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Style Chanel, Paris – and Egypt: How Karl Lagerfeld revisited the fashion capital’s fascination with pharaohs, obelisks and pyramids

A look from Chanel’s ancient Egypt-inspired Métiers D’Art collection is pictured at the Fontaine du Fellah in Paris’s 7th arrondissement.

Rachelle Simoneau

INSPIRATION POINT

On a busy street in Paris’s left bank, behind the Bon Marché department store, is a statue of the ancient Egyptian god of the afterlife, Osiris, holding a pair of jars. When the Fontaine du Fellah first appeared in this spot in 1806, it was part of Napoleon Bonaparte’s plan to bring fresh drinking water to the capital. Today, the decommissioned historic monument barely earns a glance from the Parisians rushing out of the Vaneau metro station next door but it endures as an example of how ancient Egypt has fascinated the city’s architects, designers and craftspeople.

Most recently, Karl Lagerfeld, the designer who spent 36 years at the helm of Chanel before his death in February, unveiled his own fashion ode to the style’s geometric motifs and luxurious materials for Chanel’s 2019 Métiers D’Art collection. “Egyptian civilization has always fascinated me: I get inspired by an idea, which I make a reality,” said Lagerfeld when the pieces were unveiled last December in the Temple of Dendur at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Similarly, for a visitor to Paris, searching out examples of ancient Egyptian inspiration can offer a new perspective on a city known for combining its reverence of antiquity with contemporary flair.

HISTORY REPEATING

The Passage du Caire is a shopping arcade in the Sentier area embellished with statues of the goddess Hathor.

Rachelle Simoneau

“The first wave of Egyptomania was in the early 1800s, the Empire style inspired by the finds made during Napoleon Bonaparte’s conquest of Egypt,” says Dr. Krzysztof Grzymski, the senior curator of Egypt and Nubia at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. “The second wave is characteristic of art deco and was the result of the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922.” Combined with Lagerfeld’s ode, Paris’s two most famous examples of Egyptomania — the 3,000-year-old Luxor obelisk given to the city by the ruler of Ottoman Egypt and installed in Place de la Concorde in 1836, and architect I.M. Pei’s Louvre pyramid completed in 1989 — highlight how the love affair with the look continues.

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Place de la Concorde’s Luxor obelisk.

Rachelle Simoneau

The Chanel collection’s ancient Egypt-inspired costume jewellery includes stylized blue resin scarab buttons by Goossens.

Rachelle Simoneau

STRIKING GOLD

The Fontaine du Palmier in the Place du Châtelet features four sphinx figures.

Rachelle Simoneau

The Chanel collection includes many statement collars, goldflecked tweeds and gauzy dresses, but its most opulent elements of ancient Egyptian inspiration were created by Goossens, a costume jewellery atelier founded by the late Robert Goossens in 1950, which the house has owned since 2005. At its headquarters in Pantin, just outside of central Paris, its metalsmiths adapted an archive mould of a scarab beetle to produce resin buttons that accent pleated leather gloves and woven collars, and prepared colourful shards of plexiglass that were embroidered into fabric by Lesage.

Goossens baubles have long referenced ancient Egypt and pieces found in Paris museums, including work the jeweller has created for Cristóbal Balenciaga and Yves Saint Laurent. “When I was young, I'd go to the Louvre museum with my father to see just one Egyptian piece…it's been all my life,” says Goossens's son Patrick, now the business's artistic director. His own first creative encounter with ancient Egypt was producing pieces for designer John Galliano 20 years ago. “It's mysterious — it's very rich for the jewellery.”

ON TOUR

Even a beauty look can reference the past. A subtle but graphic line across the eye picks up the gold of beetle earrings.

Rachelle Simoneau/RACHELLE SIMONEAU

An ancient Egyptian treasure hunt through Paris will have you criss-crossing the city. Near Notre Dame, in the Place de Châtelet, is the Fontaine du Palmier. Built as part of the same early 19th-century project as the Fontaine du Fellah, it is surrounded by a quartet of sphinx figures that were added to the design in 1858. In the Sentier neighbourhood, the Passage du Caire is one of the city’s oldest shopping arcades. Its façade features three statues representing the goddess Hathor.

“When I refer to ancient Egypt, my mind sees geometry, hieroglyphs and black, blue and gold lines,” says makeup artist Julie Cusson, who created the beauty look for this story. Artist Cyril Kongo reached a similar conclusion when he developed the graffiti print for the Chanel collection, an abstraction of hieroglyph script. Making these types of discoveries (in the design studio, on set for a fashion shoot or wandering the streets of a city you thought you knew so well) is a reminder of how the past often has something new to reveal — and explore.

Photography by Rachelle Simoneau. Styling by Georgia Groom. All clothing, footwear, jewellery and accessories worn throughout from the Chanel Métiers D’Art 2019 collection, prices on request beginning June 1 at Chanel boutiques. Makeup by Julie Cusson for Chanel using Les 4 Ombres Multi-Effect Quadra Eyeshadow in N°274 Codes Élégants, and Rouge Coco Flash lipstick in N°82 Live. Hair by Mathieu Laudrel for La Frenchie Agency. Manicure by Sueva Foltzer for La Frenchie Agency. Model: Agata R at Metropolitan. Photo assistant: Giovanni Nardelligio.

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