On Tuesday, the mighty house of Chanel showed its cruise 2021/22 collection at Dubai Harbour Creek, in a lavish production across two shows, one in the afternoon and one to follow in the evening, in front of an audience of more than 1,000 guests.
While the logistics of staging a show are complex, Bruno Pavlovsky, the president of fashion at Chanel, explains that, in contrast, the decision to bring the show to Dubai was very simple.
“Dubai is not that far [from Europe] and it’s an important international platform, a mix of cultures, and with a lot of exchange," he tells The National. "Also, the situation has been well monitored during this pandemic, so if we are here, it’s because we can be, which is not the case for most countries. It makes sense that we reconnect first with Dubai.”
As the world begins to emerge from the pandemic, fashion houses are slowly returning to shows held in front of live audiences. “We are happy to be in Dubai, we have a wonderful location, a wonderful show, there is an amazing energy that you can feel in the region. Chanel is very happy to be here.”
Chanel has enjoyed a long relationship with Dubai. The French luxury fashion house was one of the early high-end pioneers to arrive in the UAE, and has staged a show here before, when then-creative director Karl Lagerfeld brought his cruise show over in 2014.
Yet, for this collection, in particular, it marks two historic moments: it's the first travelling collection by Virginie Viard, Chanel’s new creative director for fashion; and, interestingly, it's the first time this collection will be shown in front of a physical audience.
While the collection debuted in May this year, it was conveyed digitally as a short film, owing to pandemic restrictions. It was shot in an imposing ancient quarry in Les Baux-de-Provence, and Chanel hired a film crew to capture the mood and feel of the collection. The final result is elegant and lovely to behold, but for the Chanel team, more used to the frantic pace of live fashion shows, it was a new and drawn-out experience.
”Ít was a nightmare,” Pavlovsky admits, with a laugh. “For us, the filming was a very weird sensation. We stayed a day and half in this location, with the team saying, 'let’s go again, let's try again.’ But we are not cinema-minded. We want things that are quick, fast. Fashion is about energy.”
Pavlovsky is delighted to be back with a runway show. “It’s good to have fashion shows back. Yes, it’s a lot of work, but it’s a pleasure to reconnect with our customers.”
This cruise collection, created by Viard, is a key part of that reconnection, as she reframes the house away from the beautiful primness of the Lagerfeld years, and instead towards something younger, looser, more directional.
"Virginie has a unique perception and vision of the customer of today," explains Pavlovsky. Having worked in Chanel for years alongside Lagerfeld himself, Viard has a deep knowledge of the house, and being a woman can translate that in a way that Lagerfeld could not. With Viard, the language is now softer and more subtle.
“What is interesting is that Karl was doing amazing collections, but Virginie was here too. And today she feels free to express something a bit more feminine. Having had a chance to be with her during the fittings for the fashion shows, you see the smile on the models when they are trying their looks. They feel comfortable."
Where Lagerfeld was more formal, Viard's outlook is more relaxed, he says. "You feel the connection, the communication. It’s much easier.”
Of course, the reason for a fashion show is to bring to light a new collection that has been carefully crafted behind locked doors for weeks, or even months. It is a unique opportunity for the house to deliver the clothes in such a way as to convey the message behind it.
"Fashion is about storytelling, to put everything together for 20 minutes, to give the right presentation of the collection," explains Pavlovsky. The cruise collection, for example, is only one of up to 10 shows that Chanel stages a year, from ready-to-wear through to haute couture. Such a calendar is punishing, yet Pavlovsky is clear why it's so important to the house.
"We are very lucky to start over 10 times a year, with new storytelling, a new approach and new inspiration. Every collection is a new adventure. The reason why Virginie is not here in Dubai, because she is focused on the Metiers d'Art collection that is taking place one month from now. And six weeks after that, we have the haute couture. Yes, it’s a lot of work, but it’s a chance to be inspired, and work with many different people and bring something new each time. It is very inspiring for us.”
Such fast-paced reinvention, Pavlovsky believes, is part of the almost mythical air that surrounds Chanel, and that's what keeps customers returning season after season.
"Nobody needs a new bag or a new pair of shoes,” he explains. "So you have to find the reason to make it very special, and at Chanel, we have the chance to do that. We sell a dream."
Even the global disruption caused by the pandemic did not stop customers from flocking to Chanel. Even when boutiques were shuttered, the house found a way to connect directly with clients, delivering hand-curated selections straight to their door, and offering virtual style talks with brands ambassadors.
"I don’t think the definition of luxury has changed, but it’s been reinforced. More than ever, we need the brand to have a lot of authenticity. More than ever, there is full transparency, and full traceability. So when we do something, it is because we believe it makes sense for our customers. It’s about strong storytelling, strong fashion and strong savoir-faire.
"Our customers, they can afford whatever they want, so every morning Chanel has to have a specific space in their mind. And we have to be here, and permanently fulfilling this space with a new dream, a new reason and that’s very important."
Part of that dream, Pavlovsky believes, is being clear about pricing, sustainability and accountability. Over the course of the pandemic, Chanel increased its prices by 15 per cent across many of its products. While this may feel like a risky strategy during a time of global uncertainty, Pavlovsky is happy to be transparent.
"Everything is more expensive. As you know, spring 2020 was quite difficult for everyone. We did not cancel any orders during the pandemic. We paid all of our staff 100 per cent full pay, and pushed our suppliers to do the same. We have been very active to make sure everyone was being paid, and kept their job. Raw materials are very difficult to get, especially the best quality, so that has a cost."
Chanel has also committed to transforming its entire structure into something more sustainable and environmentally friendly. In March 2020, it launched Mission 1.5°, as its part to keep the global temperature rise to a sustainable level, and in July 2021 announced an investment of $25 million in the climate change venture by the World Wide Fund for Nature.
"It’s more than being strategic," he explains. "You cannot offer ultimate luxury and not be at the cutting edge of this. From the product, to the way of making, to recyclability, we are working across all of these topics, and need to be not only consistent, but exemplary. There is no compromise, because we are Chanel and that’s what our customers are expecting."