Under the glass roof of Paris’s Grand Palais, a protest is taking place, a procession of women, signs held aloft, calling for female empowerment, as they stride confidently past the large crowds they have attracted. Its setting is a monumental screen print of a typical Parisian rue dubbed the ‘Boulevard Chanel’; its demonstrators, eighty models centered around such high-profile names as Cara Delevingne and Gisele Bündchen; the props, quilted megaphones and handbags dripping in Chanel iconography.
Indeed, the finale of Chanel’s Spring-Summer 2015 ready-to-wear show possessed all the ingredients for a potent collision of fashion and feminism, yet it left many a critic cold and confused as to its underlying intentions. A prevailing mood of discomfort regarding Lagerfeld’s seemingly hollow hijacking of the feminist cause for publicity purposes immediately permeated the international press, giving rise to concerns as varied as they are, perhaps, unfounded. While some dwelled on the apparent hypocrisy of this multi-billion dollar luxury brand’s attempt to promote a liberated individualism by way of exorbitantly expensive garments, others bristled at the narrow spectrum of ‘ideal’ female beauty represented by the designer’s casting of professional fashion models in the role of feminist activists. Protest signs carrying such slogans as, ‘Tweed not Tweet’, ‘Ladies First’ and ‘History is Her Story’ were widely derided as empty and naïve attempts to exploit the gravity of a highly topical social issue. Journalist Alexander Fury even went as far as to suggest that the show had been the very ‘artifice of anarchy’, a noisy, fussy publicity stunt lacking in any real, honest political statement.
But as debates raged over potential misinterpretations of that significantly weighted word – feminism – and accusations of trivialization poured forth, the very point of the show itself appeared to have been not just overlooked, but also largely, and sadly, missed. The true stars of the show were, in fact, the clothes themselves, which formed, in the words of Vogue’s Suzy Menkes, a ‘back-to-Coco parade’, one which confirmed that the dynamic spirit of the label’s fiercely independent female founder still endures, nearly a century after its sartorial debut. Gabrielle Chanel herself was fashion’s greatest inadvertent feminist. She bestowed a freedom of movement and gender blurring right to comfort and function upon women, whose experiences of dress had, thereto, been characterised by restriction, adornment and submission. This specific collection’s layering of menswear-inspired elements (boxy tweed jackets, wide-leg trousers and sailor stripe knits) atop feminine basenotes of florals, unusually vibrant prints and classic Chanel monochrome palettes travelled to the very heart of the brand’s unique heritage, while, simultaneously, allowing the image of the modern, active woman to be effectively reimagined and updated for a post-Coco society.
It is important that such a presentation is not taken out of context as, after all, it seems illogical to dismiss the theatrical spectacle of the show’s format as mere ‘publicity stunt,’ when the very function of a fashion show is that of self-promotion and commercial endorsement. Unlike the design philosophies at the root of the Chanel brand, gender equality debates can arguably never truly be timeless, as constantly shifting social mores require them to move and morph with their times, never standing still. Therefore, to accuse Chanel of presenting a reductive view of diluted feminism seems a step too far, and the very fact that it is engaging in the discussion at all should be applauded. Fashion, viewed through the lens of feminism is likely to remain a problematic concept on many levels, but it should be recognized that attempts to exclude it from the conversation would only be counter-productive. The most negative aspect of feminism’s fraught relationship with fashion does not lie in the sartorial embrace of what it means to be a modern woman, in any era, but in the fact that the two spheres are being forced to uncomfortably co-exist as conflicting and contradictory ideologies. Lagerfeld’s riot of a show may not have brought about longed-for permanent change, but it has taken us one step closer to breaking down the seemingly obligatory boundaries between the two by, at last, allowing them to assume a much-needed dialogue that is imperative to the future success of both.