It's an hour before the Chanel couture spring 2016 show. Backstage at the Grand Palais, I've perched myself at the breakfast buffet table, inhaling some much needed coffee on this cold Paris morning. An effervescent Lindsey Wixson comes by and introduces herself, sporting freshly applied bold eyeliner makeup and wearing a chic white shirt — "This is actually Karl's shirt," she reveals in her buoyant American drawl, "He gave it to me after a shoot we did" — meanwhile, just a few metres away, Karl Lagerfeld's male muse Baptiste Giabiconi is getting his hands lovingly moisturised by an assistant. (He would later 'start' the couture show, so to speak, walking solo onto the runway to press a remote in order to raise the door on a Japanese wooden pavilion for the female models to exit. A little haute couture theatre. Naturally, his hands had to be beautiful.) It's a hive of activity, with models getting dressed and stylists teasing hair into place, but it's nothing like the sea of chaos I had expected. Everything is humming along like a well-oiled machine; albeit a beautiful machine inhabited by the likes of Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner.
I'm here to interview Bruno Pavlovsky, the global fashion president of Chanel. This is the man, who, working hand-in-hand with Karl Lagerfeld, has been instrumental in building a brand that continually inspires women to trade-in their monthly salaries (not to mention, endure long boutique queues) for a matelassé leather handbag or the maison's iconic tweed jacket. It's time. Mr Pavlovsky is ready to meet. As I'm lead to the adjacent room, I'm expecting a no-nonsense executive — a sharp-shooting suit who will rattle off facts and numbers, project shrewdly about growth markets, and drill me strategically about trends and digital innovation. Instead, standing curtly with his hands raised to greet my arrival, is a warm man with gentle eyes and a softer-than-expected handshake.
As guests start to arrive for the show — Mira Duma in a Chanel jacket embroidered with shimmering blue paillettes, Cara Delevingne with her pet dog Leo (who was later removed from the front-row because it was #barkingmad) — I speak to Pavlovsky about the importance of couture, preserving Chanel's exclusivity, and the constant need for fashion to evolve with the times.
What do you think is the role of couture today? Is it still to inspire people or to fill a demand?
It's still to inspire. As you know, haute couture is the beginning of Chanel. And the values that you find in our couture — which are mainly about creativity and know-how — are the key values of the brand. So it's very important for us to continue to value, communicate, and develop this haute couture process. It is part of our life.
Chanel is such a covetable brand. Why do you think the brand continues to capture the imagination of women?
We want all of our products to be able to fulfill a dream, you know. Chanel is about a dream. To propose a dream to our customers through every runway show so that when women buy a product, it also comes with emotions — to feel confident and happy. What women feel when they buy our product is very important.
Talking about dreaming: Do you think that's even more important today than ever before? The need to constantly dream and to use fashion as a form of escapism or fantasy?
Probably yes, because of what we see around us today and because of the evolution of the world. And also because of the connection we now have through the new digital world. Yes, the dream is probably not exactly the same, but what we try to offer to our customers is this kind of unique experience that you can only get at Chanel. We need to feel some connection to the products. Every morning when you get dressed, you have to select your wardrobe. Chanel items are more than just a product. It is also the emotion; how do you feel about that product and everything that you have in mind about that product.
You talk about a connected digital world today. Given that context, what do you think is more important: The design of the product or the marketing of it?
Without doubt the design of the product is everything. You can do the best marketing but if your product is shit, it's shit. It leads back to the fundamentals. For us, we can be quite aggressive in the digital world because we have the right product. When you have the right product, everything is right in the boutique. So that's the most important. If you don't have the right product, and if you start to justify what you're doing through marketing, that's the beginning of the end.
Without doubt the design of the product is everything. You can do the best marketing but if your product is shit, it's shit
I totally agree. Customers can tell when marketing is just smoke-and-mirrors for a bad product. Chanel is such a big company now, a global company. How do you balance the need, on the one hand, to be exclusive and covetable; and at the same time, grow and generate a profitable return?
