Ancient Egypt in the Digital Era: Karl Lagerfeld’s Spectacular Métiers d’Art Show

Unlike most literary genres, biographical books are often prone to easy criticism and to being closely fact checked, especially when their authors stretch their reach by attempting to present the exposé of an era. Alicia Drake’s The Beautiful Fall, which chronicles the “rivalry” between Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld throughout the 70s, was no exception. But for all possible fictionalized material and errors that might have been pointed out, a major take away from this reading is that Lagerfeld, then and since, has been a luminary, a flamboyant genius, and someone who has an uncanny aptitude for reinvention. Chanel’s memorable Métiers d’Art show, which took place in the Egyptian Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, certainly furthered his legacy, along with the House of Chanel which he has been a part of since the early eighties.


Chanel Métiers d'Art 2018/19 runway show in New York. Photo: Courtesy of PR.


Using the Temple of Dendur as a wonderful and dramatic setting, the designer’s collection amalgamated the magnificence of Ancient Egypt, dazzling and royal, and the slickness of New York, elegant and hip. Considering that Egyptology has been, literally and metaphorically, a source of inspiration for fashion designers for decades, most notably starting in the 1920s when Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamun’s treasure-filled tomb, the potential for the cliché and the overdone was therefore quite real. And yet, Lagerfeld’s vision could not have been further from it.

 

In great part, this was due to the manner in which he cleverly offered nods to the Egyptian period. Of course, there were recognizable references such as the scarab-shaped jewels, hieroglyphic prints created by French graffiti artist Cyril Kongo, glittery pharaoh collars, or those distinctive shades of gold, ivory, and coral. But many of the references were rather subtle yet easily identifiable, if anything because many of us have been familiarized with Egyptian aesthetics, motifs, and symbols, be it through movies, art, or hieroglyphic depictions. The same way a designer would tap into pop culture to trigger familiarity – think Jeremy Scott or Coach – Lagerfeld did the same with history and anthropology.



Chanel Métiers d'Art 2018/19 runway show in New York. Photos: Courtesy of PR.


With his usual sense of wit, for instance, he kicked off the show with a varied selection of jackets paired with skirts that had been cut to extend right above the knees, no doubt an imitation of the Shendyt, a kilt-like garment worn around the waist in ancient Egypt. By layering tops over ankle-length sheath dresses made in gauze, Lagerfeld also used a silhouette not unlike those of a Kalarisis, a distinctive long linen dress worn by women (including Cleopatra) throughout the region.

 

Another reason the collection rose above an aesthetic truism was that it was executed and adorned with sumptuous craft and artisanship, which Chanel honored in the show notes, describing their dedicated effort to make sure these ateliers stayed relevant and in business.



Chanel Métiers d'Art 2018/19 runway show in New York. Photos: Courtesy of PR.


Although it required some squinting – which still did not do it justice as such careful, splendid, and detailed work can only be truly appreciated from up close – the exceptional was certainly in the details worked on by these ateliers. From net fabrics constructed by hand in trellis forms using golden beads and knits encrusted with specks of precious metals and stones to tweeds woven from metallic ribbons and sequin, much of the craftsmanship in these pieces elevated many of the looks from beautiful to exquisite.

 

Keeping the overall theme cohesive, there were also alligator trousers, crocodile leathers, and even the occasional snakeskin on the catwalk, all of which were trompe l’œil and faux. To the joy of many, the French luxury house announced this week – strategically a few days before the show – that it would no longer be working with exotics in their manufacturing, so no more crocodile, stingray, or reptile skins.



Pharrell Williams, Helen Williams and Soo Joo Park at the Chanel Métiers d'Art 2018/19 runway show in New York. Photos: Courtesy of PR.

There is much to learn from how and why Lagerfeld has been so successful, and for this long, but one of his defining skills is to merge the old with the new, to add a truly original twist to it, and to make it something that is his and that is unique. To successfully appropriate a worn-out theme like ancient Egypt and somehow brilliantly bring it into the 21st Century is no small task, even with the help of the likes of Kaia Gerber, Anok Yai, Soo Joo Park, Binx Walton, and the ever-so-surprising Pharrell Williams, who did indeed look quite Pharaoh-like in his gold denim and shimmering knit tunic.