Chanel recaptures its essence with designer's response to world recession

Karl Lagerfeld's latest haute couture collection for Chanel yesterday was a rhapsody in white that referenced Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel's love affair with the colour. Like the Dior show on Monday, which fused inspiration from the paintings of old masters with classic Dior cuts and structure, the Chanel collection responded to the recession by going back to basics. In the rarefied world of couture, however, basics means the history and essence of the brand, rather than simple, functional clothing.

The decision to hold the event inside a smart building on Paris's Rue Cambon also emphasised the mythology of the fashion house, as its founder used to live at number 31. Of course it might also have been chosen as a less expensive alternative to the imposing Grand Palais, where last season's couture show was held, but there was no shortage of the customary Chanel elegance. Guests clutching quilted bags sat at tables with white paper tablecloths cut to resemble lace and paper cut-outs, inspired by pop-up books, adorned the walls.

It was easy to imagine the immaculately groomed clients in attendance wearing one of the first few variations on the classic skirt suit for a very smart lunch. A cropped magnolia tweed jacket with a wide funnel neck was teamed with an A-line skirt that featured a single front pleat, while short-sleeved jackets in tweeds and polished cottons came with cape shoulders and braided edges. A few garments – such as a beaded, shift style cocktail dress – were in black and white, but most were entirely ivory. Coco Chanel often wore all white for casual or evening events, and in 1933 she devoted an entire presentation to dresses in the colour. Karl Lagerfeld said in a recent interview that, thanks to the recession: "Bling is over. Red carpetry covered with rhinestones is out. I call it the 'the new modesty'." This was not only the new modesty, but the new purity, with the succession of all-white outfits and the cutout flower motifs evoking the freshness of spring blossom.

Clean, elegant lines on neat skirt suits, A-line dresses and slim tunics provided a carte blanche for the ateliers to showcase their skills without any risk of the clothes looking overdone. Surface details included flowers made from sequins, lace covered with paint-sprayed feathers and appliquéd flower stems made from white patent leather. A dress entirely embroidered with small white mirrored sequins and a ribbon trim took 700 hours to make. The outfits were teamed with headdresses in the shapes of butterflies, bows and flowers, and the finale came in the form of a wedding tunic with a silk train of about three metres. The train required a footman dressed in white to supervise it but, as yet, this isn't part of the couture service.

Chanel announced in December that it would cut 200 jobs, amid concerns that the luxury market is not as recession-proof as has previously been supposed. However, in Paris yesterday Bruno Pavlovsky, the president of fashion at Chanel, seemed upbeat about couture's future.

"We have seen large growth in the last five years," he said. "Probably the growth will be less strong this year but I don't worry about couture. There are lots of clients here, it is so special and Karl Lagerfeld is so strong creatively."

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