A fashion show is a chance to enter a designer's world. But only one designer has expanded the boundaries of that world so far and wide that it has become his own universe: Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel. Try as we may to find a flaw, there is no chink in the Kaiser's armour: walking into the Grand Palais each season is like stumbling through a wardrobe into Narnia, a Narnia startlingly different but perfectly-realised every time.
For Spring/Summer 2012 Lagerfeld took us twenty thousand leagues under the sea - and once again his vision was all-encompassing, the models drenched in Chanel down to the terribly Coco pearls dotting hair and faces like air-bubbles, or running down the back of a bared spine like a row of buttons. It's a mark of Lagerfeld's continual genius at reinventing that Chanel tweed-suited wheel that neither those touches of theatricality, nor the elaborate aquarium set, nor Florence Welch popping out of a shell like Botticelli's Venus to sing live, could distract attention from the clothes on show.
Lagerfeld sucked the oceans dry for inspiration, his aesthetic exhausting every nook and cranny of the briny deep. From a less skilled designer, that thoroughness of theme could have crashed over the audience like a heavy-handed Tsunami - but from Lagerfeld, the subterranean yielded a mesmerising host of sunken treasures. The colours of the clothes were pulled from shells: pale pink, every shade of ivory, flashes of black and blues from the deepest navy to sun-bleached pastel. The iridescence of nacre was reflected (quite literally) in minute sequin embroideries, skirts swelling and cresting about the body. There were also the visual puns Lagerfeld loves to throw out every now and again, the organza sliced into scales, the lace worked to look like seaweed crusting a model's hips, the handbags shaped like clustered branches of coral or witty, oversized conch-shells. There was even a nod to wet-look, transparent PVC laid across jackets and inset into swimsuits. In pale green or peach, though, the models appeared less soaked-through than like especially elegant sea-snakes darting through Lagerfeld's subterranean paradise.
The lightness in these Chanel clothes was the striking thing, most marked in gossamer evening wear, chiffon skirts swirling around the legs like a tidal current, ruffle upon ruffle built up to resemble the ocean breaking against the shore. That evening statement was short and sweet, the flounced volume bubbling up around the knee, a way to make these complex dresses seem breezy and easy. That's the key to what makes what Lagerfeld does at Chanel quite so brilliant. There's always a deftness to his work, a modern touch to everything.
Mademoiselle Chanel herself was passionate about removing the stuffing and bombast from fashion. A hundred years ago, she created young fashion for a then-young century, and she never lost that youthful spirit (she was Mademoiselle until the day she died). Lagerfeld can cut tweed and make it look like chiffon. He can cut chiffon and make it light as air. Despite its entertaining visuals and textural richness, the really entrancing thing about this collection was that, despite Lagerfeld's timeless design and the painstaking Chanel craftsmanship that means these clothes will last for centuries, the whole thing felt as ephemeral and fleeting as ocean spray. And just as refreshing.