Anyone who has seen the mosaic portrait of the Empress Theodora in Ravenna’s San Vitale knows well the allure of her beauty – the regal headdress and deep robes, the strongly accented eyes. Now, the same appeal that drew the attention of the Roman Em- peror Justinian in the 5th century has caught the eye of fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, providing the inspiration for his 2011 Chanel Metiers d’Arts collection, Paris-Byzance. «Theodora was a circus artist who became empress, like [Coco] Chanel, who was a little singer and became a fashion empress,” says Lagerfeld. The ready-to-wear collection, premiered in Paris on 7 December 2010 and reprised in Istanbul on 25 May 2011, takes its inspiration from the mosaics of Byzantium, bringing this vision to bear on every element – from the fabric choice and shape to the jewelry and embroidery. Much like the artwork that inspired them, the pieces come alive with movement, the rich textural fabrics seeming to gather or reflect the light anew with every step. Deep tweeds are stitched through with gold thread; heavy detailing seems almost to approximate tesserae. This luminosity was essential to Lagerfeld, who says of the col- lection: “Nothing really shines, everything has a shimmer – like mosaics.” Linear accents, flat buttons, and prominent collars all call to mind the stylized beauty of the Byzantine mosaics. In one dress, intricate beadwork suggests the starry sky of the Mausoleum di Galla Placidia; in another, gold detailing seems to reference the Proces- sion of the Virgins from Sant’Apollinare Nuovo.
Mr. Lagerfeld visited Ravenna while working on the collection, exploring the remaining monuments of the Byzantine capital. His photographs of this visit were brought together in a book, manufactured on parchment with gold leafing, that celebrates both the mosaics and the looks they inspired.
Indeed, it may be this embellishment that is the highlight of the collection – only fit- ting for the Metiers d’Arts show, whose goal is to showcase the artisanship of Chanel’s small Parisian ateliers. Bright gemstones adorn the cuffs and collars; embroidered head- dresses, belts, and sandals evoke those of the Byzantine court. The skilled hands of Chanel’s many ateliers – Desrues, the button-maker and costume jeweler; Lemarie, the feather virtuoso; Lesage, the embroiderer; Massaro, the shoemaker; Michel, the milliner, and Goossens, the goldsmith – are brought to bear in the collection with an artistry that recalls that of the mosaicists themselves. Every detail of the show was brought in line with the aesthetics of Byzantium: Peter Philips, Global Creative Director of Chanel Makeup, even designed the show’s styling after the original mosaic of Theodora, giving the models a line of heavy rose shadow across their browbones in homage to the red tesserae that delineate the eyelids in San Vitale. Mr. Lagerfeld visited Ravenna while working on the collection, exploring the remain- ing monuments of the Byzantine capital. His photographs of this visit were brought to- gether in a book, manufactured on parchment with gold leafing, that celebrates both the mosaics and the looks they inspired. With the collection finished, Lagerfeld joins the long line of artists who have respond- ed to the mosaics of Ravenna in their work – from Dante and Boccaccio to Lord Byron, Gustav Klimt, and Nat King Cole.