Chanel Couture Fall 2016: Karl Lagerfeld and the Elevation of Craftsmanship

Chanel Couture Fall 2016 by Karl Lagerfeld

One of my favourite months in the seemingly nonstop fashion calendar is July, as it celebrates one of its most beautiful, artistic facets: haute couture. In this occasion━and probably, surprising no one━Karl Lagerfeld’s runway show for Chanel included a whole performance revolving around the collection. But this time, rather than the eccentricities brought together by the Chanel brasserie or the quirky supermarket he brought to life in past collections, Lagerfeld revived a more nostalgic phase of fashion, constructing his performance around the whole atelier Chanel, and bringing some of his petites mains━the ‘small (I would say invisible) hands’ of the seamstresses that create the beauty of his designs━to light.

Remembering a Legend: Bill Cunningham

Bill Cunningham New York

I met Bill Cunningham on the day I like to remember as the first day of my life as an art historian. After months of hard work trying to show the art-history world that I, an economist, with little formal training in the history of art, could be part of it, this was my first day as a researcher at The Met. So, in a typical winter day in New York—sunny but freezing—I walked out of my home, Chanel boots on my feet, books in my bag, and my favourite coat with a floral pattern, trying not to let the nerves consume me and hoping to survive my first day as a staff member at the museum I so much adore. 

It turned out that this was also the day that my department opened its most important exhibitions this year: The Power of Prints: The Legacy of William M. Ivins and A. Hyatt Mayor, and Wordplay: Matthias Buchinger’s Drawings from the Collection of Ricky Jay. Still new to the world of drawings and prints, and determined to absorb as much information as I could during my time at The Met, I spent quite a long while trying to see everything before heading to the reception for a glass of wine. And while I was looking at some of Buchinger’s drawings with floral designs, a wonderful man, with the widest smile on his face, approached me commenting how beautifully the pattern on my coat combined with the patterns in the drawings I had spent so long carefully studying. It was Bill.

Unveiling Fashion History Through Literature and Art

Les Lorettes - Fashion History and Art
Paul Gavarni [Chevalier]. “Les Lorettes,” pl. 44, published in Le Charivari, 13 February 1843. Photo taken by me at the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition “The Power of Prints”. Accession no. 57.581.15.

As I have mentioned before, my main emphasis in the research of fashion history focuses on the intersections between fashion, politics and identity. I am particularly interested in the late-colonial and postcolonial periods in Colombia and Latin America, and I am fascinated by the ways in which dress, and appearances in general, became central to the creation of an identity in the centuries where the “old” world was re-shaped into what we live today.

To study these intersections between fashion, politics and identity, however, is no easy task. In the case of Latin America, it is particularly difficult because most areas of cultural production have been understudied, especially in relation to fashion. Moreover, because collections of historical dress are virtually inexistent in the region—contrasting with the rich collections that abound in Europe and North America—as a fashion historian you have to become creative in the use of sources and borrow methodologies from a variety of areas of inquiry from different historical traditions.

Fashion and Femininity in the Newborn Colombia

Carmelo Fernández Tipos Blanco Mestizo y Zambo
Carmelo Fernández. Tejedoras y mercaderas de sombreros nacuma en Bucaramanga. Tipos blanco, mestizo y zambo, 1850, watercolour on paper, 23 x 30 cm. Biblioteca Nacional de Colombia.

Perhaps one of the first lessons I learned in my career as an Economic Historian was that, throughout the centuries, history has been created through the negotiation between traditional values and new emerging norms that evolve with changing societies. Constantly—and regardless of what we may think—most of the “traditions” we know are actually much more recent than we believe they are and, in most cases, as Eric Hobsbawm avidly explains, they are also invented. The Colombian 19th century saw the creation of the traditions that continue to rule the society from a balancing act between the new values of the independence and the old Colonial Spanish standards. Many of them, additionally, emerged from a current of thought heavily influenced by the French Enlightenment and by the writings of intellectuals such as Voltaire and Rousseau.

