Chanel’s Scottish Touch Warms Up the Scottish Highlands

December 10th, 2012

EDINBURGH — The ghost of the doomed Mary, Queen of Scots, might have been swirling in the (fake) mist above the ruined castle where she was born five centuries ago; and the plaintive bagpipes could have been in honor of Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel, when the young French woman was in love with both the Duke of Westminster and the Highlands of Scotland.

The Chanel show that Karl Lagerfeld put on last week at Linlithgow Palace, near Edinburgh, was spectacular in every sense of the word. The burning braziers, sending quivering light over old stone, and the dinner held in a tented space, arising like magic on the hillside, were outshone only by an exceptional collection.

The exquisite detail of medieval hair melded with African braids, of tweeds elongated into winter coats and of ethereal white dresses, full sleeved blouses and regal ruffs, made this one of the finest shows the designer has created in his tenure at Chanel, which hits 30 years in 2013.

“The queen of Scotland and the queen of fashion,” said Mr. Lagerfeld, as if it were so easy to take elements from the court and the clans of Scotland in the 16th century, streamlined modern sportswear and a whiff of Punk and send them out into the frosty night air, where fiery sparks competed with gently drifting snowflakes.

In his new role as titan of tartan, the designer excelled in sophisticated mixes, so far from the cliché kilts and plaid scarves in tourist-shop windows in this city of sooty granite buildings. Even Mr. Lagerfeld’s version of a wool blanket to warm an audience, sitting in the open wooden arcade, was a meld of soft colors, with the flourish of double C’s embroidered over a Scottish thistle.

The clothes themselves made fine references to the different métiers d’art that Chanel nurtures in Paris: hence the plumier represented by a neckpiece of autumnal feathers shot through with Jay blue; while embroideries of Fair Isle patterns on chiffon created the most haute couture sweater likely to be seen north or south of the borders. Even shoes, sturdy but stylish, were a tribute to the Bottier, which is part of the Chanel tribe of special suppliers. Add diamond-patterned hose for a chic twist.

The jewels themselves were a fine example of the show’s title “Paris-Edimbourg.” Stones in dark, forest colors were framed in rough gilding, as yet another take on the raw and the refined. Other witty touches with accessories included a cloth thistle in the hair or a double C’s leather flask bag (handy for carrying whisky or Chanel No. 5.).

“They let me do anything I want,” said Mr. Lagerfeld, perched over a hefty wooden dinner table carved in Scotland for the event. He was referring to his “bosses,” the Wertheimer brothers, the owners of Chanel, for whom no dream of their designer seems too much — including staging a show in a roofless palace in the frozen heart of a Scottish winter.

Yet behind the show and its scattering of celebrities — including the model Stella Tennant, looking more regal with every outfit — was a serious purpose: to underline the Scottish skills that Chanel has set out to save.

If Coco Chanel, in the fashion world, “owns” the tweed jacket, the soul of the woven woolen fabric can be found beside the River Tweed, where the mix of soft water and skilful hands created the material that has been a staple of Chanel since the 1920s.

Knitwear, the second most important category after jackets, according to Bruno Pavlovsky, president of Chanel fashion, is so vital to the couture house that it bought in October the Barrie Knitwear company.

Last week, the Coco two-tone cashmere cardigans were being stitched, cut and shaped by handworkers — as they have been for the past 25 years. Under threat from its parent company Dawson International, which was mired in pension debts, the factory was faced with closure or a buyout by Chinese factories looking for specialized knitwear equipment.

Now Barrie, in its austere home in undulating hills speckled with the sheep that provide the raw material, is part of Chanel’s “Paraffection” or “out of love” subsidiary, which supports its artisans.

“It’s a great opportunity for us — and we know we make the best with a skilled work force and a focus on quality,” said Jim Carrie, Barrie’s managing director. Although Chanel does not discuss it, the knitwear factory also makes goods for other luxury brands and, with the closure of Ballantyne and Pringle mills, is fast becoming the only supplier in the small town of Hawick.

“It’s a balance between modern and traditional methods — but we don’t always believe that simple is best,” said Clive Brown, Barrie’s commercial director, as he watched a worker pick up her scissors and slice a neckline through the knitting.

If Barrie’s role is to create the Chanel products that — after ultra-strict quality control — are sent to stores across the world, Mr. Lagerfeld’s focus is to create magic out of something as apparently banal as a sweater and a pair of shorts.

Maybe it is Mr. Lagerfeld’s German roots that have given him intuitive understanding of cold climate clothes that seemed genuinely pitched as winter wear, rather than urban chic. There was poetry in every piece from the raw edges of a chiffon sleeved blouse to the green of Loch waters for a leather jacket.

Who but Mr. Lagerfeld could have imagined Chanel as a Scottish superstar.

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