The big luxury houses are feeling optimistic, and with good reason. Thanks to the resilience of Chinese and American consumers, 2020 was not as disastrous as many had feared. The IMF predicts that most advanced economies will suffer little lasting damage from the pandemic. And though many people have lost their jobs in the past year, others have seen their stock portfolios and savings swell, and are ready to go out, travel and spend as restrictions ease.

“The situation is quite good,” says Chanel president Bruno Pavlovsky, speaking from Provence on Monday, the day before the brand’s audience-less Cruise 2021/22 show was broadcast online. While he says it is “far too early” to say whether the company’s 2021 sales will match the record $12.3bn Chanel generated in 2019, he is encouraged by the brand’s recovery in China, the US, Russia and “pockets” such as Dubai. “[Dubai] is one of the rare situations where you can see people coming from abroad. When that exists, business is always quite good.” If, as indicated, vaccinated American tourists are welcomed back to Europe this summer, that will also be good for Chanel, Pavlovsky adds.

With many of its customers unable to travel, creative director Virginie Viard took viewers on a virtual journey to the Carrières de Lumières, the white limestone quarries immortalised by Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel’s friend and collaborator Jean Cocteau in his 1960 film The Testament of Orpheus. Their chalky, roughly hewn surfaces were the backdrop and inspiration for the largely black-and-white collection, which combined typical Cruise fare (Breton stripes, riffs on sailors’ uniforms, white waistless dresses) with clothes imbued with a punkish spirit: band tees and short tweed skirts with frayed edges; capes and mini skirts in fringed black leather; weighty, heart-shaped lockets and nose rings fixed with double Cs.

Chanel’s founder was celebrated for freeing women, and Viard does her best work when homing in on this legacy. There was a heaviness to some of these clothes that was evident in the way the models moved. Better were the looks that were unrestricted and simply styled: a cropped white moto-style jacket and ecru pleated trousers with polished cap-toe boots, a fitted long-sleeve dress of ivory lace, an effortless white kaftan with full sleeves gathered gently at the throat.

Although she worked alongside predecessor Karl Lagerfeld for more than three decades, Viard is a wholly different designer. She is shy of the limelight, granting few interviews, and those she does grant are devoid of the controversial material that often kept Lagerfeld, and by extension Chanel, in the headlines for weeks. But customers appear to love her clothes: ready-to-wear sales were up 28 per cent between 2018 and 2019.

“They are different,” Pavlovsky replies when asked whether the era of the “star” designer is over at Chanel. “What I like with Virginie is that she is what she is; she is doing quite well but is not in the public sphere. That’s a decision but also a culture, which is quite meaningful.”

Chanel has been somewhat late to the sustainability conversation; the online watchdog Good on You rates the company’s environmental progress “Not good enough” for not furnishing evidence that it is on track to meet the carbon reduction targets the company unveiled 14 months ago, and the lack of eco-friendly materials in its collections. Pavlovsky promises the company will publish an update on those targets when it releases its 2020 earnings next month. As for the materials — more than a third of the looks in the collection were crafted primarily from organic or recycled fabrics, including four “eco-friendly” tweeds from its wholly owned supplier, Lesage. It’s a start.

This month may mark the last of the digital fashion shows. Dior plans to show Cruise (the collection that arrives in stores around the end of the year) in Athens on June 17, and Chanel expects to host guests at its haute couture show in Paris in early July. Although Pavlovsky says the company has learnt a lot about amplifying shows and events via digital, and grown its business with local customers by the “double digits”, the past year has neither damped its enthusiasm for bricks-and-mortar nor for live, physical fashion shows.

Column charts showing Chanel

Which is almost a shame, because after 14 months of experimentation, some of these digital fashion shows are getting seriously good. Case in point: Saint Laurent’s recently released autumn/winter 2021 show, an epic production filmed against the grand waterfalls, icebergs and stark volcanic rock cliffs of Iceland. (Or what is obviously Iceland; Saint Laurent’s publicity team declined to confirm local media reports that the video was filmed there.)

Just as other houses are leaning into black-and-white, creative director Anthony Vaccarello went the opposite way, unveiling a collection high on colour, shine and unabashed sexiness that was wonderfully offset by the powerful landscape. A gold-buttoned tweed jacket of cobalt blue was teamed with a silver leotard and a thigh-baring skirt ringed with raspberry fur (Saint Laurent is one of the few houses still using the stuff). Gold brocade tunics were layered over the briefest of shorts, while jodhpurs were belted over bodysuits with deep scoop necks or, for evening, paired with a tuxedo jacket and frilly white shirt. And then there were the accessories: lithe bags suspended from metal chains, sensible for nights out; gold chain necklaces and belts, some affixed with four-leaf clovers or crosses; and stacks of chokers and earrings of fringed diamanté. Semi-sheer black tights were worn with slingbacks with pointed metallic toes, or else slipped under thigh-high stiletto boots.

It was all very sellable. One could imagine a younger customer picking up the little chain bags, or splurging on the slingbacks. A more mature customer might pick up one of the rectangular, early ’90s-ish wool jackets or cardigans and pair it with jeans. “The irrepressible lightness of the collection mocks its serious ambitions,” Vaccarello observed in his show notes.

More importantly, the show was good for the brand overall, which along with ready-to-wear, footwear and accessories has a significant beauty licence with L’Oréal. After crossing the €2bn revenue threshold in 2019, Saint Laurent’s sales slipped to €1.7bn last year due to the pandemic. Vaccarello has said that it is vital for the brand’s shows to rival that of bigger houses, and he clearly achieved that here.

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