*This article was originally published in Spanish in 

On Graduating From Parsons MA in Fashion Studies

Laura of the Valley - Statue of Liberty

Two—or rather, three—years ago, I embarked on what has been the wildest adventure of my life: getting a Master of Arts in Fashion Studies from Parsons School of Design. I still remember waking up one day and deciding to send my application, rushing to meet my Professors to get recommendation letters from them, trying to find inspiration to write my application letter, and even having to fly out of town to get the required standardised test done. And even if I tend to think doing things last minute doesn’t turn into positive situation, amidst the rush and the stress, I always knew I was going to get in. Somehow, I always knew I belonged to Parsons.

Chanel’s Cruise In Cuba

One of the most brilliant minds in fashion is, without a doubt, Karl Lagerfeld—known by many as the Kaiser of fashion. Catapulted into fame in the seventies, in great part thanks to his deep knowledge of the history of fashion, and after having designed for some of the most important fashion houses in the world, the creative director at Chanel is known for his crazy talent, always full of surprises: this time in the form of a runway show at the historic Avenida El Prado, in Habana, Cuba, for the presentation of his cruise collection 2016/17 for Chanel.

El crucero de Chanel en Cuba

Like almost anything created by Lagerfeld, the show was filled with a number of incongruences that, rather than injuring the final result, helped bring the Kaiser’s ingenious creativity to the foreground. In the middle of one of the most important avenues in downtown Habana, surrounded by the historic, though somewhat corroded, architecture of the city, Lagerfeld showed a majestic, luxurious collection.

El crucero de Chanel en Cuba

Far from representing the present situation of the island, however, the collection reveals a warm nostalgia for the times before the revolution, showcasing nothing less than a Cuba imagined by Lagerfeld’s creative genius. This version of Cuba, it is worth mentioning, rescues a series of garments that have managed to stick to the cultural imaginary of the Caribbean—at least as viewed through a European and North American perspectives—focusing on the guayaberas, the “Panama” hats, and the American cars from the fifties… Without even mentioning the dance parade that closed the show, with a suite of models worthy of Chanel but not so much so of the tropical dance lessons clearly absent in their youth.

El crucero de Chanel en Cuba

But beyond the stereotypes, the mélange of vaporous fabrics with the traditional Chanel tweed showed the perfect combination of masculinity and femininity that made Mademoiselle Coco famous and that only Lagerfeld has known to adapt to our times. With an ambiance created by a curious mix of classical music with tones of salsa, together with the beautiful voices of the Franco-Cuban sisters Lisa-Kaindé Díaz and Naomi Díaz (of the group Ibeyi), the show reveals exactly what it is meant to be: a romantic vision of Cuba, born in Lagerfeld’s imagination, combining elements that, in his mind at least, represent Cuba within the language of French elegance in which he is fluent. And the result is nothing other than a faithful example of contemporary fashion: the construction of the present in the design process, through a simultaneous extension to the past and the future.

El crucero de Chanel en Cuba

Cuba, however, might see another result. If Chanel brought 700 people to Cuba, their stay at Habana might have brought incomes never before seen—especially as, on the same day of the show, the first cruise from North America docked in the country’s ports. And all these hundreds of people have done nothing more than bringing the world’s attention to the—idealized—beauty of Cuba: a type of beauty that, almost certainly, a great percentage of the European and North American population have been able to see in the avalanche of images from Cuba that took over social networks thanks to the Chanel show. So if Cuba was not one of the most coveted travel destinations before this week, it would not be surprising if it had become one by now, promoted by the aspirational mechanics of the fashion world. Although it remains to be seen whether those increased incomes from tourism do benefit the island’s population, and not just the ruling class…

El crucero de Chanel en Cuba

The truth is that, in one way or another, Karl Lagerfeld managed to bring Cuba to the center of the world—if only for a week—and the legacy of its “15 minutes of fame” could extend for at least a year. It is likely that the fashion world doesn’t get over Cuba in a while, that Habana becomes the new Tulum of fashionistas, and that the island’s reunion with Capitalism—even if it is only a brief visit—brings higher incomes and benefits to its inhabitants.

Images via The Coveteur. Video courtesy of CHANEL.