PARIS — They came for Karl Lagerfeld’s final Chanel show — his final grand act — in tweeds and pearls, camellias and diamanté double Cs. They came wearing Chanel sneakers and sci-fi silver Chanel bootees, Chanel belts and Chanel bags. Anna Wintour came in a long blush pink Chanel suit, and Janelle Monáe came in Egyptian-inspired multicolored sparkling kalasiri from the Temple of Dendur collection.
Chanel has always attracted more customers than perhaps any other show in the entire fashion season, and those loyalists and dedicated shoppers have always gloried in displaying their finery. But never has the space under the luminous glass dome of the Grand Palais seemed such a sea of bouclé.
And when they came, almost an hour before the 10:30 a.m. show was scheduled to start, they found a dozen Swiss wood chalets set high against a backdrop of towering mountains, some chimneys emitting puffs of smoke, all surrounded by drifts of snow burying the runway beneath. Chanel skis and poles jutted from little hillocks amid 50 gray/green firs and lampposts dusted in white. According to reports from inside the house, Mr. Lagerfeld knew he was dying when he planned this show along with Virginie Viard, his former right hand, now the heir to his mantle.
Chanel, fall 2019CreditValerio Mezzanotti for The New York Times
Together, they created a genuine moment of peace.
Then wind chimes began to play. After came a minute of silence, broken by the sounds of Mr. Lagerfeld’s voice over the sound system — his familiar staccato fast-forward torrent speech — whereupon down the steps of the Chalet Gardenia the models came. They were led by Cara Delevingne, one of Mr. Lagerfeld’s favorites.
They were wearing?
Voluminous soft tweed coats in black and white, and high-waisted pleated pants with room to stride, hands in pockets. Short legging-like knickers under skinny minidresses and matching cropped jackets for a narrower silhouette. Sweater dresses knit in three-dimensional Nordic patterns, No. 5s winked at within. Zip-up ski tops with crystalline patterns composed of actual crystals. Puffer jackets in primary shades (including bright purple). Shearling double-C fanny packs and snow boots. Snowflake hair jewelry.
Mist-like chiffon dresses were printed with tiny figures of skiers and CC chair lifts; tuxedos came in white duchess satin with an icy shine; and “snow-ball dresses” (so-named by the brand) of marabou and chiffon, the bodices embroidered in gold snowflakes. The actress Penélope Cruz walked in one, a white rose clutched in her hand. For the finale, David Bowie’s “Heroes” played.
Chanel: Fall 2019
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There were tears, in the audience and from many models. But it was not funeral. Nor was it retrospective. It was classic Chanel, the Lagerfeld way: merchandised, tongue-in-chic, replete with ideas, alternately delicate and clumpy, forward-looking and connected to the past. Almost cinematic in scale. Free of angst.
But, despite the standing ovation, no one came out to take a bow.
Nothing had changed — Chanel has been adamant that nothing will change; the team and Ms. Viard, who was given equal credit for the collection with Mr. Lagerfeld in the show notes, will work as always — and yet something had. On every chair was a packet (there was always a packet) with assorted photographs of looks in the collection and a reproduction of a sketch Mr. Lagerfeld had done once upon a time of himself, walking side by side with Coco Chanel. He was wearing black shades, ponytail and stiff white collar; she was in a camellia-trimmed hat and quilted bag. Over their heads was a scrawl reading, “The beat goes on.”
Just inevitably to a different tune.
How you preserve the guiding spirit of the house without the individual who defined it for so many years is the struggle for any brand that has lost its champion while still in situ (not after the designer decided to step down, or sell up). There are precedents for Chanel’s plan, however, and they are positive.
When Azzedine Alaïa died unexpectedly in November 2017, his company chose not to name any replacement designer (the general feeling being he was irreplaceable), but instead to mine his archives and sketches to keep the brand going in his image and with his vision.
Three seasons later and it has devolved an approach that takes the fabrics and forms of the past and iterates them forward: a butterfly print Mr. Alaïa created in 1991 (he used to love to watch the National Geographic channel while he worked into the night) transformed into a long, sheer lace gown; a double-breasted wool riding jacket from 1986 with a wide collar and a twisted peplum at the waist, almost as if a cardigan were tied behind, still uncompromising in its combination of rigor and sensuality; a python print melded seamlessly with a floral design in one of his classic knit dresses with wide funnel neck. A sweatshirt covered in hand-beaded swirls of blue and violet like the aurora borealis, inspired by a pattern once created in leather on a coat, still utterly current. Or maybe timeless.
Then there is Alexander McQueen. The brand’s founder committed suicide in 2010, and, as at Chanel, his longtime No. 2 was named to the helm. Almost 10 years later, Sarah Burton has slowly, subtly made the brand her own and moved it forward without ever repudiating or losing its connection to its founder. Instead she has sanded the edges, lightened the darkness, let some untamed romance in.
Used it to comment on the world with kindness.
This season she did so with special finesse. Working with the mills of her childhood communities in the north of England (her audience sat on enormous rolls of fabric brought in for the occasion and surprisingly comfortable; all the producers were credited in the show notes) — the kinds of businesses that could be under threat if and when Britain leaves the European Union — she celebrated their vocation and gave it transcendent form, demonstrating just how relevant these traditions and savoir-faire can be, and how much would be lost if they were left adrift.
Alexander McQueen: Fall 2019
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Exacting gray jackets with squared-off (but not exaggerated) shoulders — it is possible to convey power through cut, not pads — flowed down on one side like a waterfall to the knee, trimmed with “Made in England” selvage. Brontë heroine tea dresses in blurred watercolor rose prints on duchess satin were caught at the waist with a double-wrapped studded leather belt. Leather and satin were whorled into roses — the White Rose of York, the Red Rose of Lancaster — at the waist and upper arm.
A sheath was made of strips of knit studded with silver dressmaker snaps. Lace had within it an entire moor’s worth of wildlife: owls and cormorants, sea gulls and worker bees. The machinery of industry with its metallic gleams became a sheer tulle dress glinting with tiny silver chains and found treasures. Every choice had meaning.
It was a paean (a wearable one) to the England that was, an England of the mind and myth, an England that maybe could be, or perhaps will never be, again.
An acknowledgment that in this case, as in all these cases, we must bide our time in anticipation, waiting to find out what happens next.