Hosting 400 fabulous guests dressed a la Karl with a trail of viral moments, the annual fundraising gala is done and dusted. But what lies between the man, the myth and the Met’s show? Harriet Quick reports
“I am calling it an essay,” says Andrew Bolton, the Wendy Yu Curator in Charge of the Costume Institute at the Met of the blockbuster in the making Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty. That Lagerfeld hated retrospectives, indeed was seemingly allergic to past modes, and was cloaked in myth himself guided Bolton’s undiluted concentration on Lagerfeld’s relationship with his work. “I did not want to go down the rabbit hole of what was truthful about the man himself,” says Bolton likening the exhibit to a puzzle. “The allure of the show is who is this man?”
And what work! Lagerfeld who began designing in 1954, co-winning the coveted Woolmark Prize ( with Yves Saint Laurent) is one of the most prolific and longstanding designers in the history of fashion. He worked for 5 heritage brands – Balmain, Patou, Fendi, Chloe before landing at Chanel in 1983. His legacy is an enormous oeuvre spanning the 20th and 21st centuries (Bolton selected from 2000 potential pieces) and also a master blueprint for the revival of heritage houses. What we witness today at so many brands (Balenciaga, Loewe, Zegna, Burberry amongst) would arguably not be possible with Lagerfeld’s masterclass. He turned the once dusty privately owned maison into the dynamic, mercurial force today constantly reinventing the storytelling around Gabrielle Coco Chanel. He oversaw a staggering eight collections a year and in doing so, supercharged the entire fashion system with out of this world shows that once saw a replica rocket launch from a pad and set designed with a thundering 40 ft tropical waterfall.
Composite Image, 2023. Photographed by Julia Hetta.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art // Image Sheet
Karl Lagerfeld Portrait by Annie Leibovitz
The Metropolitan Museum of Art // Image Sheet
"Sketching was his primary language and the designer would have sketch pads on his nightstand and on a dedicated desk (one of four) in his study. His medium was pencil, marker, crayon, watercolour – whatever suited best."
Lagerfeld also flew the flag for a polymath career as photographer, interior designer, film maker, publisher ( behind his own 7L imprint) and as a collector. Lagerfeld constantly found different outlets for his unquenchable creativity. Yet with almighty discipline, Lagerfeld managed to segment between the genres and brands. In his mind: Chanel was Chanel, Fendi was Fendi and Karl Lagerfeld was Karl Lagerfeld. “I think about what I want to do – and I do it,” Lagerfeld once said, “there is no marketing meeting.”
A Line Of Beauty is taken from William Hogarth’s 1753 book that examines the aesthetics of art and design and the allure of the serpentine line. Following that study, Bolton’s ‘essay’ starts with Lagerfeld’s sketches and subdivides into chapters that magnify the dualities in his collections from street/salon to rococo/classicism, from floral/geometric and to masculine/feminine and how those ideals collide and converge in exemplary looks.
In his sketches, you can see Lagerfeld’s signature geometric yet expressive style and an exact and impulsive mind at work. Sketching was his primary language and the designer would have sketch pads on his nightstand and on a dedicated desk (one of four) in his study. His medium was pencil, marker, crayon, watercolour – whatever suited best. More than mere artefacts, what Bolton decodes is how the premieres d’ateliers at Chanel (flou, tailoring, and the Metiers d’Arts included) interpreted those ‘lines’ into intricate, complex 3d garments.
Lily-Rose Depp Wearing Chanel Haute Couture SS 1992 to The Met Gala 2019
Olsen Twins in Vintage Chanel for the Met Gala 2019
Getty Images // Neilson Barnard
One of the triggers for the show was a video that Parisian journalist and editor, Loic Prigent made of Lagerfeld at his desk sketching. “Quick, witty, full of culture – chop, chop - done!” commented Prigent of his process. An astonishing clip of Karl Lagerfeld, the impresario, in fits of laughter and slipping between his multilingual tongues, ends the Met show.
To conceptualise the exhibition which literally dances between straight and curved lines, Bolton called on Lady Amanda Harlech, Lagerfeld’s longstanding creative consultant and lynch pin in his tight knit circle, and also on Japanese architect, Tadao Ando for the mise en scene. Ando was a close friend of Lagerfeld and designed a never built house for the maestro.
“I’ve always known that I was made to live this way, that I would be this sort of legend,” once said Lagerfeld who age 7, cajoled his parents into buying him an old master by the 19th German realist, Adolph Menzel. In different chapters of his life, Lagerfeld turned to collecting, amassing best in class 18th works, Memphis and Art Deco and purging each obsession before moving onto the next. His polyglot mind could dance between a whole litany of style lexicons but he always liked to remain behind those shades. As Harlech points out, Lagerfeld flew overhead like a drone gathering reconnaissance, impressions and gestures of the style citizens below. "I am a fashion person, and fashion is not only about clothes—it's about all kinds of change,” he once said of his zeitgeisty acuity.
Bolton has pulled off a gorgeous feast of a show that will leave one wandering how the crisp black and white image of Lagerfeld himself connects with the lively frisson and emotion of his designs. Find a 2005/6 haute couture bridal gown with a high neck and a swooshing skirt made of tumbling 3d unfurling roses; a linear art deco inspired 1997 jersey column dress for Fendi and a 2013/14 gold embroidered haute couture satin coat dress that bursts from a tight bodice like a bell. “Luxury is the ease of a t-shirt in a very expensive dress,” he once said.
Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty from 5 May - July 16. The show is sponsored by CHANEL with the support from Fendi.
Cara Delevingne Wearing Chanel Spring 2017 Haute Couture Collection to Met Gala 2017