, they’ll put on Chanel’s Cruise show. But last night, it was a party for a prelude: a pair of short films, screened alfresco in the hotel courtyard, beside which Maugham and Hemingway sat in the Long Bar, sipping Singapore Slings.

Leave it to Lagerfeld to make not one, but two films. The preview and the movie: They just go together, he explained. So Women Only featured a raft of his favorite girls—Kati, Cara, Lindsey, Lina, Xiao Wen, Soo Joo, et al., all clad in Chanel Pre-Fall—piling into a movie theater for the debut of a new film. Then the film within the film: Naturally, it’s a little number by Lagerfeld. Once Upon a Time… takes us back a century, to the opening of Gabrielle Chanel’s shop in the French resort town of Deauville. It opens with a scene of two servant girls impugning the name of Chanel. “Who is Gabrielle Chanel?” they wonder as they wander past her shop. “I don’t know, but she has no taste.”

But he who laughs last laughs best. Business starts out slow for Coco Chanel (Keira Knightley, absent from this Singaporean affair, on her honeymoon) and her partner/confidante Aunt Adrienne (Clotilde Hesme), but the crème de la crème of Riviera society eventually come swishing through her door. That Chanel girl, the consensus eventually runs, she’s really got something.

So does her latter-day inheritor, Karl Lagerfeld. “I did everything,” Lagerfeld said after the applause had died down. “I designed the set, I made the costumes, I made the characters, I made the dialogue. I make everything—otherwise, I’m not interested. I could never work with somebody who makes the dialogue, because I want them to talk the way I’m thinking.” He built a town from scratch—the whole thing was shot at a Paris film studio—and assembled a cast of thousands. (Well, 160 extras, at least; but as Hesme laughed, “I think the budget is much larger than the film I did before.”) And he bravely tossed the book out and shot without a script, calling out lines just before takes and encouraging his actresses to improvise. A task like that separates the wheat from the chaff. And who knows, some stars may have been born. Lagerfeld saved special mention for Ashleigh Good, who played the Swedish actress Jacqueline Forzane, and he wasn’t the only one. “Keira was impressed by Ashleigh,” he said gravely. As for others—well, the catwalk is a fine consolation.

Lagerfeld is as new to filmmaking as many of his actresses, but Karl’s gals—out in force tonight to celebrate—were full of praise for their fledgling director. “It was great fun—it was a giant playground,” said Stella Tennant, fresh into town from the Met Gala, who played Lady de Grey, Oscar Wilde’s patroness. “He’s very fresh,” added Caroline de Maigret, who played the towering Russian ballerina Ida Rubinstein. (Lagerfeld made her even more towering by dismissing all but the shortest extras for her scene.) “He’s very enthusiastic, excited. He’s laughing, ‘Ah, brilliant, brilliant!’

“He gets excited by everything he doesn’t know,” she declared, stubbing out her cigarette—usually a hot-button issue in law-abiding Singapore, but Karl’s night, Karl’s rules. “That’s his power. That’s what drives him, the unknown.”

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