Saturday, March 3, 2007

Chanel confessions: Karl loves a ballbreaker, Anna downplays her glam

I'm backstage at the Grand Palais just off the Champs Elysees. It's 9.30am and a half hour to the Chanel show - in fact the first of what will be two Chanel shows this season.

It's the first time in fact that Chanel has split its ready-to-wear show into two - due in part to the fact that the staging is little more intimate, I am told, this season.

But due no doubt also in part to the ever-expanding interest in this privately-owned French luxury powerhouse whose sales are estimated to be US$3.3billion. At Chanel's creative helm is of course the seemingly indefatigable and eternally youthful, septuaganarian German designer Karl Lagerfeld.

People are everywhere and it's difficult to move.

There's Gemma Ward having a mascara touchup. There's Iekelienne having more pink blush applied.

There's another model having her hair crimped to resemble merino wool [oops!]. She is reading a Swedish celebrity tabloid called Aftonbladet. There's a table covered in small plastic bags. Inside each bag is a polaroid of a model and I can see one shot of Australian Catherine McNeil - who is, yes, all over these big shows - with her hair combed over her face. Maybe it's a styling idea that got canned. I say that because over on the other side of the room, Raquel Zimmermann sits with what appears to be the finished look: crimped hair that has been brushed out for a shaggy effect, but definitely off the face, with pale makeup and heavily-pencilled uberbrows.

A couple of models are tucking into little bowls of chocolate cocopop things. It looks like they're eating brown polystyrene chips. Good to see that there at least is food here. Last night backstage before YSL Iekelienne was complaining that she was starving but that all the food had gone. Outside in the foyer a humungous refectory table is laid out with food. From the requisite croissants to yoghurt and fruit platters, are also platters of cheese and bowls of pickled onions. Pickled onions for breakfast?

I walk back into the main backstage area and it's all happening. Not the show - just the backstage power posse.

Directly in front of me are Chanel owners, the brothers Alain and Gerard Wertheimer, as well as Chanel president Francoise Montenay. All three seem to be exactly the same height - and come up to my ear. Anna Wintour is also there. The devil's not wearing Prada today but is a shimmering bronze vision in what I am reliably informed is a sable-trimmed, pearl-embellished Chanel haute couture cocktail suit.

The umpteenth Coco's Cabasse wafts past me. Quite seriously, if I see another of these bags, I may puke. A black patent vinyl tote with chain handle, this bag is the "must take" bag of AW0708 [see the "To the Manor bought" blog entry from the SS07 Fashion Season about the Burberry Manor bag] - gifted by Chanel to any fashion editors and journalists who aren't bound by ethics policies at their respective publications. And no doubt also a few who are. It has been everywhere this season. In Australia it retails for $2,100. Unlike the editors of course, you'll have to pay for it.

It's now 10.00am and I'm out front near the stage. There's an entire ice skating rink installation in the centre of the room, with fake 'ice' and snow. Suspended between the rink and the Grand Palais' magnificent domed glass ceilings are a series of 'clouds' fashioned from what looks like scrunched white gauze. Wintour and her hilariously camp offsider Andre Leon Talley hold court front row on one side of the skating rink.

I have been in Wintour's proximity on many occasions this season. For some reason this seems like an appropriate moment to approach her. I move in.

Now I have no idea whether Meryl Streep ever got to met Wintour in person prior to doing The Devil Wears Prada. But having now spoken to Wintour in person briefly, I should say that the withering tone so frequently adopted by Streep's Miranda Priestley character [which is supposed to be based on Wintour] is not too far from the real thing.

Although for the most part quite gracious and enthusiastic, Wintour adopts a withering tone twice. As she 'withers' curiously, she turns her head to one side - as if to express her utter disdain at the questions and to register that that is the end of the matter. On both occasions her British accent also seems crisper than usual. Perhaps she is simply embarrassed.

What is the secret do you think to the enduring appeal of Chanel?
Wintour: Well I think the enduring appeal of Chanel is all to do with Karl Lagerfeld who is this extraordinary human being in that he has such an open mind, surrounds himself with interesting people, he knows and loves culture of all kinds, popular, classical.... and I think it's all reflected in his collections. I mean without Karl, Chanel you know, would not be what it is today.

And he is an interesting case study in himself in that so many of his contemporaries have either retired or have lost their touch. He manages to stay hip.
Karl is eternally young. And he's interested in the future. What he always says to me the minute that a collection is over is, 'It's over'. He goes on to the next and I think that's a great strength.

Did The Devil Wears Prada have much of an impact on you?
Ah..... [withering, lowers voice] not at all.

