A theorist and a fashion house stroll into the same exhibition complex. They both see the same thing, but from wildly differing vantage points: One, a runway spectacle; the other, an extraordinary story regarding the intimacy of objects. The theorist is Walter Benjamin, and the fashion house is Chanel. What links them together is the Grand Palais.
Built between the years between 1897 and 1900, the Grand Palais was the great, iron masterpiece of the Beaux-Arts movement. Made to exist as both museum and exhibition, the Grand Palais showcased the “glory of French art”––and the glory of French commerce, too. Romanticizing Hellenic architecture in order to mummify it in metal, the Grand Palais is precisely the type of structure that Benjamin would devote hours of contemplation towards. Nowadays, it hosts Chanel prêt-à-porter.
Walter Benjamin was probably the first mall-rat. And like any mall-rat, his interests ran the gamut of trivial. Fashion, movies, popularity––doesn’t this sound like a dilettante’s game? Not really. Benjamin’s fascination with the art of modern life––junk culture included––came from his desire to politicize those things that we have overlooked by virtue of our very immersion in them. Benjamin’s aesthetics were a theory of perception. How technology enters into our lives. How we see is just as important as what we see, and how it’s made.
Benjamin’s fascination with the shopping arcades of 19th century Paris led to a sprawling and unfinished set of notes. Convoluted and fragmentary as the streets of Paris themselves, the Arcades Project was an idiosyncratic collection of fragments that centered around street life as it happened. Taking from Charles Baudelaire the motif of the flâneur––or the idle, urban explorer––Benjamin saw the flâneur as a collector of experiences, ultimately embodying the intoxicating affect of the commodity. The flâneur was––and is––a fashion-obsessed dandy, but when working in an artist’s capacity, the flâneur stylizes brief glimpses of the city into arresting opuses. The flâneur captures the moment and gives it back to us as revelation. The fashion industry hopes to be something of a flâneur, too, gleaning inspiration from the streets, crystallizing the ephemera of the organic and contemporary.
Though transfixed by modernity’s charms, Benjamin could not ignore the dark side of industry. These were the same things that we complain about today: conspicuous consumption, wastefulness, the human cost of keeping up. The fashion industry relies on the repetition of the sellable moment––a look, a runway show, a mention as being an “it-brand”––to sustain itself. Regarding art and distraction, Benjamin wrote: “Fashion is an indispensable factor in the acceleration of the process of becoming worn out.” The paradox of the fashion industry is that in capturing our attention, it has to keep capturing our attention. The objects that we already have must be forgotten in favor of newer, shinier things. Benjamin continued: “It has always been one of the primary tasks of art to create a demand whose hour of full satisfaction has not yet come.”
Enter Karl Lagerfeld. Could anyone ever accuse him of being a lackadaisical stroller? Where Benjamin thought distraction, Lagerfeld creates it. More is more is more for Uncle Karl, even when it is for a house as conservative as Chanel. Lagerfeld bounds towards inspiration––he never simply happens upon it. Not limiting himself to romantic arrondissements, Lagerfeld throws himself further into the fray. His work for Chanel is bombastic, willfully modern. Jetting industry insiders from Scotland to Dallas, a Chanel show promises only the most bizarro of Lagerfeldian worlds. There is but one boundary, one catch: No matter where Lagerfeld goes, the clothes must always be Chanel. A telling reminder that for a price, you can go home again.
This time, Lagerfeld only wandered as far as the grocery store. Perhaps revising his sentiments on sweatpants-as-defeat, Lagerfeld reworked them in ripped, Pepto-Bismol pink, pairing them with the bulky, round-shouldered tweed that has become something of his signature. As luxuriously derelict as the whole sartorial spectacle may be, what is interesting about this show is not so much the clothes, or even the bodies in the clothes, but rather the entire experience of being lost in a shiny, fluorescent supermarket.
In the case of the grocery store set pieces themselves, the banal becomes even more banal––high banal, if you may. Why? One does not accord much significance to the act of grocery shopping, so why add a spotlight to it?
Purposefully contrived and campy, the Chanel show it does its job of making us focus on the “now” of the brand. A 2014 Chanel girl is eons away from a 2013 Chanel girl, and that’s just seasonally! The success of the fashion industry rests on the vitality of the inorganic––killing moments to immortalize objects. The runway is the exhibition of fashionable devotion. Walter Benjamin qualifies the exhibition as a place “of pilgrimage to the commodity fetish.” He also says that “…exhibitions glorify the exchange value of the commodity. They create a framework in which its use value recedes into the background. They open a phantasmagoria which a person enters in order to be distracted.” Much like Lagerfeld’s supermarket.
By showing in the Grand Palais, Lagerfeld throws an exhibition within an exhibition. When Benjamin wrote that “architecture has always offered the prototype of an artwork that is received in a state of distraction and through the collective,” he highlighted the key aim of both Lagerfeld and the fashion industry at large: to create a space for sartorial carpe diem––a product that catches our attention, and the space to showcase it.
Although most news outlets are zeroing in on the novelty of the set-as-supermarket or the curious inclusion of Kendall Jenner on the roster of models or even the parallels between the consumption of food and the consumption of clothes, what Chanel offers us, theoretically speaking, is the elevation of our own selves into the commodity world. Regardless of whether it is a saccharine attempt at a satirical, social message or not, something of Benjamin’s arcades is smudged on Lagerfeld’s surfaces. The model may appear as flâneuse amongst the cereal boxes, but she is not lost in sea of options––she is already wearing Chanel. She is just part of a set designed to catch our wandering eye. Models may act as reflections of ourselves, only as a seductive human element. Even amongst all the options––whether ketchup or Celine–– Lagerfeld is still angling for you to buy Chanel.
If there is anything to Kendall Jenner’s appearance beyond nepotism and name recognition, perhaps it is to stress that movement from the everyday into the sphere of entertainment. Jenner’s family has made a killing out of living their lives. Even the most boring aspects of Keeping Up With the Kardashians (grocery shopping, tending to the shop, rhapsodizing about vaginal care) are elevated on account of the fact that they’re on television. The ethos behind reality-TV culture (and its accompanying paparazzi culture) is indeed that voyeuristic glimpse into the lives of others at their most vulnerable––that is to say, at their most undressed. The flâneur-poet is replaced by a camera whose style is supposedly objective. Instead of looking at the masses, the masses are gawking at celebrities. Perhaps Uncle Karl’s point of reference was “Celebrities Shopping at Trader Joes.”
The complicated move from the everyday to fashionable entertainment is Lagerfeld’s version of “serious frivolity.” If you can take anything from one of his classic quips, it would be that silliness is a billion dollar business. Although fashion may be dismissed on the grounds of triviality, in Karl’s world clothes are as much a necessity as food; in fact, they are the company’s bottom line. (To say nothing of the thousands of workers who depend on your purchase to feed their families.) Any food brand craving differentiation from the competition, Chanel feeds upon your choice to choose. This season, they’re just being super meta about it.
Photos courtesy of The Daily Mail UK