You need to have a strong creative process. At Chanel, we have eight collections a year: Six collections for ready-to-wear and accessories, and two for haute couture. That's the way we keep the exclusivity. Every two months we have a new collection and novelties in the boutiques. That is part of our mechanism — to be able to offer this permanent renewal in the assortment, which is about fashion and the silhouette, but also a creative fashion statement offered by Mr Karl Lagerfeld. Customers know that if you want to buy something, you must buy it now. Because if you don't, you might find something else later, but not what you see today.
It comes down to a lot of hard work...
Yes, it's always hard work. But you know, our people are very passionate about what they are doing so it's hard work, but we also believe that we are doing something great for our customers — that we are able to offer a very unique product. And you know, when you feel that what you're doing is very successful — because it's about a dream that you share with your customers — I think it's much easier for the whole company.
You've worked with Karl for many years. What has been one key lesson that you have learnt from him?
He's a genius (laughs). Karl is like a sponge — he listens to many things, to many people — and after, he's able to give a very strong direction. And that for me is very impressive. To be open to other disciplines like the arts, politics, and the economy, and to be able to take all that in, consider it, and then give a direction about what he's doing. That is something quite unique.
How do you think Chanel has changed over the years?
I think that Chanel is evolving with the world, Chanel is evolving with the customers. No doubt that because of this new digital world, everything has changed. And we need to change and adapt ourselves. We started using digital communication about 10 years ago, and it's now part of who we are. I don't think that Chanel is static. Chanel is very dynamic; being able to tackle this new trend but being able, at the same time, to respect the fundamentals of the brand: Creativity, know-how, and also modernity and this vision for tomorrow. That is something which is very strong in Chanel, something which is very strong with Karl — proposing something for tomorrow.
Talking about this vision for tomorrow, do you think digital communication can be truly luxurious?
Yes, I don't see any contradiction between being in the digital world and being luxurious. But everything we do is to invite our customers into our Chanel world; into our boutiques because to touch the product, you need to see the product and you need to try the product. Digital is about the relationship you want to create with your customer. But the dream is also being able to come into the boutique and to use and enjoy our products. And for Chanel, the product is more than just the physical item. It's also all the imagination and the emotions that comes with it.
Has Chanel started using technology in-store to enrich the retail experience for its customers?
We have already started and will continue to experiment with technology to make our service more efficient. For example, in some countries we are using iPads in the boutiques and mobile technology to better understand what's happening with our customers. And tomorrow we will probably have some new technology to provide a better service to our customers. But again, all this technology will never replace the product. It will never replace the feeling you have when you try on a jacket. We can use any technology, but at the end of the day, the product makes the difference. And that's the key for our future.
I don't see any contradiction between being in the digital world and being luxurious
What are your thoughts on the increasing importance of social media?
It's part of the world and we have to adapt ourselves to these new approaches. I think we are very lucky to be part of the changes in the digital world. Because we have to find the right partners and press to best communicate the value of the brand and product in this new digital age. And because of all this digital developments, we have another way to send our vision of the brand. I remember 10 years ago, when we just had to shoot an advertising campaign twice a year, it was quite easy. Now we are developing new content everyday. The risk for me is over communication. We have to be careful to say something when we have something to say. And not to say something just for the sake of saying something. We have to be a bit selective on what we want to communicate.
Do you think fashion is going too fast?
Fashion is going at the rate of what brands want to do. As a brand, the most important thing is to be consistent with what you want to do. I feel comfortable about what we are doing at Chanel, because we want to continue to attract and seduce our customers. So it's not a competition for me. And at Chanel, we are very consistent about what our brand stands for.
On the topic of brand ethos, do you think Chanel will ever release a full menswear range?
No, we are not a men's brand. We don't have the expertise to be able to develop menswear. We are already very busy with women and all the products that we have to deliver for women. Karl used to say: "Mademoiselle Chanel was sticking to men, and I'm sticking to women, for men." You know, Chanel is about this dialogue between these two sexes. And yes, we have some clothing for men that are very nice, but it's just for fun. It's just for the story. It's not for business. It's part of the dream for today and a vision for tomorrow.
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