The Chanel designer seemed to have taken inspiration from Lewis Carroll as he showed off his new Paris-Bombay range.
With his snow-white hair, high-dandy dress sense and penchant for eccentric, provocative soundbites, Karl Lagerfeld is a Lewis Carroll character come to life. Or rather, several Lewis Carroll characters come to life. On Tuesday afternoon in Paris, at a long table laid for high tea with a maharaja around which the world’s most expensive and expensively dressed models paraded in his latest collection, he cast himself as the Queen of Hearts, pronouncing himself inspired by India because “even the poor have dignity there”. With Wonderland logic, he explained that this was evidenced by the fact that in India “even poor women own three gold bracelets”.
Even by his prolific standards, this week was a vintage one for Lagerfeldisms. The designer delighted in telling the reporters who filed backstage after the Paris-Bombay collection that he had never actually been to India. “Fantasy is often better than reality,” he explained. “It’s much more inspiring not to go to places than to go.” A sentiment with which the Mad Hatter would probably agree.
Entitled Paris-Bombay, the collection was steeped in an Indian aesthetic: pearl-beaded Nehru-collared jackets were layered over sari-draped dresses and slim leather churidar trousers, while ornate headpieces dipped diamonds between the models’ heavily kohled eyes. The use of Bombay rather than Mumbai was deliberate: Lagerfeld’s India is of an era where the glamour is imperial, rather than Bollywood. One of his references was a palace designed by the German architect Eckart Muthesius in the 1930s for the maharaja of Indore, which combined modernist furniture by Corbusier and Eileen Gray with traditional Indian pieces.
The clothes are certainly not for the hoi polloi. (Not even the ones with bracelets and dignity.) Prices will make the pricetags in Chanel’s Bond Street boutique look cheap, since this collection is part of the Metiers d’Arts series, which showcases the craftmanship of the couture ateliers which Chanel now owns. The lavish, intricate hand embroidery of these clothes is as eyewateringly expensive as it is mouthwateringly lovely.
Indian reaction to the show was mixed. “Indian fashion can finally claim to have arrived on the international scene, especially when fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld pays an ode to desi styles and trends,” enthused India Today. The Hindustan Times took a rather more acid view of Lagerfeld’s homage, noting that if the intention is to woo an Indian customer, “subtle marketing is clearly not Chanel uber designer Karl Lagerfeld’s strong point”. For while the setting was historical, the reason behind the spotlight on India is very much rooted in the present. Bruno Pavlovsky, Chanel’s president of fashion, describes India as “a strong opportunity for the future”. It could be argued that the inspiration for other recent Metiers D’Arts collections – Paris-Shanghai and Paris-Moscow – seems to have drawn on economic impulses as well as aesthetic ones.
Twenty-four hours later, Lagerfeld had returned from his imperial rabbit hole to the 21st century, announcing to the Le Web conference in Paris an audacious bid to “make history in fashion and technology”. Next month, just one day after the Chanel haute couture fashion show, he will launch a new lower-priced line named Karl. It will be the first online-only launch of a major fashion brand, debuting exclusively at net-a-porter.com before going on sale on karllagerfeld.com. The launch of a collection where a jacket will cost £200 during the same week as haute couture – where a Lagerfeld-designed jacket costs £50,000 – is, of course, deliberately provocative. But Lagerfeld sees a connection between haute couture and online fashion, in that both are devices by which designers showcase their clothes direct to the customer without mediation by journalists or buyers.
Lagerfeld, with his high-camp-meets-black-tie dress sense, makes an unlikely Apple geek. However, despite the fact that he is a “paper freak” who does not use email and has a personal library of around 300,000 books, he owns four iPhones, “20 or 30” iPads which he uses as diaries and sketchbooks and “hundreds” of iPods. Onstage at Le Web, he unzipped his manbag to reveal what he carries around during a typical day: one iPad, several iPods and all four iPhones.
At times, it is hard to know which version of Karl Lagerfeld is the real thing: sharp-eyed businessman of the digital age, or picturesque refugee from the belle epoque. It is a mystery he enjoys. Backstage after the Paris-Bombay show, a reporter questioned his decision to take inspiration from an India that exists in an imaginary past, rather than visit the real India. “I’m against reality,” he replied. Lewis Carroll would have been proud.