“Orientalism”, “Exoticism”, “Chinoiserie” – these are just some of the many labels which were used in the 18th century to describe the interest of the European elites in the East. “Indian”, “Far-Eastern” or “Chinese” were used as umbrella terms for objects from foreign countries. None of these are correct according to today’s standards, but in the 18th century, they were commonly used for either China, India, the whole Asian continent or even countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa. The biggest “trend” was “Chinoiserie”, from the French word “chinois” for Chinese, which already started in the 17th century, peaked around 1700 and ended at the end of the 18th century. There was a brief revival after the Paris expo in 1867 when Asia heavily influenced artists, especially those of the Art Nouveau movement. Travel reports described China as a highly cultural and harmonic country with a fair and just emperor. Those who decorated their homes with exotic objects or wore exotic garments showed that they shared these same enlightened values. Asian tapestries, porcelain, lacquer panels and other objects and lard stone figurines were popular collector’s items in Europe. Needless to say, this trend influenced the arts, architecture and fashion.
As discussed in my other articles about the designer (Lagerfeld and I – What I Learned from My Research about the Fashion Designer and Exploring Karl Lagerfeld: A Multifaceted Designer’s Journey Through History, Art, and Innovation), Karl Lagerfeld had a big passion for 18th-century art and, similarly, his “Orientalism” corresponded to the attitude of that period: it was a fictional place and he absorbed this inspiration into Western fashion. This was nothing new – similar to the artists in the 18th century, many fashion designers, even Gabrielle Chanel herself, had taken inspiration from the Far East and also owned “chinois”-furniture – just like Lagerfeld himself.
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Chinoiserie in Lagerfeld’s Designs
Some of the earliest examples for his chinois-inspired fashion are two dresses for the Chloé Autumn Winter 1976 collection reflecting 18th-century decorative art. The “Du Reve” dress made from silk crepe de chine looks like typical Chinese watercolour paintings on paper. The gold lurex and brown silk crepe de chine “D’Or” dress references lacquered furniture which was extremely precious and sought after in the 18th century. These dresses were hand-painted by Nicole Lefort.
One of the most impressive chinois examples is a dress from the Chanel Autumn Winter 1996/97 collection: It is fully embroidered with bronze seed beads and red, gold and black paillettes illustrating scenes from daily life in China. The jacket above was made in a similar style and both clearly reference the typical Chinese lacquer objects. These objects have a dark (black or red) base colour and are then painted with gold or decorated with inlays to display scenes from daily life of the Chinese upper class, the Emperor’s court or literature.
The source of inspiration in the case of Lagerfeld is very clear: an 18th-century cabinet made in France with panels imitating Chinese Coromandel lacquer screens. It is very likely that Lagerfeld was inspired by this piece of furniture, as it was in Gabrielle Chanel’s apartment at 31,Rue Cambon. Lagerfeld took this typical Chinese pattern and married it with a “fusion-silhouette”: it is a mix of the Chinese “Cheongsam dress” and a cardigan-style coat dress giving the wearer an elongated silhouette. Lagerfeld called this the “stiletto body” and the jackets were called “endless suits”. They were cut very tightly and required special bodysuits underneath. Vogue claims that these silhouettes wrote fashion history, but something else had changed as well: it was a move away from minimalism to opulence.
Lagerfeld & India
Speaking of opulence: No country can do it better than India with its colours, jewellery, craftsmanship and architecture.
In the same Chanel Autumn Winter 1996/7 collection, Lagerfeld also incorporated Indian elements such as Indian-inspired jewellery. He also used many bright colours, such as red and pink tones which are very popular in India. According to Vogue, he was inspired by the British Raj and the famous Lady Curzon, the vicereine of India (1899-1905), whose “Peacock Gown” is one of the most famous in history. It was designed by Jean-Philippe Worth in France and inspired by the Mughal throne.
Lagerfeld designed jackets for the Chanel Autumn Winter 1996/7 collection: lavish gold evening pantsuits or jackets over skirts encrusted with multicoloured rhinestones. Some of these jackets have a stand-up collar, like the ones on the famous “Nehru jacket”, named after the Indian politician Jawaharlal Nehru. Lagerfeld added a “Gripoix”-belt to the ensemble.
The famous gown worn by Lady Curzon may have served as inspiration for Lagerfeld, but I would not limit it solely to the British Raj. When analysing his designs with Indian references in different collections, it becomes clear that he looked much further and got inspired by India itself and its many facets and heritage (not just the one as a romanticised British colony). Even if the gown had been the inspiration, it stands for the old tradition of embroidery of the country: the garment was designed by a French couturier, but the silk taffeta featured the so-called “zardozi”-embroidery, which came to India from Persia and involves different types of metal embroidery and materials and techniques of embellishment. Zardozi is the stitching of various types of materials on garments: sequins, metal strips, gold ribbons and many more. The cut and shape of Worth’s gown were Western, but the embroidery was made in India based on this ancient art.
Lagerfeld displayed his passion for “Orientalism” in Chanel’s so-called “Métier-d’Arts” collections, like “Paris-Bombay” 2012. These collections celebrate to the craftspeople behind the Chanel garments. Similar to Yves Saint Laurent, who had never actually travelled to India but was inspired by the country, Lagerfeld was inspired by an “illusion” of India.
