It was a few minutes before sunset on the gleaming steps of a former courthouse in Dakar, and Pharrell Williams had found his wife’s next hairstyle.
“Wow,” he said, gesturing towards the woman with her lustrous mahogany hair pulled into a ponytail to reveal that she had dyed the underside a delicate cornsilk. Helen Lasichanh, Williams’s long-time partner and wife of ten years, nodded in appreciation, and her sequined slate gray Chanel jumpsuit glistened in the lingering sherbet sun. “The next time you see me…” and gestured at the woman’s hair and her own, suggesting an imminent makeover.
It was the apex of a three-day event in which ideas as small as one’s next hairstyle and as big as the global future of the luxury industry were unpacked: Chanel’s annual Métiers d’Art show, which made history this year by choosing Dakar, Senegal as its setting. Each year, this off-schedule show pays tribute to the 11 workshops that Chanel has acquired over the decades, essentially to sustain the niche French crafts crucial to creating otherworldly fashion. These are names like Lemarié, which makes feathers; Montex, known for its beadwork; the famous embroiderer Lesage; and shoemaker Massaro.
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The Washington Post’s Robin Givhan once compared the atmosphere of a Chanel couture show to a Grateful Dead concert, because the fans are so loyal, showing up decked out in the brand head to toe, with a knowledge of products, collections, and one-offs that make the teenage boys obsessively tracking Supreme look like amateurs. If that’s true, then in Dakar, these women met their match. Rather than importing a cavalcade of the usual international fashion guests and wowing them with a foreign locale (which, let’s face it, traveling fashion shows are often guilty of), Chanel invited just 165 journalists, clients, and celebrities from abroad, mostly focusing instead on staging the show for some 550 local guests—a list composed of artists, cultural figures, journalists, and fashion editors.
I saw two elegant white-haired women in beige Chanel silk shirting and trousers and champagne ballet flats offer awed compliments to a woman in a fig flesh-pink wrap dress, with a Chanel logo brooch sparkling on her matching pink head wrap. Another woman had a chain draped with Chanel charms looped around her braids stacked over a foot high on her head.
It was the best-dressed fashion show I’ve ever attended.
The focus of the trip—which included a welcome dinner on Monday with Senegalese musicians and writers giving performances and talks—was less to ingratiate the values of Chanel with those of the local culture than to forge cross-cultural connections. Virginie Viard, the house’s creative director, had been working on realizing the trip for over three years (the pandemic pushed back plans). She saw that Dakar had developed into a global capital for art and fashion, one that many creative types either hailed from or were increasingly flocking to. No brand, of Chanel’s scale or any other, had staged a fashion show there, and while a luxury brand coming into a country where 75% of families live in chronic poverty can be a tricky idea, it’s a wonder no one had tried it before.
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Luxury logos are perhaps the only global language, the closest thing the 21st century has to an Esperanto; during a drive through the market the morning before the show, I saw a woman wearing a knockoff Chanel-logo scarf wrapped around her body and secured with a Vuitton-print scarf as the bodice and thought, Gucci Hacking Balenciaga project, eat your heart out! Rather than tasking local artisans with making Chanelified projects, the house chose instead to elevate their work, hoping that their association with the event will bring them more global recognition. It’s a sensitive way to mount a traveling show, and frankly a more joyfully collaborative one.
Next January, the house’s multidisciplinary platform for celebrating craftsmanship, la Galerie du 19M, will launch a series of free programs in Dakar to celebrate the city’s tradition of embroidery and weaving. The house was also instrumental in the revitalization of the show’s venue, the former Palais de Justice, which will serve in the future as the Palais International des Arts and the home of the city’s art biennial.
What, then, about the clothes? Viard has done a lot to make the world’s biggest independent fashion house feel more intimate. That’s tough to do with a business of nearly $16 billion a year, where the sheer size and passion of the clientele plus the global relevance of the brand demand arena-sized fashion shows at Paris Fashion Week. But her productions feel much more grounded than the spectacles that her predecessor and mentor Karl Lagerfeld used to stage. (I recall once sitting in the Grand Palais in front of a waterfall constructed by Chanel while water piped in by Chanel sprayed onto the models’ Chanel waterproof boots. So total was Lagerfeld’s universe that he provided both the problem and the solution.)
In Dakar, Viard more bowed to the local fashion customs than made homage. Her clothes, increasingly, have a pragmatic femininity, like a number of tweedy bellbottom suits that opened the show, some with vests of blue and coral beads covering the front, or diamond patterns of turquoise and plum sequins on the sleeves. Part of what makes Viard’s Chanel lighter is that she has made her jackets longer and leaner and her arm holes higher; she also manages makes things like logo-print denim, which was a highlight of this collection, look like an elegant, winky choice rather than humorless logo mania. Here, the styling talents of Ib Kamara, the Dazed editor who snapped the late Virgil Abloh’s designs into immediacy, also helped: I’d never seen pinstripe pants styled with lightly clashing green and brown tweed on a Chanel runway before. It looked young, spunky, and optimistic.
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What the brand managed to pull off was the staging of the first European fashion show in sub-Saharan Africa, and it reminded me, as well as many others in attendance, that it always takes a first. The possibilities looking forward are bright. Now that Chanel has written a playbook, who else will follow? As Williams put it, “Thank God Chanel fucking gets it.”
This article originally appeared on Harper’s BAZAAR US.