It’s not art, it’s shrewd Chanel, and it looks like a billion dollars

The sales figures (a billion by recent estimates) have become an art form in themselves

Is fashion art? It’s a debate designers have tussled with, both for and against, for generations. The latest round of that seemingly eternal argument was sparked at the spring 2014 Chanel show on Tuesday, where Karl Lagerfeld erected a contemporary art gallery as backdrop for his latest collection.

Said gallery, in truth, was a gag, packed with art pastiching everyone from Claes Oldenberg to Cy Twombly, all heavily Chanel branded.

The art thankfully stayed on the walks rather than on the clothes, bar some paint-daub prints and a few witty painterly variations on Chanel’s accessories. The 2.55 quilted bag came in canvas with painted details, or encased in a frame like a masterpiece (commercially, it sort of is). The other key bags were quilted leather portfolios, or graffitied backpacks dangling chains.

Those resembled something toted by art students, rather than Chanel’s couture-clad customer base. However, this wasn’t Lagerfeld in challenging, nose-thumbing mode. The frayed tweed looks that opened the show had an immediate believability to them. They were the first in an array of those signature suits, each different, a twist on a theme well-worn that continues to wear well. They were a neat summary of a summery, punchy collection.

This wasn’t art, it was shrewd, clever commerce. Even the sock-shoes, wrinkled around the ankles like blue stocking intellectual attire, will find a second life in someone’s wardrobe. That’s how Lagerfeld is able to stage his spectaculars in the Grand Palais: at Chanel, the sales figures (a cool billion by the most recent estimates) have become an art form in themselves.

Art and fashion leads, inevitably, to Alexander McQueen, a label where even shoes end up as sculptural constructivist pile-ups of twisted leather and metal, never mind the fantasia going on above. There’s a reality to the spectacle, of course, but it’s generally accepted that wearability will take a back seat to the thrills.

That arty-farty reputation of McQueen feels especially relevant this season, as the label’s creative director Sarah Burton looked to early 20th century art for her inspiration. Picasso and Mondrian looked to African totems to turn the art world upside down, so perhaps that’s why there was a feel of the tribal to the clothes, the hot mixes of cobalt blue, red and white reminiscent of the Masai, models marching across a veldt of graphically blocked-out coloured sand, those towering metal heels sparking the dust.

There were a few hints of the Twenties in these McQueen clothes, the dropped waists and burnished metal cloche hats. However, as with the Cubists, Burton’s women were sliced-up, fragmented, disturbed. These clothes also felt modern, the pleat-skirted models marching out less like flappers and more like female centurions, armoured and attired to brave the modern world.

Our eyes have become attuned to the tired cliché of sport luxe abounding this season: these gladiatorial women felt like a perfectly perverse McQueen slant on that formula.

In fact, this McQueen collection chimed with many of the season’s key notes: aerated fabrics, pleats, feathers, and all that tribal stuff. But just like Picasso, this couldn’t be mistaken for the work of anyone else.

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