Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Signé Chanel

Loïc Prigent's extraordinary serial (i.e., five half-hour episodes) doc is now showing on the Sundance Channel and is not to be missed. (Click here for schedule details, but if you read French, click there for better info on the series.)

Originally produced for the French-German channel Arte, Signé Chanel follows the famous house in the weeks leading up to the showing of its Fall/Winter 2004-2005 collection. You see a bit of Karl Lagerfeld in action, of course, but Prigent concentrates on the dressmaking studio at the top of the rue Cambon building occuppied by Mademoiselle Chanel's house.

The show isn't about the creepy German dude who dreams up the clothes, or the rich and powerful who buy them, or the parasites who gravitate around fashion (though there are a few highly satisfying shots of the preposterous Andre Leon Talley, gushing like only a fawning courtier can). No, what makes Signé Chanel stand out is Prigent's affection for the people who turn Lagerfeld's sketches into actual clothes. It's about the likes of Madame Martine, Madame Cécile and Madame Laurence, who cut and sew and literally bloody their hands for the sake of a dress, and about 75-year-old Madame Pouzieux who, in-between bringing in bales of hay, makes unique braids on an antique loom in her farm house. The show also covers the superstitions and customs of a highly artisanal industry—dropping scissors is an augury of death, for instance, and the significance of pricking your finger with a needle depends on the finger and whether it's on the left or right hand.

From a purely aesthetic point of view, the series is a pleasure. Prigent has a great eye—not only for human interaction, but also for elegant visual compositions. Several of the shots in the series made me gasp in wonder, and I don't even care that much about fashion. He's also a master at parallel editing, building tension, capturing expressions and offhand comments.

A good deal of the humor is as aural as it is visual. Monsieur Lagerfeld, for instance, is associated with a vaguely sinister, faintly Darth Vaderish musical theme; Prigent also makes great use of the way Lagerfeld (wearing high collars to hide his chicken neck, perhaps?) constantly clinks the numerous rings he wears. When the worker bees' load increases and their schedule becomes frantic, the director uses music that sounds as if it was lifted from a 1960s peplum, suggesting galley slaves sweating away on their oars.

As it all culminates in the final episode's défilé, it's hard not to feel proud of the white-coated workers. High fashion serves the mighty, the ones who can afford dropping tens of thousand of dollars on a garment. It'd be easy to have a moral problem with squandering that much money on a suit, but as a lover of the arts it's also hard to take issue—art needs patrons, after all. Besides as the series makes clear, not one of the women seating at the défilé has a tenth of the talent and dignity of those who make their clothes.


judy said...

You have me hooked. Karl truly is the least interesting character.

Anonymous said...

I'd love to know the name of the opening song used during the couture runway show.

nathalie said...

my daughter and I fell in love with the series.just google arte signe chanel all details are there plus you can purchase the dvd of the series !!

Abril said...

Love your description. Though I admire Karl's talent to sketch in a matter of seconds complete outfits...
he's totally overrated.

Can't wait to get a version from an Italian fashion house!

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

Loic Prigent has made more docs about fashion. I wish they would be shown in the US. He's a superb director.

Anonymous said...

I love this series - and I love the seamstresses the most. Team Madame Martine - she is the best!