When Chanel Met Pharrell

The artist's Met Gala fit reflects his longtime relationship with the luxury label.

For 36 years, Karl Lagerfeld held the highly regarded post as the creative director for Chanel and Chloe. His longevity in the game and consistency for lauded collections only added to the rich legacy he left behind when he passed in 2019. Practically synonymous with luxury fashion, his cosign also elevated modern GOATs like Hedi Slimane, whose Dior designs famously inspired Lagerfeld to drop a considerable amount of weight to fit into.

It’s no surprise that a fashion designer held in high regard would have such a dedicated fan in Pharrell Williams, who only managed to meet the famed creative much later in life. But even though Williams and Lagerfeld’s formal friendship only spanned a few years, it’s clear the relationship between Pharrell and Chanel remains stronger than ever.

Before Chanel and Pharrell officially worked together, there were rumors back in 2011 that he was in talks with the fashion house for a collab. These were spurred by photos Pharrell posted on Twitter featuring a pair of black Timberland 6-inch boots with bright red contrast laces (a common trend at the time).

On one toe box, there was a painted skeletal forefoot, and on the other, a painted Chanel logo. Once Complex posted the photo positing whether or not it was a preview of an upcoming collaboration or simply a 1-of-1 custom for Pharrell, he replied to a tweet saying that the boots were nothing more than “just me on my grunge $#!+.”

But according to a WWD interview, Pharrell would often run into Karl Lagerfeld at the buzzy Soho hotspot Mercer hotel, where the latter would notice the hand-drawn homages to Chanel on his feet. A few years later, the two developed enough of a rapport that Pharrell was asked to be a part of a short film Lagerfeld was directing for the label’s 2014/2015 Métiers d’art collection.

Titled “Reincarnation,” Pharrell also composed the original song “CC The World” to soundtrack the film, and played one of the lead roles—a super stylish porter—opposite mid-aughts era supermodel Cara Delevingne. One thing that impressed Pharrell when he first met Lagerfeld was the precision in his sketching style.

“When Chanel asked me to be in the first film we did a few years ago, I met [Karl] at the studio and he sketched outfits he wanted me to wear. What I ended up wearing was basically the sketch,” recalls Pharrell in WWD. “He was also a workaholic, one thing I will never forget is on a tour of one of his houses he showed us around and when he pointed out his bedroom, he said that was his least favorite part of his home because he hated spending time there because he felt it was a waste of time and he had work to do.”

It’s likely some of that nonstop inspiration rubbed off on Pharrell, himself a multi-hyphenate creative with hands in different cookie jars, and their mutual respect evolved into a working relationship that continues long after Lagerfeld’s death.

After starring in the short film, Pharrell became the first man to be featured in a major Chanel campaign, reuniting with Cara Delevingne and child model/Chanel muse Hudson Kroenig (son of model Brad Kroenig) for Chanel’s Pre-Fall 2015 collection.

He returned for 2017’s Gabrielle bag campaign, and broke barriers between hip-hop style, street culture, and high fashion simply by not letting traditionally masculine ideals or the fear of what other people think dilute his personal sense of self-expression, something he’d already been doing by cosigning designers like Phoebe Philo and confidently wearing some of her Céline designs on the red carpet.

“Williams has never let gender norms keep him from shopping the luxury brand,” notes CR Fashion Book. “Williams has created a level of accessibility for all identities.”

Another barrier Pharrell and Chanel smashed together was the relationship between luxury houses and sneaker companies. As part of colette’s 2017 Chanel takeover (one of the dearly departed French boutique’s last), the two came together with adidas to create a limited-edition Hu NMD. 500 pairs were made, but the waitlist numbered well over 120,000.

The simple sneakers came in an austere, Lagerfeld-approved black-and-white colorway, adding “CHANEL” and “PHARRELL” branding on the upper in the signature sans serif typeface of the house. The covetable sneakers still fetch at least a five-figure price on the resell market, with one StockX seller asking $125,000 for a size 11.

“The sneaker was the perfect storm since Chanel was taking over Colette,” recalls Pharrell to WWD. “The success of that one sneaker probably opened the door for the team to reach back out to me and offer me this amazing opportunity to create this capsule collection.”

Indeed, Chanel and Pharrell officially came together for a unisex capsule collection in 2019. Appropriately called the “Chanel Pharrell” collection, the apparel and accessories fused Pharrell’s quirky sense of personal style with the upscale execution and materials people come to expect from Chanel.

Co-branded eyewear with round frames became one of the capsule’s most sought-after items, while sneakers toeing the line between minimal Stan Smith-esque silhouettes were adorned with hand-drawn graphics harkening back to that first pair of black Timberlands Pharrell scrawled on nearly a decade before.

The full circle moment occurred as other street culture luminaries ascended to luxury houses. Virgil Abloh had yet to make his debut as Louis Vuitton’s men’s artistic director, and Kim Jones’ debut Dior Men’s collection with KAWS, Matthew Williams, and YOON was also months away from being revealed.

In many ways, the partnership continues to show the ways in which Pharrell’s confidence in being the “other” has paved the way for a new generation of designers and creatives who refuse to be put in a box.

The Chanel ensembles Pharrell and his wife Helen wore to the Met Gala this week only reinforced that point. The tasteful black-and-white Western-inspired suits were also one of the few fits that hit this year’s theme on the head.

Although the idea of “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” is equally broad and confusing, taking the idea of the cowboy but making it elegant enough to fit in a black tie dress code is both subversive and stylish without being totally ridiculous. And as Pharrell confirmed to host Keke Palmer that night, the looks were in fact designed by the late Karl Lagerfeld.

“The most stylish gent on the planet graced us with his presence,” writes Barry Samaha in Esquire. “Posing for cameras with his wife in the same fit, Pharrell wore a glossy black cowboy shirt with white piping and matching skinny trousers, which he accessorized with a jewel-encrusted bolo tie and black cowboy boots with a gold toe.”

“I learned so much from the house,” he told Palmer. And as Samaha proposes in his article, many of us in turn have learned so much from Pharrell.