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On Karl Lagerfeld’s Metropolitan Museum of Art Retrospective, and His Elusive Personal Life

While Karl Lagerfeld’s illustrious career is celebrated at a retrospective at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, his personal life remains as elusive as ever.

Brise dress from fall 1983 collection, Chloé. Photo: Rafael Pavarotti

Much of the craze surrounding the recent Met Gala – an annual fundraiser for The Metropolitan Costume Institute – was for its glittering red carpet roll out on the first Monday of May. Inside, however, the real celebration was in honor of the exhibition displaying more than 200 of Karl Lagerfeld’s works. Running through to July 16, Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty is the title of the annual Costume Institute fashion showcase at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. It is presented as an exploration of the late designer’s “aesthetic vocabulary.”

A portrait of Karl Lagerfeld by Annie Leibovitz

Veering away from the structure of a chronological retrospective, the exhibition favors a thematic look at the late designer’s career. The vignettes throughout the exhibit on are governed by “through lines” that represent Lagerfeld’s sketches, a focal point that helps frame the exhibit. The serpentine line – think of how the letter “s” is shaped – and the straight-line signal romantic and decorative impulses against those of a modernist with minimalist tendencies. The two concepts are juxtaposed throughout the exhibit, appearing as a tension between the feminine and masculine, the rococo and classical, historical and futuristic, and so on.

Chloé Rachmaninoff dress, SS1973

The themes represent the dichotomous nature of Lagerfeld’s work. They also reveal how his own fixation on an idea could be carried from house to house while maintaining a brand’s respective codes – and also infusing his own sensibilities. It’s a difficult hat trick, one that relies on a designer’s understanding of himself and ability to ignore the trends of the day. It makes sense, given Lagerfeld’s own proclamation that “trendy is the last stage before tacky.” This also lends itself to a timeless quality that many of the ensembles presented in the exhibition share. His range is highlighted in the shoot accompanying this feature, with key looks from his years at the houses of Chanel, Fendi, and Chloé.

Chanel coat

“In Roman mythology, a straight line entwined by a serpentine line symbolizes Mercury, the god of commerce and communication,” said Andrew Bolton, the Wendy Yu curator in charge of the Costume Institute, during remarks at a preview of the exhibit. “Known as the ‘caduceus,’ the insignia could not be more appropriate for Karl, who, in many ways, was the modern incarnation of Mercury,” he furthered. Godly? Perhaps not by virtue, but in a world-building sense – any Chanel fashion show in the last decade would support that idea.

FW2017/18 haute couture; a Fendi FW2000–2001 coat sketch

Among the works displayed are a sumptuous, if not dizzying array of ready-to-wear and couture dresses, coats, and ensembles revealing Lagerfeld’s predilection for the Schlemmerian silhouette. This reflects the portrayal of women’s bodies according to Bauhaus artist Oskar Schlemmer – strong shoulders, a tight waist, and wider hips define the looks.

The Military Line of Lagerfeld’s work

To some, Lagerfeld’s work could have been considered a radical affront – not to the modern consumer, perhaps, but to someone like Gabrielle Chanel, who famously hated women’s knee caps, making Lagerfeld’s shortening of the traditional Chanel tweed into a miniskirt a sacrilegious move against the maison’s namesake. Or, for Fendi, where Lagerfeld executed on the radical notion that precious furs – mink, as is seen throughout much of the exhibit – could be shaved into small flowers, rather than donned as a stole or a full coat. The effect is one that leaves the visitor in awe of the technical prowess. Lagerfeld’s premières, or seamstresses, who are acknowledged in the exhibit, are also to thank, for turning his all-important sketches into reality.

The Blanche table featuring reproductions of his sketches, the Masculine Line

Lagerfeld, who was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1933, did not receive a formal fashion education or enroll in art school. He did enter an international fashion competition, now the Woolmark Prize, for which he won in the coat category. He then worked at Balmain, and Jean Patou. All of this happened by the 1960s, at which point he began freelance design work for Chloé as well as his tenure at Fendi, helping to transform the Italian label into what it is today. By 1982, he exchanged Chloé for Chanel. In turning the role of designer into a brand name itself, he helped pave the way for later talent, including people like Tom Ford or even arguably Kanye West.

Cape, dress, from spring 2010 haute couture, Chanel. Photo: Rafael Pavarotti

Beyond these résumé points, almost nothing about Lagerfeld’s own life makes it to the exhibit. “We didn’t want to emphasize ‘Karl the man,’ who has long been the subject of breathless mythologizing and hagiography, largely as a result of his own audacious self invention and penchant for controversy,” Bolton said. “Rather, we wanted to focus on ‘Karl the designer’ – his works – and to isolate a critical aspect of his design process that made him unique among his peers – namely, his practice of sketching.”

Trompe l’oeil Crétoise dress from spring 1984 collection, Chloé. Photo: Rafael Pavarotti

While it may not be a detailing of who he was, there are parts of the exhibit that highlight what Lagerfeld wanted people to see him as: a character or caricature, as he called it, of himself. Adorned in Chrome Hearts silver jewelry, his hair powdered and pulled back, sunglasses reliably covering his eyes, his uniform lent itself to an image that transcends the idea of personhood altogether. In some ways, it leaves him somewhat shielded from criticism, in the same way one might find it difficult to criticize a cartoon. There’s a reason his likeness made its way to Barbie and Kokeshi dolls.

Organza and gazar haute couture dress from spring 2013, Chanel. Photo: Rafael Pavarotti

As with every May Met Gala, this retrospective of Lagerfeld’s work necessitated that guests dress to code. The visionary’s 65-year career in fashion at the helms of Balmain, Patou, Chloé, Fendi, Chanel, and his own eponymous brand offered a vast catalog of work coupled with an enigmatic presence. Contemporary designers like Thom Browne and Pierpaolo Piccioli reinterpreted the designer’s codes, mostly in Chanel’s image: tweed, boucle, and pearls abound.

Tweed skirt suit from spring 1995 haute couture collection, Chanel. Photo: Rafael Pavarotti

Meanwhile, Lagerfeld’s own image served as the inspiration (or imitation) for many of the guests. Wearing Gucci, A$AP Rocky recreated a look – black suit jacket, white collared shirt, a skinny black tie, and a red tartan skirt – Lagerfeld wore to a 2004 Chanel runway show in Tokyo. Alongside the rapper, Rihanna wore a coat enveloping her in giant camellias, Chanel’s signature flower. Others opted to emulate Choupette, Lagerfeld’s beloved Birman cat. Singer Doja Cat wore an Oscar de la Renta gown and feline prosthetics, while Jared Leto opted for a full cat costume resembling the likes of a character at an amusement park. “A sense of humor and a little lack of respect: that’s what you need to make a legend survive,” Lagerfeld once said. Or, a little separation between the man and his work.

Haute fourrure cape from spring 2016, Fendi. Photo: Rafael Pavarotti

Originally published in the June 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia

Style: Amanda Harlech
Hair: Eugene Souleiman, Soichi Inagaki
Makeup: Ana Takahashi
Production: Prodn, Ragi Dholakia Productions
Set design: Ibby Njoya 

Read Next: Anna Wintour on Karl Lagerfeld’s MET Retrospective: “A Tribute to Karl Feels Like a Tribute to Life Itself”

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