My first memory of trying on Chanel is like the first time I had sex – I was really amazed it was happening, sweaty, and also it was a combination of wonder and horror and oh my GOD YEAH I’M COOL. A magazine commissioned me to style one of those infamous Chanel tweed jackets. I was a sixteen year-old teen fashion blogging nerd who wore mostly tablecloths draped like your first ambitious draping project at Parsons (#original) and even touching the jacket made me feel unworthy and like I conned my way into something. The jacket seemed to feel the same way, as the second I put it on, I began sweating and when I tried to button it up, all the buttons fell off and I had to get my mom to sew them back on in our kitchen while I hyperventilated and clutched my acne-ridden face. It turned out ok in the end – I ended up in the magazine with some other bloggers, the magazine was none the wiser that Chanel and I had had a spiritual standoff with one another, but I still have a strong distrust of Chanel. We don’t jibe. I don’t think it’s wholly unwarranted, though.
I’m not just blowing smoke up your butt , I assure you. Honestly, Chanel has such an interesting, strange, complicated background that it’s hard to really be loyal or even a fan of the brand wholeheartedly. Chanel the person, Chanel the brand, Lagerfeld the person, Lagerfeld the brand – they’re all super talented, but also annoying and offensive and I wish they weren’t as talented and interesting because it would be easier to hate them. I mean, let’s start with Chanel: the original house and woman.
You have to give credit where credit is due; while I’m the first one to scream out that we owe black in high fashion to Rei Kawakubo, we owe menswear for women to Gabrielle Chanel. Kawakubo and Chanel were both rebels for their own causes, and are easy and perfect foils for each other in many ways because of it. Both presented a singular, contrary version of femininity that jutted against class and gender expectations of the time. It’s a shame that Chanel was a well–documented Nazi spy, a homophobe, morphine addict and also an asshole to women who didn’t fit HER vision of femininity. You know, little things. Whatever. She did give us the little black dress! People are complicated! Is this unbiased journalism? Is it ethical I want to pee over every copy of the Lifetime movie of her life that totally glazes over the fact she was kind of a shithead but also, like, hella talented? I’m trying here, this whole, ‘journalist’ thing.
I think, all things considered, that the fact Lagerfeld took the reins of Chanel is actually quite fitting because he’s almost as annoying and certainly as fascinating as ye olde Coco. Yeah, he hates fat people, ugly children, PETA (ok, but on a serious note: co-signed), has put white girls in dreads in couture (box of worms of cultural appropriation there, woop), and most recently – yesterday, in fact! – had a model prance down the finale in a Native American feather headdress.
If I were to list all the ways Lagerfeld and historically, the House of Chanel were problematic, we would be here all day. Also, I would probably be blacklisted from every LVMH show ever for the rest of my life. And I really liked last Spring’s collection! (I did. I even re-created the makeup out of homage).
I’m not saying what Chanel, Lagerfeld, and what they just put down the runway is right. I think it’s shitty, but am not surprising: it’s just another example of fashion learning nothing from past mistakes (remember Karlie?). I also think that even if he’s terrible and the house continues to make serious mistakes of “cultural borrowing” (I whisper cultural appropriation as I type that), that we owe them an absurd amount for keeping top quality, small production couturiers in business.
Lagerfeld has been systematically buying up all means of couture and high-end production – feather specialists, hat and glove makers, cashmere companies. These companies would have disappeared (alongside their trade secrets) if he had not. Those trade secrets would have died out a little faster. The heritage of these suppliers aren’t Chanel-exclusive – they supply to many other luxury brands. All things are delicately interconnected, you see? If one supplier falls, it impacts many other houses. One supplier might comprise of just 100 people in Paris, but those 100 people happen to be the best and possible only experts at doing a very specific job at the highest caliber. They learned from the best, who learned from the best. And the craft would have been lost. I’m by no means saying, “forget the headdress, he’s a hero!” What I’m saying is that people are more complicated and terrible and interesting than present dialogue would permit. Let’s talk about why we keep on bumping up against these instances of cultural appropriation in luxury fashion – in New York, Paris, and elsewhere – and why we keep on having these conversations over and over again every season. Let’s talk about the consequences of removing art from the artist. Let’s also talk about the implications of this man with this huge empire, almost single-handedly buying up niche fashion suppliers and what that might mean for the future of couture and luxury items. How maybe that is going to play out in the scheme of things, this man and brand with a terribly terrible and expansive history.
That would be interesting.