Designers are known to draw inspiration from an endless array of highbrow sources; among their favorites are independent films and the visual arts. But earlier this week, designer Karl Lagerfeld found sparks of creativity in the mundane but beloved realm of the French bistro.
Plain white waiters’ aprons were transformed into dreamy ruffled skirts. The mosaic tile floors, often scuffed from decades of wear, were reflected in the tiny square jewels that made skirts look like something out of a fairy tale. And the elaborate medallion fringe on a coat called to mind the handfuls of coins often left scattered on a table as a tip.
The result was a collection that said as much about his creative capacity as it did about how our culture is evolving.
Lagerfeld has taken to building elaborate sets to help tell the story of his collections for Chanel. He has recreated entire Paris streetscapes, supermarkets and art galleries. For fall 2015, he transformed the vast ground floor of the Grand Palais into the “Brasserie Gabrielle.” It was far more than just a facade of balsa wood and foam core.
A professional reservation podium was positioned at the entrance; a working bar had waiters serving croissants and glasses of champagne, and reserved tables covered in white linen tablecloths awaited their guests.
It was the models who ultimately settled in at the two-tops and four-tops after promenading around the runway. Their clothes were beautifully tailored and exquisitely embellished. One could imagine these blazers, twin sets and tweed dresses on stylish ladies on their way to lunch, dinner or a gala supper.
Tradition and dignity
There was nothing edgy or hipster about this collection. Instead, it celebrated a kind of social interaction that is becoming rare: the leisurely meal during which friends lean in, gossip and laugh. No cellphones glow on the table. No one is itching to Instagram the meal.
Lagerfeld is at his best when he’s working strictly in the Chanel vernacular, taking the venerable house’s classic shapes and references and weaving them into our popular culture in ways that display them in a new light. He doesn’t only zero in on the architecture of the bistro. Certainly, there is an obvious beauty in those structural elements, and it comes through in the collection.
But he also turns his attention to the waiters who scurry about in their black jackets and white aprons. They aren’t just passing through, biding time until they land their first acting job or their music career finally takes off. This is what they do, and their attire speaks of tradition, continuity and dignity just as surely as architecture does.
As Lagerfeld manipulates their uniform, he blurs the line between workman basics and high society’s favorite uniform: the tuxedo. They represent opposite ends of the demographic spectrum, but in his deconstruction and reconstruction of them, one is reminded that they aren’t so far apart after all.
By the end of the show, all the models have settled into a table or booth. They chat and sip orange juice as waiters attend to their needs. Indeed, the audience might have witnessed the fastest, most efficient service by any waiters in all of Paris.
Lagerfeld emerged from backstage to take his bows. The guests rose to leave, but not before swiping awake their iPhone cameras and surrounding the models at their tables. The crowd pressed forward. And that sense of friendship and intimacy that Lagerfeld had conjured with stagecraft disappeared into a reality of life lived on stage, in tweets and yet still eerily detached.