In terms surely of fashion in film and on television now with that film and programs such as Project Runway you have to admit that fashion is everywhere?
Sure, I mean you know anything that celebrates fashion, whatever it may be, a movie, a television show, a book, online.... you know and I think one of the things that has interested me in the last three years is that so many of the designers are interested in doing small collections for people like H&M and Target. It just means that fashion is available on every level, whether it's the media or at different prices so that's great for the industry.

But there appears to be so much more interest in fashion now. Obviously everyone in the fashion world knows who Anna Wintour is however TDWP no doubt introduced you to a number of people who may not have been familiar with your name.
Well I think it's great for fashion and Amy [Astley] who is the editor of Teen Vogue gave a party just a couple of weeks ago for a young woman named Maria Sharapova, the tennis player. I was amazed at her knowledge of young designers, that she knew designers like Rodarte and Thakoon and I think that's because there is so much more coverage and interest in fashion than there ever has been. And so much more exposure on all levels. So I embrace that.

Do you think it's harder for young designers today to survive?
Well it's always been hard but I think talent always rises to the top.

Yes however they are obviously facing different challenges today.
Yeah but the good ones find partners, they find investment and they find a customer.

What is your definition of glamour?
[Laughs] My daughter.

Do you think you're the most glamorous woman in the world?
[Full wither, lowers voice] Of course not.

It's showtime and the models emerge onto the rink. It's a short, sharp show with plenty of the trademark Chanel glamour tweeds.

This season, any Chanel otaku will no doubt be thrilled to learn that they can kit themself out in Chanel tweed from top to toe - thanks to Lagerfeld's cute effort at, as he later explains, creating "endless" legs via matching tweed boots.

The back of Chanel's new season boot is fastened down the back of the leg with buckles and flaps. It's a kind of glam biker-meets-gladiator look.

The signature Chanel black and white is thrown out the window via a plethora of brightly-coloured tweeds and a series of shirtdresses with long tabard shirttails in bold colours such as turquoise.

The silhouette is long, waists are high and the eveningwear includes cocktail dresses in acid yellow and turquoise, some smart sequinned pencil skirts in silver or gold, teamed with graphic black/white tunic tops and slick strapless bustier dresses worn over skinny pants.

Add to that, some brightly-coloured enamel jewellery and yet more covetable Chanel boots - one pair in the trademark tan reach just over the knee, with a low, square heel and black 'racing stripe' down the outside of the leg.

After the show I run over to join the media scrum waiting for some Lagerfeld comments.

Although this scenario is played out at the end of every major international fashion show, the Chanel scrums always seem bigger than most. But at least they are civilised. Approximately 30 people have swarmed around Lagerfeld and we are packed so tightly together I believe I can feel the pelvis of the Asian woman standing directly behind me sticking into my back.

I am virtually piggybacking one security guard who is trying to shield Lagerfeld from the throng - and an Italian reporter has her arm around his neck trying to keep her balance on the rows of seating between which we find ourselves precariously perched. It occurs to me that you would never be this intimate with total strangers in any other situation.

Lagerfeld is wearing a black woollen peacoat, black pants, a black sweater with white ribbed turtleneck, burgundy Dior Homme sunglasses and silver Chanel mittens with silver discs on the knuckles.

Standing directly behind him at one point I can confirm that he does indeed powder his white ponytail - because I can see the white powder on his black ponytail elastic.

Making his hair whiter than usual is some 'snow' which fell from the clouds at the end of the show. It looks like chunky dandruff. With the white turtleneck, Lagerfeld also looks a bit like a priest - in the process of ministering to his congregation.

Someone moves out and I decide to carpe Karl.

As I flick out my tape recorder, he reaches out and grabs and holds my forearm for the duration of my questions. There is something sweet about it and I am secretly hoping that he doesn't remember that this time last week in Milan, after Fendi, I asked for his thoughts on anal electrocution.

The boots with the straps at the back - they looked like biker boots.
Lagerfeld: We called them spat boots, you know. It was the idea. Because you know if not they have the leg in some street maybe a little warm...

So are they a boot or a spat/gaiter?
No they are boots. Because it wouldn't fit well if it was added later.

We are seeing a lot of 'tough chic' on the runways, first in Milan and now also in Paris. What do you think about the whole idea of tough chic?
Because you know, I like women to be a little bit aggressive.

Yes, I think it's a good thing. Why not? Because if they're not aggressive, the men try to be aggressive [to] them so everybody can be aggressive. But in a nice way - because to be aggressive is sharp, huh?

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