Noelle McCarthy: Chanel and girl power


The 'fashion protest' at Chanel's recent show in Paris. Picture / Olivier Saillant

Last week a new biography revealed Coco's collaboration with the nazis, and Chanel had a fashion show that culminated in a rally. Karl Lagerfeld's never been one to attach too much importance to the past, after all. The models walked in twos and threes through a Grand Palais got up to look like a Paris Boulevard, complete with full-size buildings and puddles on the road. For the finale they all came back out in a phalanx, waving placards that said things like "MEN SHOULD GET PREGNANT", and "FREE FREEDOM".

As rallying cries go, they weren't exactly up there with "Peace, Bread and Land". But people got upset about it, unsurprisingly. In the post-Occupy era, there was always going to be some uncertainty about how well a mock protest staged by a big-bucks fashion brand, for the express purpose of selling more overpriced clothes, could be expected to land. Even fashion people own televisions and go on Twitter. In a week where events in Hong Kong were beamed around the world, one wonders if somebody, anybody at the august house of Chanel had the thought that getting Cara Delevingne to shout "What do we want" to a crowd of protesters through a megaphone covered with the Chanel logo might possibly be a bit on the nose? Never mind that the answer was "carbohydrates", probably.

What else can you expect from Karl Lagerfeld though, a man for whom the zeitgeist has never been anything but a means of selling clothes? Karl takes the culture - the movies, the books the pop stars - and feeds it through his fashion houses, turning it into highly coveted, overpriced consumables. He's less of a designer than a digestive tract with a hairdo. But he's good at it. Better, arguably than anyone else in the business. He has, up until now, demonstrated an unerring instinct about what will resonate with women. Remember how he sent all his models down the runway with Amy Winehouse beehives, when everyone else was still thinking she looked silly? But the Chanel protest may be a miscalculation. For one thing it feels cynical. As if Lagerfeld saw Emma Watson speaking to the UN and decided feminism was suddenly marketable.

He's right of course. The empowerment of women is an inherently sexy proposition. I have no problem with beautiful girls in Chanel suits being photographed waving feminist slogans; I also hope that every single model in the show got paid a good wage for doing it. I hope every single Chanel shop-girl is getting a fair deal from the company, ditto all the garment workers the company employs, most of whom, globally, tend to be women. Feminism without a commitment to economic and social equality is just window dressing. Chanel needs to remember that.

How deep this commitment to feminism will go remains to be seen in any case. Lagerfeld doesn't exactly have the best track record when it comes to speaking up for women. It wasn't that long ago he called Adele "a bit fat" and said Pippa Middleton should only show her back, not her front, in public. It'll take more than a few placards to show he's all about girl power.


* What did you think of Chanel's fashion show 'rally'?


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