The sound of protest rose from a faint murmur to a loud shout as the Chanel
models stormed down the runway — in fact, a Paris “street” recreated on four sides with an extraordinary stage set of Haussmann buildings and a street sign that read “Boulevard Chanel”.
Who was leading this brigade of women wearing sporty, tweed trouser suits complete with neckties; coats and boots covered in arty paint splashes; knits; overalls, and angelic white blouses?
Karl Lagerfeld was the instigator, yet this was a back-to-Coco parade of clothes. These were the most fashion-friendly looks for an independent woman that the designer has sent out in a while, and a confirmation that Gabrielle Chanel’s woman-enhancing attitude is still strong, nearly a century on.
If the dresses had been wisps of lace or been worn with the fancy sneakers that came out in January’s couture season, this might have been a Marie Antoinette moment.
But instead there was the appeal of wearable outfits with the transforming skills of Chanel’s ateliers.
“I like the idea of street style and to make it down to earth — but it is a chic street,” said Lagerfeld.
“I just wanted to make expensive clothes as easy as inexpensive ones,” the designer continued before the show, pointing to a lace dress that the Chanel ateliers had worked with a surface of cracked plaster, and the intricate embroidery on bags that read “Ladies First” or “Tweed is better than Tweet”.
The same messages appeared as the models rioted on the runway, waving placards announcing “Women’s rights are more than alright” and an adaptation of that Seventies post-Vietnam slogan, “Make fashion, not war”.
At first, I had a grain of discomfort about the idea of Karl using these protest slogans at a time when demonstrations in Beijing for democracy, and campaigns for women’s worldwide education in particular, are literally life and death issues.
But then I thought: This is a designer who catches what the French call “l’air du temps” — what is in the air.
In fashion terms it is a moment to protest, metaphorically speaking, against all those vulgar little dresses for cocktail cuties or elaborate red-carpet gowns.
Chanel’s streamlined sportswear seemed refreshingly decent and easy to wear, not least the shoes that were built to stride in a play on mannish loafers.
Hooray for clothes — endorsed by Chanel — that work as hard as we do!