PARIS (Reuters Life!) - Karl Lagerfeld may have a lifetime contract with Chanel, but the high priest of Parisian chic demonstrated at his haute couture show Tuesday that he won't easily be knocked from his perch by any young upstart.
Facing off this year against fresh talent like Maxime Simoens, who presents his first couture show Wednesday, Lagerfeld gave his spring-summer collection a resolutely modern feel with light-hearted designs and a pulsing, electro beat.
At the intimate show in central Paris, slender models paced the showroom wearing classic Chanel pieces like the flared suit jacket, updated with a tapered jean or funky, flat shoes that seem to have been inspired by Moroccan "babouches."
The parade of pale pinks, glinting sequins and rich embroidery lasted for nearly an hour and ended with an eruption of applause when the final model, wearing the traditional Chanel wedding gown, completed her round of the catwalk.
Stars gushed over the collection, rushing to congratulate Lagerfeld after the show.
"It was so beautiful, I nearly cried," said Spanish director Pedro Almodovar.
"I absolutely loved it, especially the skinny jeans and flat shoes," cooed model and actress Jerry Hall.
Lagerfeld, in his trademark white ponytail and white collar, appeared in front of a mirror-paneled staircase at the back of the room, surrounded by dozens of pink-clad models.
"The challenge was to make it modern, to keep it accessible...you need to reinvent yourself constantly," he said.
But when asked about the competition -- notably Maxime Simoens, who has been compared to Yves Saint Laurent -- Lagerfeld was dismissive: "Every year there is new talent. The truth is that today you need the support of a large (fashion) house...it is not like before, in the 1960s, when you could start your own from nothing."
"I was lucky enough to find Chanel," he added.
Known for pure lines and bold silhouettes, Chanel garments can appear deceptively simple from across the room, only yielding the intricacy of their craftsmanship up close.
Collars slope inward like origami designs, fabrics sparkle with millions of individually stitched gemstones, and each button is a jewel, with a price to match. "A single button is worth 300 euros, which makes for an expensive dress...you can imagine the work required," said Lagerfeld.
Such craftsmanship lies at the heart of Parisian haute couture, yet it was threatened with extinction during the financial crisis, when a lack of demand nearly put the "tiny hands" who make dresses perfect out of work.
As the elder sister of Parisian fashion houses, Chanel saved the day by buying three of the city's best-known seamstress workshops. Tuesday's show was one sign that the brand was getting a return on its investment.
"It was utterly gorgeous," said Timothy Lloyd Pope, a former sales executive for Saks Fifth Avenue who now buys haute couture garments for private clients in the United States.
The market for haute couture, he said, had gone through its period of contraction during the recession and was now expanding again, though a lack of available cash was never the problem.
"The reality is that there will always be those few who can afford haute couture," he said.
Pope said clients, particularly from Asia, tended to be subtle about their support for haute couture.
"The Asian clientele is very discreet. Few of the clients come to the shows themselves, but they have people here...Karl offers them a guarantee of a certain kind of chic."
Editing by Paul Casciato