Karl Lagerfeld, looking very 1940s Berlin in his toggle-front, contrast-collar Kris Van Assche jacket, is on the Great Wall of China, curled up on a suede club chair. Spread over his lap is an expanse of knitted Russian sable that is worth as much as several years’ wages for most of China’s citizens. The scale and historical import of what he was about to do—stage a Fendi runway show on a more than 2,000-year-old, 4,500-mile-long structure visible from space—was hardly lost on the indefatigable designer. “After this, where can you go?” he asks.
Where, indeed. Fashion events are taking on the stature of cultural happenings, and this one, at an estimated cost of $10 million, is trumpeting the emergence of what is destined to become, probably within the next generation, the world’s No. 1 market for luxury goods and fashion. Lagerfeld may not have been greatly impressed with modern-day Beijing’s imposing, traffic-clogged roads and its creaky bureaucracy—even the runway music had to pass muster with government censors—but he expressed awe at the ingenuity and enterprise of the ancient Chinese people. “They were already doing things like this while we were still in the trees,” he says of the Great Wall, which dates from the third century BC.
“China will become, within 25 years from now, the greatest economic power in the world,” predicts LVMH kingpin Bernard Arnault. The show, he says, was “a big symbol for China. It’s where things are happening today.”
Some might consider traveling the world to put on such an extravagant fashion show a not-so-shabby feat, though it’s one Lagerfeld shrugs at. But Fendi managed to coax 500 people from around the globe—including Kate Bosworth, Zhang Ziyi and the bling dynasty that is Hong Kong society—to schlep to Beijing, drive 90 minutes out of town and climb the steep, grooved steps to see an elaborated version of the spring 2008 collection that had been shown in Milan only three weeks earlier. “It’s quite fun,” Lagerfeld says in his backstage interview suite, sipping a cold glass of Pepsi Max despite the late October chill seeping into his tent. “Fashion is a kind of show business too. You know, show videos play in boutiques around the world. If you just have a white wall with a girl walking out, nobody looks at it.”
That won’t be the case when this video runs. Lagerfeld chose to show at sunset, transforming a section of the wall at the Juyongguan Pass into a sloping runway, flanked by breathtaking views of the Guangou Valley. After the last of the 88 models had exited (eight being the revered number for prosperity), strobe lights glittered on the section of wall snaking up the mountain as gigantic double-F Fendi logos (which Lagerfeld dashed off in 1965) were projected onto the neighboring mountains.