When Karl Lagerfeld decided to unveil Chanel’s Cruise 2015 collection in Dubai, home to the world’s tallest skyscraper, “it couldn’t be some basic show in a hotel,” as the designer put it — an understatement of Burj Khalifa proportions.
Rather, the designer and the fashion house on Tuesday created a desert fashion spectacle to remember — and beam to the world via Instagram. The show unfurled at dusk in a gold-and-glass structure, its roof supported by a forest of artificial palms, on a man-made island offering a view of one of the most futuristic skylines in the world. A party, and a frisky performance by R&B musician Janelle Monáe, rounded out the evening.
“With the highest building, I thought there was a reason to show the highest fashion, ha-ha-ha-ha,” Lagerfeld said during a fitting on Monday as assistants nestled crescent moon brooches (some in double-C formations) into bouffant hairdos and dangled minaudières resembling giant pearls from models’ wrists.
“You know, before Japan took over for pearls, this place was famous for them, so Chanel is very at home here,” he noted, as accessories maven Laetitia Crahay darted in and out adding knotted strands to some models’ throats.
“A romantic idea, without any folkloric touch, of an Orient of my imagination of the 21st century,” was how Lagerfeld described a collection built on gauzy fabrics and flowing, enveloping silhouettes — lit up by intricate metallic embroideries and dense patterns.
Although founder Gabrielle Chanel had scant ties to the Middle East, her penchant for Oriental textiles like gold lamé — and layering tunics over pajamalike pants — was enough to spark Lagerfeld’s imagination. Arabic paving stones and tiles from the 11th and 12th centuries inspired graphic motifs on filmy scarves, or gleaming and colorful embroideries on a swing coat. Quirkier Middle East touches included quilted leather handbags shaped like jerricans — a wink to the region’s oil riches. “My job is not to do what she did, but what she could have done,” Lagerfeld explained. “The good thing about Chanel is it’s a spirit you can adapt to many things.”
The show had a dreamy, otherworldly quality apt for Dubai. Like the city itself, Chanel’s oasis set, which took two months to construct, rose from a rectangular patch of bare sand about a half a mile from shore. There were palm trees, cactus and henna plants; beige Bedouin tents appointed with cushions, rugs and water pipes; and, for the runway venue, a lattice of woodwork incorporating Chanel's logo as in traditional mashrabiya windows.
“We built everything — toilets included,” Lagerfeld noted. “I think those islands in the middle of nowhere are quite poetic. It’s kind of an Oriental Atlantis.” Celebrity guests, ferried to the venue in rickety, open-air boats known locally as abras, were captivated by the setting — and the clothes. “The collection was like a magic carpet ride, very fantastical,” said Tilda Swinton.
While the collection skewed dressier and more elaborate than some recent Chanel cruise outings, flat sandals — and groovy Marisa Berenson circa 1970 hairstyles — projected an attitude of nonchalant, bohemian glamour. Layered looks prevailed, including blousy versions of classic cardigan jackets and slim-lined dresses and tunics resembling the thawbs (or dishdashas) worn by Arab men. The collection was modest and respectful of local dress customs, which prize modesty, although Lagerfeld noted he rarely veers into Crazy Horse territory. “We don’t really do sex explosion here,” he deadpanned. Lagerfeld wove keffiyehlike patterns, the ones found on traditional Middle Eastern headdresses, into Chanel’s signature tweeds, and the floral tile patterns into long cardigans. While the ballooning pants were not always flattering, the collection cast a spell with its holiday spirit that read either nomadic or poolside.
“It’s a new world, and fashion is about new,” he said. “The highest building in the world used to be in Paris, the Eiffel Tower, and then New York, and now it’s in this part of the world, in the Far East, so we follow the movement.”
Local fashion fans have been in a tizzy ever since Chanel and Lagerfeld revealed they would be heading to Dubai for cruise, with some likening the event to the opening of the Burj Khalifa in 2010, or of the Palm Jumeirah artificial island in 2008. Word has it some local women shopped up a storm at Chanel in recent weeks in an effort to graduate to VIP client status and secure one of the coveted 1,000 invitations to Tuesday’s show, held on an island privately owned by Sheikh Hamdan, the hereditary prince of Dubai.
The ambitious undertaking was done with logistical and administrative support from the government, helmed by Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the constitutional monarch of Dubai, and the prime minister and vice president of the United Arab Emirates.