Fashion: Who's wearing Chanel at the Sorbonne?: Billed as a debate, Karl Lagerfeld's show at the Paris university became audience manipulation

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ON Tuesday, the designer Karl Lagerfeld became the subject of a debate at the Sorbonne, the highest seat of learning in France, writes Marion Hume.

Lagerfeld's debate, a quasi-open question-and-answer session to reveal 'the true face of this fascinating individual . . . thereby providing us with a better idea of this intriguing man and his passions', was held up by a student protest. Outside, students clashed with baton-wielding police as those with invitations (some students and journalists, plus plenty of women carrying Chanel bags) pushed their way inside. There, Carole Bouquet, the actress and 'face' of Chanel No 5 perfume, invited a few of the students on to the podium to voice their disaffection.

In the ensuing two hours of debate, Lagerfeld demonstrated a chilling power to deflect any inquiries that called into question his frequent use of status logos, his adoration of supermodels and, indeed, his role in culture.

Unscheduled questions got short shrift until, just when the going looked like it might get tough, Lagerfeld played his trump card. Claudia Schiffer, supermodel and Chanel catwalk star, walked on stage wearing a second-skin jumpsuit and sky-high heels. The debate changed into a bizarre Q&A session about Claudia's modelling career and whether she wanted to become a movie actress.

The model's golden appearance was enough to quell some dissatisfaction: 'I am too shy, too much under her charm to put my question,' voiced one student as he backed down. Schiffer then offered: 'Karl is a genius, modern and classic at the same time. I think Chanel is the fashion that can be worn by young and old and it is just sublime.'

The French journalist Laurence Benaim, who covers the fashion collections for Le Monde and is the author of a recent and acclaimed biography about Yves Saint Laurent (Editions Grasset, 1993) was there and was shocked. This is her account of the event: 'Fashion is an art; that's what they say now, except when one is critical.

Theatre directors and art curators don't close their doors to critics. Yet I am no longer invited to the fashion shows of Karl Lagerfeld, because, as a press officer at Chanel told me, 'You clearly do not understand his work.'

'So to try to understand it, I went to see the man himself speak. And what I saw was how, under the guise of a lecture organised in the grand amphitheatre of the Sorbonne, an artist of communication can manipulate opinion to the extent that a crowd of truly angry students become characters in a gigantic media promo operation in spite of themselves.

''In 1968, French students famously went on strike. Today, they demonstrate for decent working conditions: for money to study and space in which to learn - only to find their protest absorbed into a fashion evenement.

'Each fashion season, I am shocked by the growing gap between fashion's declared return to elegance and the brutish behaviour at the entrance of shows. I am shocked by the throngs, the violence that makes me afraid.

'And now similar riot-squad brutality on the steps of the Sorbonne. 'Your press card is worthless here. You must have an invitation,' explained a policeman at the entrance. This is supposed to be a lecture on taste, culture, eclecticism, yet it seems that the audience is to be made up mostly of an in-crowd that shares the taste of the man on the stage.

'Yesterday, money-spinning tradespeople stayed behind the scenes. Today, they want recognition as artists. It is this shift that frightens me. How can one confuse an artificial energy, held together with dollars, flashbulbs and the status of top models, with a discussion of culture? Creativity being harnessed to the power of money. Meanwhile, fashion, too isolated in its ivory media tower, cuts itself off from its public. Its most terrifying practitioners end up forgetting about clothes for women and instead indulge in a terrifying megalomania, shredding the last remains of humanism in the name of personal glory.

'A friend gave me an invitation. The only place to sit was in the gods. I tried to ask questions, but all of us with our hands raised, we were too far up. We were ignored.

'I wanted to ask why, just as Coco Chanel created her own house, Lagerfeld has not? Why he has had such success in someone else's name and far less in his own. I wanted to ask, too, when he was going to drop the disguise, the dark glasses and fan that are both his signature and his way of separating himself from the rest of us. I wanted to ask about the man.

'A week earlier, the Yohji Yamamoto show took place in the same amphitheatre. There were no protesters that day. Without a doubt, the students would have found in these silhouettes and in the freedom they expressed, another vision of fashion - that which, far from the conformity of the media furore, spoke to us of humanity, of the liberty of being, of moving.

'Thanks to Mr Fellini who said 'If one were making less noise, one would be better understood.' '

(Photograph omitted)