Chanel unveils opulent gowns for privileged few

PARIS - Fashion designers and architects are very different animals, but their eye for form and sculpture is the same, which may be why Karl Lagerfeld drew influence from the pioneering architect Le Corbusier for Chanel's Fall/Winter 2014-2015 collection presented on Tuesday.

Of course, being the curious, creative and fearless designer that he is - and the collection being haute couture - he planted Le Corbusier, who died in 1965, at the 18th century court of Versailles for maximum glitter and opulence.

"It's like modern sculpture, in modern materials, but with baroque elements," Lagerfeld said backstage after his show held at the Grand Palais in Paris. "This is the story of Le Corbusier going to Versailles."

Were the sparkling panels adorning the fronts of ivory-coloured jackets a nod to the architect's famous Villa Savoye on the outskirts of Paris, with its long panels of windows?

Did the nubby plaids with their repeating patterns of black, orange and red recall the stacked residential housing promoted by the urban planner, whose real name was Charles-Edouard Jenneret, in his search for utopian city design?

No matter what the influence, the clothes entranced, both modern in their sculptural form yet anchored in a time-tested appreciation for pageantry.

The magnificence of the fabrics Lagerfeld chose for the collection's 71 looks - in pure white, shimmering silver and regal red - would certainly have caught Marie Antoinette's eye.

Lagerfeld is a staunch fan of the 18th century - and its high collars - and the tailored, structured mid-thigh coat dresses he presented on Tuesday recalled the men's court suits worn by the well-heeled aristocrats at Versailles.

Freshness came from matching narrow shorts cut above the knee, spiky 1980's era hairdos and the flat sandals with ribbon ties that accompanied each look.

Red is a colour more associated with Valentino than Chanel, but Lagerfeld used it in abundance on Tuesday, whether in a sensible jacket with stand-away collar and flared skirt cut above the knee or a party dress sewn from what appeared to be hundreds of shimmering and fluttering red blossoms.

An evening gown with Jetsons-like shoulders and exaggerated hips was lavishly embroidered with ruby red beads that looked like they were ripped from the interior of a pomegranate.

The bodice of another was made from neoprene, a synthetic rubber that creates a starched-like formal look: "The same dress made in a normal satin duchesse looks dowdy," Lagerfeld said.

The opulence of the gowns that made their way down the catwalk was dizzying. They raised the question, are there really enough fabulously wealthy women in the world who can buy these?

A host of new money from Asia, Russia and the Middle East has helped prop up haute couture, considered the height of French fashion, in which gowns are sewn by hand and to measure.

Dresses can run into the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of euros, making them accessible only to the privileged few.

Could it have escaped Lagerfeld's mind that the influential Le Corbusier, a Renaissance man like himself, might not have appreciated being the starting point of a Chanel fashion show, and a haute couture one inspired by Versailles at that?

After all, Le Corbusier was known for his social commitment, planning utopian cities he believed would improve the lives of modest city dwellers. Ironically, he is often blamed by critics for influencing the grim concrete social housing built in the years after World War Two.

Whatever Lagerfeld thought about the architect's theories, the fashion designer is an admirer of a Champs-Elysee apartment and terrace he designed in the 1930s.

The terrace with its fireplace and mirror inspired the set of Tuesday's fashion show, in which the catwalk ended in a fireplace and wall mirror.

"I've always wanted to use it in a way," Lagerfeld said of the terrace. "Suddenly I had the idea it could be the right time to use this beautiful idea."