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.
Karl Lagerfeld strikes a pose, surrounded by models in his designs for Fendi
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.
“It was just unreal,” says Julia Restoin Roitfeld, one of a contingent of New York socials who jetted in for the weekend. “I think it felt even more strange because I was surrounded by all those familiar faces, like we had all been tele-transported there!”
“As a Chinese, I felt very proud,” says Hong Kong socialite Mira Yeh, perhaps the most conspicuous woman in the front row, snapping photos like crazy in her white Abominable Snowman J. Mendel coat. Yeh says she has never felt so pampered at a fashion event, what with the heated benches and steaming hot chocolate served directly afterward. Mind you, there was one challenge: “Climbing up the Great Wall in four-inch stilettos,” she purrs. “Getting down was even harder. I wished I had my snowboard.”
But the experience underscored Yeh’s belief that China is on the verge of an explosion, especially on the eve of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. “The Chinese are hungry for information, hungry for things from outside the country,” she says. “I think Beijing is going to overtake Hong Kong as the fashion city in China.”
Fendi’s parent, the luxury conglomerate LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, is certainly banking on China leapfrogging over the United States, Europe and Japan to ultimately become its No. 1 market. “China will become, within 25 years from now, the greatest economic power in the world,” predicts LVMH kingpin Bernard Arnault, who took in the show by Lagerfeld and Silvia Venturini Fendi at the elbow of the wife of China’s prime minister. The show, he says, was “a big symbol for China. It’s where things are happening today.”
To be sure, China’s ascendancy on the global fashion radar has been astonishing. When Arnault initially visited Beijing, in 1992, to see the country’s first Louis Vuitton store, he was scratching his head. “At that time, there was nothing but bicycles in the streets—no cars, no construction,” he recalls with a wry smile. “In the hotel where I was staying, the faucets in the bathroom worked from time to time.”
Today, Beijing’s cityscape is a forest of cranes, as construction gives rise to otherworldly structures, such as Rem Koolhaas’s gravity-defying headquarters for China Central Television. On the ground, workers scrub curbs and sidewalks by hand at night, and wash trees of pollution and dust.
Despite his penchant for shopping, Lagerfeld ignored Beijing’s sprawling malls and instead took time to visit two of the buildings being built for next summer’s Olympic Games: the so-called “bird’s nest” National Stadium by Herzog & de Meuron and, right next to it, the National Aquatics Center, which resembles a cube of water. “Divine,” Lagerfeld declares. “They’re bringing architecture in a new direction, which is the end of the post-Bauhaus world.” Venturini Fendi, meanwhile, spent her few spare moments in Beijing taking in the Forbidden City’s endless buildings and expansive squares. And then she sampled some unusual culinary delights. “I went to a little market where they were eating scorpions and snakes—live ones,” she says. “Although it was disgusting, I couldn’t get enough of it.”
And should Fendi continue to raise the bar with out-of-this-world shows, Venturini Fendi and Lagerfeld rattled off some wondrous possibilities: the pyramids of Egypt, Machu Picchu, the Taj Mahal, the ancient city of Petra, Jordan. And then there’s always outer space. Notes Venturini Fendi: “I told [Fendi chief executive] Michael Burke, ‘You should get in touch with [Virgin Galactic’s] Richard Branson and book some space on the shuttle.’”