A review by Benjamin Schwarz
Coco Chanel's Madonna-like self-invention, Trump-like self-promotion, and Yoda-like
pronouncements, together with her intense and convoluted love life (famously,
when she launched her career as a couturier she was a kept woman; notoriously,
she was a "horizontal" collaborator during the Second World War), have
meant that writers have scrutinized her persona and biography more intently than
the clothes she created and the look she defined. This swank book, however, published
in conjunction with the current Chanel exhibition at the Met, focuses on the continuities
and evolution of the style of the house of Chanel from its inception, before the
First World War, to its current permutation under the direction of Karl Lagerfeld
(his impenetrable Teutonic blather, which as far as I can tell insults the founder
of the house he presides over, is -- thank goodness -- confined to two pages).
Fashion writing tends toward the gaseous, but Koda's introduction and the text
of the exhibition catalogue he wrote with Bolton nicely explain Chanel's innovations,
clearly define the essential qualities of her designs, and concretely convey the
workings of cut and construction. The photographsenhanced by Lagerfeld to,
I must admit, haunting effect -- of the variations on the "little black dress"
(all of which marry traditional, elegant materials to precise tailoring, creating
the impression of "little more than a breeze," as Harper's Bazaar
put it in 1923) and of the sumptuously astringent, squarish suits (with their
exquisite but functional details and their "soft tailoring" and easily
draped fabrics that allow them to drift over rather than cling to the body) testify
to a living tradition that has tamed Lagerfeld even in his efforts to subvert
it. After all, to quote Coco, "Fashion fades. Only style remains the same."
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