Chanel’s haute couture collection pays homage to fashion’s unsung heroes

When he unveiled his fall/winter 2016-17 haute couture collection for Chanel last July, Karl Lagerfeld was very publicly paying tribute to Chanel’s 200-plus behind-the scenes workers who have long remained invisible in the glitzy fashion world.

For the Paris fashion show, he transported Chanel’s workers — affectionately referred to as “les petites mains” — from Rue Cambon, where Chanel’s four ateliers are located, to the Grand Palais. In this majestic location, he set up the workers’ sewing machines, fabrics, dummies and other artisan tools, asking each one of them to carry on with business as usual while the models glided by, wearing Lagerfeld’s latest couture collection. In his own eccentric but always stylish manner — transposing the buzz and energy of the Chanel ateliers onto the runway — Lagerfeld shone the spotlight on “les petites mains,” detailing how one seemingly simple garment can sometimes take hundreds of hours to produce.

The skilled staff members work directly with Lagerfeld. He usually hands them his collection drawings exactly six weeks before the show, giving them that short span of time to create an entire new fashion line for Chanel’s legendary maison. There are usually anywhere between 20 to 25 workers in each atelier at all times, with numbers peaking at about 40 during crunch times. Each worker generally has a minimum of 10 years experience in the industry.

Lagerfeld has long favoured sculptural, tiered silhouettes, but his 32-piece fall/winter 2016-17 haute couture collection segued into a slightly different direction, in which the triangular shape dominates. This trilateral appeal is evident on the tweed trapeze jackets, beautified inserts and angular hems on gowns. Other standouts include double-breasted, button-up suits and suede knee-high boots.

Particularly striking pieces range from a devastating floorlength black gown with a frilly hem to rich, gold-hued tweed culottes paired with an elbow-length top adorned with
a flowing bow. There’s also a coat made of blue and grey squares, a glass-beaded dress and a floral and feathered long dress adorned with black bows.

At the end of the fashion show, Lagerfeld strolled down the runway arm in arm with the workers from his atelier: a fitting finale to a spectacularly creative event.

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Performing Arts Issue #39, pages 92-95.