The idea of luxe pauvre is as French as it sounds - translated as 'luxurious poverty' or 'impoverished luxury' depending on your preference of emphasis, it is a poetic synonym for Minimalism. Or perhaps that should be reductionism, the idea of stripping everything down to the bare essentials - but exquisite ones at that. The thirties interior designer Jean-Michel Frank is a prime example: one room in his apartment stood empty, bar a leather-wrapped desk by Hermès. 'Very charming young man, pity the burglars took everything he had,' was Jean Cocteau's pithy summary.
Coincidentally, Karl Lagerfeld, the designer behind the house of Chanel, was a key collector of Frank's work in the 1970s before he began designing for the Parisian label, a house recognised for its founder's own preference for simplicity. In the twenties, Gabrielle Chanel invented her little black dress, a jersey number adorned with nothing bar topstitching. Today it seems seductive, then it was seditious, a riposte to the overstuffed, overdecorated creations of pre-war haute couture. As opposed to sticking ornament on the dress, Chanel hid the expense - sometimes literally, as in her fur-lined jersey coats. Karl Lagerfeld himself continues the tradition: in the early 1990s, he created collections emblazoned with oversized chains and gratuitous logos inspired by counterfeit Chanel items he saw on New York's Canal Street.
These fingerless knitted gloves, taken from the Autumn/Winter 2011 Chanel collection, are very much in that grand tradition of inverted luxury. They are seemingly pulled from workmen's garb, straightforward tubes of ribbed wool pulled simply over the hands. As with Chanel's original little black dresses, they are also a foil for elaborate costume jewellery, this bangle and cuff created by the Parisian jeweller Goossens, who have worked with Chanel since the fifties. That detail actually adds to the paradox of these gloves. Karl Lagerfeld thumbs his nose at the idea of obvious luxury, but Chanel is one of the few true bastions of old school, labour-intensive haute couture left in Paris.
There's a touch of nineteenth-century nostalgia de la boue to the idea of a wealthy, privileged woman electing to dress like a working-class man. That's something Chanel tapped into early in her twentieth-century career: when she created fur coats, they were rabbit or beaver, until then considered pelts only suitable for chauffeurs. However, what these gloves ultimately symbolise is the very twenty-first century phenomenon of the transformative power of the designer label. The fact that, by affixing the Chanel name to even a utilitarian, workaday item, it can be magically transmogrified to high fashion - in fact, with Chanel's allusions, even to something approaching haute couture - is a post-modern fashion miracle.