With the magnificent setting of the 10 BC Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as the backdrop for Chanel’s latest Metiers d’Art show, Karl Lagerfeld was thinking of a chic mash-up of Ancient Egypt and New York itself. The magnificent collection was designed to showcase the small miracles wrought by the house’s fournisseurs. These embroiderers, feather-workers, button makers, costume jewelers, fabric weavers, milliners, and shoe makers are flourishing anew thanks to Chanel’s taking their once waning ateliers and supporting them under the company’s Paraffection subsidiary.
To set the scene, the moat that surrounds the temple in the museum’s dedicated gallery had been planted with thickets of papyrus, the structure itself partially hidden from the view of guests by a high temporary wall to create a more dramatic sense of arrival to this most storied of Manhattan landmarks, albeit a relatively recent implant. (In 1963 the temple was removed from its site in the flood plain that would soon be created by the Aswan Dam and subsequently gifted to the United States by the Egyptian government in recognition of the help provided in rescuing it and other monuments threatened in the same way.)
Karl opened the show with variations on the super-scale jackets he first presented at Chanel’s Spring 2019 ready-to-wear show, but this time he cut the skirts to rise slightly in front in imitation of the shendyt or wrap-around kilted skirt worn by men in Ancient Egypt and so familiar from the period’s hieroglyphs. In a further nod to the period, Karl layered these suits over slim, ankle-length sheath dresses of ivory gauze, like the kalasiris worn by Cleopatra and her ladies. Those famous Chanel tweeds were flecked with lustrous gold—Karl, who can never resist a play on words—called it Luxe Or to sound like the storied city on the Nile. And in another antic play on words he indulged in some prints and motifs drawn from the Memphis group, the 1980s artist and designer collective headed by the protean Ettore Sottsass and named for the ancient Egyptian city, whose work Karl himself commissioned and collected back in the day.
Added to the palette of gold and ivory was coral and scarab blue—and scarabs themselves appeared in jewels and in giant form as evening minaudières. The alligator and python effects in this collection were also trompe l’oeil: They are now created from stamped leather or even from scale-shaped discs of sparkle; Chanel announced on the eve of the show that the brand will no longer be working with crocodile and exotic reptile and stingray skins.
Those Flash Gordon shoulders were dramatic enough to read from one side of the temple to the other, but the real work of the metiers d’art is best examined up close and personal. Those nubbly tweeds? Woven from strips of tulle, sequin, and metallic ribbon. That mesh-like net fabric? A trellis of microscopic golden beads worked by hand. Those elaborate knits? Encrusted with paillettes of lapis and gold in imitation of the ancient Egyptian necklaces that can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum right now in the exhibition Jewelry: The Body Transformed (through February 24th).