Homage to Coco as the Chanel suit is reinvented yet again

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The Independent Online

If ever proof were needed that haute couture now functions primarily as the luxury-goods sector's most high-profile marketing tool, it came yesterday when Karl Lagerfeld unveiled his autumn/winter 2004 collection for the house of Chanel.

If ever proof were needed that haute couture now functions primarily as the luxury-goods sector's most high-profile marketing tool, it came yesterday when Karl Lagerfeld unveiled his autumn/winter 2004 collection for the house of Chanel.

The stage set established the tone: the world's most famous models were positively dwarfed by huge, bright white monoliths branded with the iconic double-C logo - in inky black, of course. When the house's namesake, Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, decreed black and white the most chic of all possible colour combinations for the contemporary woman, she can surely not have known what she was starting.

Fast forward almost a century and the monochromatic palette appears to serve predominantly to identify assorted products: Chanel fragrance, cosmetics and skincare, in particular, all come in immediately recognisable black and white packaging.

That is not to say that Chanel haute couture does not have its own client base. Quite the contrary. Since the retirement of that other great couturier, Yves Saint Laurent, in January 2002, Lagerfeld, one of the last remaining classically trained names, has been doing brisk business.

The moneyed Chanel customer with her perfectly coiffed hair, surgically enhanced physique and bouclé wool tweed jacket (worn over everything from matching skirt to jeans) can still find plenty to wear. The Chanel suit - also introduced by Coco and, as far as clothing is concerned, the label's most recognisable signage - came in the form of narrow shift dresses, loosely belted at the hip and worn with matching slimline coats all fashionably frayed at the edges. Both came just above the knee in signature black and white as well as all shades of beige from camel to cream. New for this season was a tweedy ballgown skirt with matching cardigan - a witty take on a couture classic.

Finally, the little black dress, first introduced by Chanel in the 1920s and immediately hailed by Vogue as a staple of the modern woman's wardrobe, came in every permutation too: knee-length and layered with a froth of tulle; full-length in curvaceous beaded lace.

At the end of the show Lagerfeld stepped out to rapturous applause, accompanied, in a suitably ostentatious manner, by a five-piece band and a table covered with small but perfectly formed canapés served by men in black suits.

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