Oil and Water: Chanel, Dubai, and the retail phenomenon of “Cruise”

Alexander Fury
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A look from Chanel's 2015 Cruise collection

There’s a trend right now for fashion houses to show the collections we still dub Cruise in far-flung locales. I’m writing this in the airport in Dubai, following Chanel’s show; a week ago Dior Cruise-ed to New York and chugged us from Manhattan to Brooklyn on a chic branded ferry; last summer, that house showed  in Monaco, coincidentally the site of Louis Vuitton’s inaugural Cruise show this weekend.

I say “still dub” because, really, Cruise is an erroneous term. I think lots of designers get tripped up by that terminology, splodging nautical stripes and dropping comedy anchors all over things. Do sophisticated, fashion-conscious and wealthy women really want to dress like deranged extras from an off-Broadway production of South Pacific on an annual basis? Obviously not. We need to think of some better way of titling these increasingly-important, incredibly lucrative interim collections – our current monikers, Cruise and Pre-Fall, are fiddly, irritating and profoundly confusing. Maybe we should just rejig the fashion calendar altogether: there’s a young London designer named Alexander Lewis who kick-started his career by only showing pre-collections, via lookbook and appointments with retailers. It’s flying off the rails.

Why? Simple economics: pre-collections are delivered earlier and sold for a longer period at full retail price. So does it make sense that, for many designers, they’re sometimes slightly half-thought out, or even half-baked? One London designer told me he pulled his together in three weeks; I visited another in their studio a week before the collection was due to be showcased to press, and nothing was properly sewn together. Yet these ranges account for 70-85 percent of their total sales – those are figures the New York design duo Proenza Schouler once quoted at me, and they’re indicative of the industry as a whole.

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A look featuring embroidered leather camellias, from Chanel Cruise 2015

So how come designers are devoting their time, energy and resources into flashy catwalk collections that don’t sell all that much? One fashion editor commented to me that she felt the ready-to-wear had become the couture, and the pre-collections the ready-to-wear. Namely: that ready-to-wear is the editorially impactful loss-leader, not selling that much but powering sales of pre-collections (and handbags perfume and cosmetics, of course, if houses have all those add-ons). Where does that leave the high-priced, little-worn haute couture, then?

Anyway. We’re talking about Chanel today, and Chanel conforms to none of fashion’s usual rules and regulations. Chanel actually sells couture – not only that, they turn a profit from those insanely labour-intensive, incredibly expensive hand-crafted clothes. It’s also unfair to class Lagerfeld’s Chanel Cruise/pre-collection/whatever as a watered-down byproduct designed to churn-out sales. Doubtless women will clamour to buy these clothes – particularly in Arab countries, I’d guess, given that Lagerfeld, on the whole, followed the letter of sharia law in covering his models from neck to knee, and usually below. It felt respectful, rather than restrictive, and gave ample canvas for embroideries resembling intricate Moorish tiles and embellishments like hand-cut leather camellias and encrustations of pearls. By-product? Don’t think so.

Despite the sharia styles, this Cruise collection will undoubtedly have a life beyond the Middle East. Coming to Dubai was a statement: beyond the surface embellishments and floating djellaba layers, that statement was “Show me the money”. The extreme example? Oil-can quilted handbags, nodding at the literal wellspring of much of the Middle East’s wealth. However, Lagerfeld also showed it elsewhere, everywhere in these clothes, as artfully crafted as anything on a Chanel couture catwalk.

Often, the same specialists – the feather ateliers of Lemarie, the embroiderers Lesage and Goossens, the costume jewellers – are utilised to create Chanel couture and pre-collections, as well as the ready-to-wear. Intricate, astronomically expensive clothing is the Chanel trademark, more so than tweed, pearls or the double-C.

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A printed look from the Chanel cruise 2015 show

That said, the Cruise trademarks were still there: the show took place on an island, with press and clients rowed out in dhows. Old habits die hard. But despite the water, and that cruising, there was nothing watered-down about this. Ultimately, that’s why it will sell to Chanel customers.

And, just as Chanel jumped on the cruise boat and began showing these collections on far-afield catwalks before anyone else, that’s probably an indication of the pre-collection direction to come. Or maybe it’s a warning shot to other designers. Namely: up your game. There’s no room for lazy fashion in today’s crowded marketplace.

You can’t just cruise along.

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