Chanel is haute couture's majordomo. While other brands whimper with presentations and small-scale shows, Chanel takes over the Grand Palais, recreates the Place Vendome as Coco would have it (in plexiglass, with Mademoiselle herself enshrined atop the central column) and hurls out an effortless collection that sets the goal-posts for what haute couture should stand for in the twenty-first century.
What couture stands for chez Chanel is ideas. Lagerfeld, as always, has a million of them - but his main riff this season was the idea of masculine versus feminine. Nothing new, Coco mined that a hundred years ago, swiftly followed by Dietrich and Saint Laurent's equally-indelible copies. But Lagerfeld's comes with a twist: take a look, there were no trousers. Instead, it was about opposing curved lines against straight, drop waists against cinched, peplums against shifts, the compare-and-contrast game sometimes highlighted by using the same nubby tweeds for each ensemble and sending them out two-by-two.
It conjured up Chanel's past, of course - putting Coco's iconic opening collections from the twenties head-to-head with her 1954 comeback, and mixing the loose lines of the twenties flapper with the puffed silhouette of mid-century haute couture. That, however, sounds laboured, staid. Lagerfeld's Chanel was nothing of the sort. There was a weightlessness to the rounded shoulders that recalled fifties Balenciaga, one of the few couturiers Chanel professed a grudging admiration for. His shadow was also cast across those frothy peplums, in tufts of taffeta on evening-gowns as well as pumped-out over wool suiting. It may seem anathema to Coco, but the root - as always - is in her work, in this case the feminine touch of her late thirties collections, precursors of the New Look she would revile so virulently.
That's what Lagerfeld always does so very well - borrowing from the past to invent the future. Even the veils across the eyes, strapping down the boater that topped almost every look, were something old, made new. Diana Vreeland enthused about Chanel's 'sequinned nose-neils' from her thirties collections, and Lagerfeld's were a witty update (check out that iconic 1937 snap of Chanel in slithery paillette-strewn evening gown by Sir Cecil Beaton, and you'll get what Vreeland got so worked up about).
There were also the outfits that have become the new Chanel standard-bearer, where Lagerfeld throws themes to the wind and instead offers a platform for the Chanel ateliers to technically excel themselves. This time, it was half-a-dozen outfits that seemed to disintegrate seamlessly from fabric to feather: a white silk dress whorled into a jabot at the shoulder that faded into ostrich fronds; feathers woven into a tattered tweed; boaters outlines with quivering quills. There was a t-shirt dress constructed from ropes of pearls, and another whipped up from black chiffon and fastened with a few hundred glistening crystal buttons. Those had nothing to do with the man/woman straight/round thing, nor the Vendome backdrop. They were Lagerfeld throwing down a gauntlet to couture, his way of elegantly crowing 'My atelier is better than yours!' I'm not sure if any of the other couturiers realised there was a competition going on, but no matter. Chanel won hands-down. And that's the oldest trick in the book, regardless of whether the author was Coco or Kaiser Karl.