Pastoral symphony: Why style leaders can't resist a roll in the hay

This season fashion has turned to crochet knits, raffia trim, and floral prints to capture an unashamedly rustic mood. From Marie Antoinette to Karl Lagerfeld, Susannah Frankel explains why style leaders can't resist a roll in the hay

Cock-a-doodle doo! It takes quite some nerve to open a fashion show with this not entirely glamorous wake-up call – and Chanel's Karl Lagerfeld, who did just that, has it in spades.

Of course, the larger-than-life-size barn, its eaves decorated with garlands of ivy entwined with sweet meadow flowers, which took pride of place centre-stage at the Grand Palais for this label's spring/summer show in Paris last autumn, more than hinted at bucolic things to come. And so they did.

Raffia-trimmed dresses, mini-crinoline skirts, quite the finest chunky-heeled clogs, duly branded with wooden interlocking Cs, and models with tousled blonde chignons sprouting ears of wheat – yes, really – spoke of an upscale roll in the hay that might have made Marie Antoinette and her entourage frolicking in the gardens of Le Petit Trianon blush. The timing of such an extravagant gesture, meanwhile – it took place in the throes of what has since become known as the worst recession since Depression-era America – only added to its audacity. Let them eat cake indeed.

The great couturier has, in his time, been known to over-egg any grand-scale concept – his forthcoming autumn/winter collection of faux chubby furs and yetty boots with Perspex heels, shown against a backdrop of a monumental iceberg imported from Scandinavia if you please, was – only whisper it – arguably a case in point. This, though, was a rather more multi-layered and indeed compelling affair.

It's not news that much current fashion has seen designers in a frame of mind that is serious to the point of dour – a result of play-safe tactics in hard times, perhaps – but Chanel's current collection is nothing if not the antithesis of that. It is also in direct opposition to the Eighties-inspired status dressing that has held fashion in a body-conscious, power-shouldered stranglehold for too long. Whichever way one chooses to look at it, with the mighty Chanel couture heritage at his fingertips, there is surely no one better qualified than Lagerfeld to apply a light touch to the type of craft techniques that go hand-in-hand with an Elysian mood – from elaborate cane-work and basket-weave to hand-spun lace and crocheted poppy flowers.

The end result? A somewhat frayed-around-the-edges elegance which, naturally, takes all the house's signatures, from the Chanel suit to fluttering chiffon cocktail dresses, in its stride. Rustic references aplenty, meanwhile – here is every one in the book – bring to mind the best-dressed shepherdesses the world has ever seen.

Given the return of a more pragmatic mindset to the catwalk, with the emphasis firmly on a purity of design, Lagerfeld is not the only designer to find light – and lovely – relief in matters pastoral; not to mention a sense of whimsy that might not unreasonably be viewed as downright contrary. It is summer, after all. Any refuseniks presumably went against the grain safe in the knowledge that not every woman wants to dress in a pale and interesting jacket each and every day of her life, no matter how perfectly executed it may be.

And so, London wunderkind Christopher Kane offers fondant-coloured gingham dresses, finished with crystal, that speak of a young girl on the cusp of womanhood. Peter Jensen – more gingham here – has come up with the type of witty, pretty designs that more than hint at country life in the very marginally twisted manner that this designer knows only too well. Vivienne Westwood too has long been in love with the type of corseted, cotton sweet-nothing that is the preserve of the modern-day milkmaid – if there can be such a thing. The Harper's Bazaar stylist-turned-designer Melanie Ward's first collection features raffia bustiers and pyjama-striped trousers and skirts, meanwhile, and even Bottega Veneta – home to supremely understated metropolitan clothing – has come up with crisp white pinafore dresses with oversized pockets where otherwise panniers might be. Finally, printed strawberries, scattered across cool, white cotton dresses, puffed up like clouds, are equally unexpected at Yves Saint Laurent. We could all be for- given for wanting to skip across a cornfield in designs such as these. To surmise, then, it's safe to say that dressing for a picnic – designer style – has rarely seemed so appealing.

Not everything in this best of all possible worlds is as it seems, however.

There may be a heartfelt innocence (in the face of hard-earned experience?) to all of the above, but at least some designers have looked to nature in a less literal manner. Take Prada's virtual paradise of manipulated photographic prints of palm trees, parasols and lounging holidaymakers, drawn from images of a man-made resort in Japan, as just one example. Alexander McQueen's collection – which took as its starting point man's return to the seas with the help of highly sophisticated technological advancement – ultimately appears more other-worldly still. This was Darwin's theory of evolution reversed, giving rise to a strangely beautiful underwater alien dressed in pixilated floral and marine prints that are as brilliantly engineered as they are difficult to identity. At Balenciaga, Nicolas Ghesquière' s shots of lemon and lime in an otherwise dark and distressed colour palette, similarly, appear somewhat more vivid than Mother Nature ever intended. Natural fibres are here variously waxed, laminated, dyed and over-dyed to the point where they are barely recognisable.

Back at Chanel, though, and there was little quite so knowing to be seen. Instead, a wantonly excessive – and eye-wateringly expensive – joie de vivre was the story here. If the installation of the aforementioned barnyard into one of the French fashion capital's most feted landmarks weren't enough to be going along with, Lily Allen, in spangly Chanel, rose out of the floorboards 15 minutes in and sang live – think her own Cockney-fied take on country and western style with Chanel-clad model dancers alongside – and, as if that weren't enough, the proceedings finished with model bride Freja Beha Erichsen, groom Baptiste Giabiconi and Lara Stone romping in a haystack in suitably frisky a manner. Such a fashionable ménage à trois is unprecedented, in full public view at least.

"And yet, remarkably, the clothes never became a sideshow," said the American Vogue website, Style.com, in its review the morning after. "In a season where celebrities, concepts and a lot of forgettable mediocrity have got in the way of seeing why luxury fashion should merit the price, this was a Chanel triumph."

Praise indeed.

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