Why hire an 18th-century salon complete with flower-festooned garden when you can build one yourself? That is what Karl Lagerfeld chose to do at the Grand Palais for the Chanel haute couture show in Paris yesterday. Guests walked on a grey carpet – so much smarter than a red one – flanked by potted camellias, famously Coco Chanel's favourite flower, and took their seats around little white tables on wicker chairs.
And what of the clothes? More than anyone else in the French capital, M Lagerfeld knows how to showcase the workmanship of the petites mains that staff the specialist ateliers responsible for haute couture's execution. This was spell-binding – from feathered angel wings finishing languid gowns to tiny strips of fragile organza applied to more dresses, every one massaged by hand until edges were frayed just so.
It all started, as always, with the boucle wool suit that is this house's most well-known signature. It was almost chubby this time, warm but clearly light as a feather, in gentle shades of pink and grey, shot through with sparkle and with glittering jewelled buttons. Should the Chanel couture customer want a bag to match, the new clutch, so soft and plump one could cuddle it, comes with a chain handle so that no one can snatch it.
There was nothing uptight about this collection. Instead, kaftans, sweaters and even a proudly utilitarian all-in-one, only densely covered in sequins coloured cornflower blue and bright rose, were the ultimate demonstration of the luxury of not caring. The woman who wears these clothes is as relaxed in her highly exclusive wardrobe as the rest of us might be in jeans and T-shirt. For the more conservative customer, there were coats that nodded to the mid-20th century haute couture silhouette that M Lagerfeld understands well. He was there the first time, after all. Any vintage appeal was modernised, not least by accessories including painted pewter leather gauntlets and silk slippers with suitably ferocious metal toe-caps and heels.
Chanel's haute couture business is not just for show. Such unique pieces may only sell in small numbers but they are vital to the maintenance of this elevated craft form nonetheless. To demonstrate its commitment to the skills of the workshops in question, some of which are staffed by seamstresses who trained under Mlle Chanel herself, 10 years ago the company she founded bought seven of Paris's leading ateliers including Lesage (embroidery), Goossens (goldsmiths), Lemarié (flowers), Guillet (feathers), Massaro (bespoke footwear), Desrues (costume jewellery) and Michel (millinery) with a view to expanding their businesses. Since then, these have not only provided a service to Chanel but also to high-end ready-to-wear labels including Lanvin, Balenciaga and Louis Vuitton among others, all of whom call on their expertise for more elaborate designs.
But nobody does it like Chanel. As ever to end the haute couture presentation, M Lagerfeld took his bows with the bride, who couldn't have looked more romantic in over-blown gown fluttering with pure white marabou.