It’s much more inspiring not to go to places than to go.Karl Lagerfeld in Vogue
India for me is an idea. I know nothing about the reality, so I have a poetic vision of something that is perhaps less poetic in reality.Karl Lagerfeld quoted in “A Line of Beauty”
The “Paris-Bombay” show was a typical “Karl affair”: Lagerfeld loved to host eccentric parties and runway shows and put a lot of thought also in the decoration and design of the event location. The runway show and Lagerfeld’s interpretation of this fictional India took place at the Galerie Courbe at the Grand Palais in Paris. The designer had a “luxurious Maharaja’s palace” built (quote from “A Line of Beauty”), with the guests seated at a banquet.
This collection illustrates even more than the one from 1996/7 how Lagerfeld researched the garments and crafts of the country. Similar to the above-mentioned Worth-creation, many of Lagerfeld’s 2012 designs had a clear Western cut, but they were a marriage of signature Chanel elements – tweed and pearls, for example –with Indian details such as headpieces, opulent jewellery and nose rings for the women and turbans for the men.
Some jackets and accessories had mirror work, there were also gloves with embroidery of Indian patterns. Some designs incorporated Indian silk brocade, some the famous Indian block prints, even with their traditional patterns and colours. Some dresses referenced the kurta (a collar-less tunic often worn over pants), some were draped at the shoulder like saris and some skirts looked like a version of saris: the skirt in a solid colour with a gold border at the bottom.
One of the most known pieces of the 2012 collection was a white ensemble made from silk crepe – a nod to the single, continuous cloth of the Indian sari. It does look like a sari due to the signature wrapped skirt draped over the shoulder. But Lagerfeld also merged it with a tailored dress with a Nehru-collar and short sleeves. As mentioned above, it was nothing new that Lagerfeld took inspiration from Asian countries. And in this case, the dress is also a nod to a sari-dress by Coco Chanel from 1939. Chanel turned to Indian garments as a way to illustrate her “modern Orientalism” (quote from “A Line of Beauty”). She not only designed a sari-dress but also her “pantaloons” from the 1920s are direct references of Indian clothing. Furthermore, she was inspired by Mughal jewellery in the 1930s and later used lamé and brocade fabric for her 1950s designs. Lagerfeld saw a sketch of the sari-dress in a magazine and probably took it as a starting point for his design in 2012.
According to Vogue, the “Paris-Bombay” collection and runway show served as a reminder that the European fashion and couture houses have often turned to India to produce intricate garments at lower cost. Lagerfeld actually had everything which looked “Indian” made in the Chanel ateliers in Paris. Vogue applauded him for this move, I think it would have been a better and more powerful sign if he had collaborated with artisans in India instead and given them credit.
Bombay was not the only (fictional) destination to which Lagerfeld and Chanel travelled with the Métiers-d’Arts collections: In 2004/5 it was “Paris-Tokyo” and in 2009 “Paris-Shanghai”. The latter took place on a 10-meter-long barge on the Huang River.
As mentioned above, Northern Africa was also under the umbrella of the “oriental” label in the 18th century and similarly, Lagerfeld “travelled” to the Temple of Dendur in ancient Egypt in the Métiers-d’Arts collection 2018/19. Skirts referenced the “shendyt”, a kilt-like loincloth worn by Egyptian men. A short white bouclé and tulle dress was embroidered with beads, sequins and leather in an overall lozenge pattern and it was worn over a slim sheath dress of white and silk net. The bouclé and tulle dress was inspired by the Egyptian beadnet dress; the sheath dress by the “kalasiris” – female garments depicted in hieroglyphs and sculptures.
In conclusion, Karl Lagerfeld’s fascination with “Orientalism” and his incorporation of Eastern aesthetics into Western fashion reflect the enduring influence of foreign countries on fine art, architecture and fashion in Europe. Lagerfeld’s designs reflect the decorative arts, crafts and garments of the region, blending traditional motifs and techniques with signature Chanel elements and Western cuts. His collections transport us to a fictionalized version of these “exotic” destinations, allowing us a glimpse into foreign fashion cultures through opulent garments and lavish runway shows.
While Lagerfeld’s designs showcase his poetic vision of the East, it is important to recognize the historical and cultural context from which he drew inspiration. Looking beyond the aesthetics, it becomes evident that Lagerfeld’s interpretations of India and other Eastern countries were filtered through a Western lens. Nevertheless, his creative exploration of “Orientalism” leaves a lasting impact on the fashion industry, revealing the ongoing fascination with the allure and mystique of the East and the hope that this can be turned into equal collaborations of European fashion houses and local artisans in the future.
Hamish Bowles, India in Fashion, The Impact of Indian Dress and Textiles on the Fashionable Imagination, Exhibition Catalogue, Nita Mkuesh Ambani Cultural Centre, Bombay, 2023
Avalon Fortheringham, The Indian Textile Sourcebook, London, 2019
Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty, Exhibition Catalogue, Metropolitan Museum of Art New York, 2023
Jean-Christophe Napias/et al., Karl und wie er die Welt sah, London, 2020
Elisabeth Steiger, Maria Theresias fernöstliche Sammelleidenschaft. Die Lackpaneele in den Chinesischen Kabinetten von Schloss Schönbrunn, Vienna, 2023
Vogue Runway, Online Database for fashion shows
This article is based on the personal, views, experiences and research of Elisabeth Steiger, no fees were received by the organisations and people mentioned above. The attitude of Karl Lagerfeld and the design houses for which he worked does not automatically reflect the author’s personal opinion.
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