In 1934, the 51-year-old couturier Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, took a three-room apartment at the hotel on Place Vendôme. The mademoiselle was no stranger to the hotel's lavishly furnished suites. She had frequented them during her courtship with the British polo player Arthur "Boy" Capel, her great love, in 1908. And she had conducted affairs with the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky and the dance impresario Sergei Diaghilev while staying in its rooms in 1921.
Her residency during the 1930s was marked by extremism and the politics of the far right and left. The shadow of National Socialism was encroaching. Yet Paris, glistening in the twilight of the gilded age, retained its cosmopolitan sparkle: international artists, philosophers and playwrights still congregated in its drinking establishments, all making their contribution to the city's unique cultural stew.
Chanel was one of the more glamorous ingredients: famed for her ability to traverse all sorts of social groups and a source of intrigue among her peers. Her time at the Ritz was marked by further trysts, among them the Republican Spanish sculptor Apel les Fenosa, whom she met via Jean Cocteau in 1939, and Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage, the German bon vivant, Nazi party member and possible spy with whom she was most controversially linked throughout the war. Unusually, Chanel was allowed to remain in a smaller Ritz room during the Occupation. She later described the war as a "period singularly lacking in dignity" but nevertheless did a brisk business in her store on Rue Cambon, which sold bottles of her signature fragrance, Chanel No 5, to German soldiers shopping for their wives. It was also from the Ritz that she planned her triumphant comeback, in 1954, and where, according to her biographer Lisa Chaney, she gave up "on a life that was private . . . to cultivate her legend".
With so many narrative threads to conjure with, it was surely inevitable the house's present-day creative director, Karl Lagerfeld, would explore the hotel as the basis for a Chanel fashion show, and last week he staged the house's annual Métiers d'Art collection within its walls. For the past 14 years, the collection dedicated to the work of the 10 couture ateliers under the ownership of the Chanel group has travelled the world, taking clients and journalists everywhere, from the misty vales of Edinburgh to Rome's Cinecittà studios and a rodeo in Dallas, Texas.
This show was a special kind of homecoming. But it had far more urgent ambitions than merely to tickle the history books. Lagerfeld's decision to return to Paris was especially significant in a year in which France's tourism sector has been going through an "industrial crisis": the Bataclan theatre massacre; the Nice attack in July; a unfavourable post-Brexit sterling exchange rate and a jewellery heist in which Kim Kardashian was relieved of €10m in jewellery in October have driven the tourists away.
In August, the city reported tourist revenues as being down by €750m in 2016. The luxury sector has been especially vulnerable: Japanese tourists to Paris are down by half, Russian visitors are down a third; occupancy rates at many of the city's more exclusive hotels have fallen by as much as 50%.
For the owners of the Ritz Paris, which reopened in June following a four-year, $450m redevelopment, the decision by Lagerfeld to create a bespoke collection focused on the hotel must have inspired tears of thanks. Speaking at a breakfast hosted by Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, during fashion week in September, US Vogue editor Anna Wintour urged the city's institutions to work with the fashion industry to promote its future health. What better response from Chanel — that most Parisian of houses — than "Puttin' on the Ritz"?
As with all Métiers d'Art shows, "Paris Cosmopolite" was expertly choreographed, with every detail as delicately observed as the silk-rose garlands that adorned the models' heads. The show was staged in three parts, using every inch of the hotel's ground-floor salons, while guests dined off gilt-edged plates and sipped champagne before a jazzy musical score announced the arrival of the models. Cara Delevingne led the pack in a classic 1930s tweed suit in cream and gold, with pink roses in her hair and gold tango shoes on her feet. Lily-Rose Depp, the 17-year-old daughter of Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis, followed shortly after, in a shimmer of gold, shiny white lace-ups and an expansive smile.
The mood was saucy and exuberant: models picked their way around the tables, swinging to the music and bumping into each other en route; tango dancers spun them around. The silhouette — and spirit — took its cue from the 1930s, but this beau monde had a pronounced 21st-century accent: Delevingne planted kisses on guests' cheeks; Pharrell Williams made a cameo; Georgia May Jagger, Mick's daughter, wore gold knickerbockers and a veil.
If the current climate is uncertain, here were moments of pure escapist bliss. Never mind the models moved so fast the clothes appeared a blur, the show was a completely immersive experience, all played out before its chief architect, the 83-year-old Lagerfeld, who sat at a table in the main salon for the late-night finale. As compelling a character study as the woman whose legacy he has now spent more than 30 years working to protect, Lagerfeld twirled a few tango steps, but didn't offer me an audience post-show. Instead, I spoke to his design interlocutor, Amanda Harlech, the raven-haired creative consultant and collaborator who has worked alongside Lagerfeld since 1996, to explain his motivation.
"It was about the 1930s, and that happy, joyous time when Chanel was in the Ritz and part of everyone else's salon," she said. Harlech was sitting in a fairy-lit glasshouse from one of the Chanel-installed pergolas in the hotel garden. "It was about coming back to Paris: cream, white and gold, like the sun shining on Place Vendôme. It was about French blue, blue denim and dance shoes with a perfect heel that will pitch the shoulder and give you a feline grace. It was about observing the old world through the prism of the new, where a bomber jacket might be worn over a lace gown. It was about a womanly allure, and — yes — it was about the Eiffel Tower," she said of the bejewelled-embroidered icon that decorated polka-dot tulles and tweeds.
As with all great fashion moments, it was also about the fantasy. "Karl always has an imagined perfection of any place," she continued of the extraordinary environments Lagerfeld creates for Métiers d'Art. "But it's his story. Told his way. And while there are all the typical motifs of the house, like the camellia and the quilting, Karl always surprises by adding new bits to the narrative. It's not done in a heavy-handed way. It's very joyous, very playful. And very witty."
During the event, Lagerfeld had commandeered the Coco Chanel suite to direct proceedings from the very rooms in which the designer once worked. The suite has since been completely redecorated. The same, but different.
Just as surely, this modern take on the founder's essential style contained some crucial Chanel constants: a deeply romantic vision; a quietly powerful femininity; breathless exclusivity and the collective willingness to run away from reality — if only for a night.
Paris twinkled in its embrace. There was singing. People danced all night. "It's all very changed," observed Harlech. "But the view's still the same."
This article was originally published by the Financial Times
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016