Rome wasn’t built in a day.
It took two, in the hands of Karl Lagerfeld.
Actually, the world’s most prolific and multi-tasking fashion designer was speaking of the latest Coco Chanel-themed film that he wrote, directed, and filmed himself, when he told me just how much he could accomplish in a matter of 48 hours. He mentioned this during a preview of his latest collection on Monday at a hotel in Rome, near the very top of the Spanish Steps, while he was doing several other things, such as reading a Henry James biography, entertaining a revolving court of journalists, and deciding what accessories would go with each of the looks for his show. A model with sultry La Dolce Vita looks, her hair in a slight bouffant, wore a deeply black dress that was part seductive gown, part widow’s weeds.
“I love this, because all I wear is black,” the model said. It took me a beat to realize she was Bella Hadid.
Every season, the world’s richest luxury brands seem to up the ante with the level of extravagance surrounding their fashion shows, especially those for the in-between collections held around the world, and Lagerfeld has typically outdone them all with his work at Chanel. His multi-day adventure in Rome climaxed with a mind-boggling party held on Tuesday evening within several venues at the sprawling, storied film studios here known as Cinecittà, for a collection dubbed “A French Girl in Rome.” The party started on a plaza movie set dotted with marble statuary that resembled for all intents and purposes the streets of ancient Rome, then continued to a screening of Lagerfeld’s film, which starred Kristen Stewart and Geraldine Chaplin (both as Coco Chanel, at different ages), and then finished with a runway show where the set was designed to look like the streets of Paris, rendered as in a black-and-white film, in the stucco building known as Teatro 5, which happened to be the favorite of Federico Fellini.
All of this reminded me of a line from a profile of Lagerfeld in T Magazine, in which the writer Andrew O’Hagan described him as “more like a grand film director than a designer.” And I think this is exactly right, a perfectly timed association given the setting for a collection that not incidentally paid tribute to cinematic history, but when asked if he thought of himself in that way, he demurred.
“I’m just doing, you know,” he said. “I’m not an art director. I am never pleased, and that is a very good motivation to always think, to always try to make an effort to be better.”
This happened to be a great collection to demonstrate Lagerfeld’s enduring talent as a designer, more youthful, both sporty and sensuous, and a complete rendering of a concept that intertwined the house’s connections to Italian movies (Anouk Aimée, Jeanne Moreau, and Romy Schneider wore Chanel in their iconic films) with modern interpretations of Italian fashion, such as tweed city pajamas that were a playful take on the wide-legged “palazzo” style originated by Irene Galitzine in the 1960s. Models were styled almost as variations of film stars, like Lara Stone as Anita Ekberg, and some bags were shaped like movie cameras. There were some mixed references to the Vatican as well, a cropped cape worn over a matching tweed dress, and possibly a couple of altar boys who appeared on the runway, but these were little jokes, not political statements.
As for the stage design, it was far more complex than initially perceived, a monochromatic gray cityscape that included a patisserie, a fishmonger, and a Metro station from where the models first appeared. In fact, the old sets of silent movies were often created in black and white, something Lagerfeld chose to recreate because, otherwise, the clothes would have been lost against a more elaborately colorful backdrop.
“Paris, perhaps this way, never existed,” Lagerfeld said. “In the '50s and '60s, you couldn’t have crossed the street dressed like this without being taken for a streetwalker. It’s more about the air, than about reality. It’s a romantic idea of Paris, it’s all about romance. Times are not that romantic, so we have to work on that.”
At the finale of the show, the set then transformed as shop doors opened, and waiters appeared with plates of pasta and cheese, oysters, and endless desserts. I found Kristen Stewart near a pizzeria, gamely fielding questions on her performance as an actor cast to portray the young Coco Chanel in a biopic. She had no time to prepare for the role, and had to trust Lagerfeld’s instincts, since he improvised the script even while filming.
“I like being able to follow somebody who takes risks and doesn’t need to plan everything and buries these little gems in order to find them later and surprise yourself, so following him, I didn’t feel in a precarious situation at all,” she said. “I felt the way I wanted to feel – a little tipped on the edge, at all times.”