While the bright spring skies that emerged Monday after torrential New York weekend rains might please organizers of the Costume Institute Benefit, aka The Met Gala, hyperbolically speaking, the clear skies might also give the late Karl Lagerfeld a better view of the institution’s look at his life’s work.
The new show, ‘Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty’, opens tomorrow to the public. In keeping with tradition, a select group of journalists and museum supporters were invited to tour the exhibit, and hear remarks from Max Hollein, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Condé Nast CEO Roger Lynch, former French First Lady Carla Bruni, and The Met’s Costume Institute curator, Andrew Bolton.
Hollein kicked things off in the open space Exhibition Gallery, a room filled with natural light. After thanking the requisite players in attendance, including Lagerfeld’s good friend Amanda Harlech, Costume Institute co-curator Mellissa Huber, exhibit architect Tadao Ando, plus the all-important exhibit sponsors Chanel, Fendi, the Karl Lagerfeld company and longtime sponsor Condé Nast, the director shared the late designer’s particular gift.
“He brought to fashion a universality and expertise that bridged the gap between art and commerce, and he did it with wit, sophistication, and passion. This exhibition shows the unique process of the endless creativity of the designer with Andrew Bolton using his critical eye to draw out reoccurring aesthetic themes that unite Karl Lagerfeld’s designs,” he said, noting the curator sifted through 10,000 designs to select the 200 which represent his time at Chanel, Chloé, Fendi and his eponymous line primarily.
“That alone is an accomplishment,” he added. The exhibition spans work from the 1950s before the designer joined Patou to his last collection for Chanel, which was shown posthumously in 2019.
CEO Condé Nast Roger Lynch spoke next, recalling the dedication of the publishing house, which had spanned decades going back to when former Vogue editor and legend Diana Vreeland began her role as a special consultant to the Costume Institute in 1972 and worked to create the magnificent fashion exhibits that followed for the previously under-celebrated wing of The Met. He also praised former Condé Nast chairman Si Newhouse who was instrumental in renovating the Costume Institute and dubbing it ‘Anna Wintour Costume Center’ in 2014.
He also indicated that the tony publishing house continued to be committed. “To continue this legacy, this coming October, we will share more on a new substantial gift to The Met that will hopefully inspire a new generation of artists, fashion designers, and creatives. I’d also like to thank Anna Wintour for her tireless work; tireless does not begin to describe her efforts for the Costume Institute. She is the hardest-working, most dedicated person I know,” he continued.
He introduced the purry-voiced former French First Lady Carla Bruni, who spoke next of her longtime friend and frequent employer. “I was lucky enough to know Karl for many years, and he left an indelible impression on me. He only showed me kindness and consideration,” she offered. “Despite the charisma, creative power, and energy with which he animated everything, despite the elegance, generosity, and wicked sense of humor, I remember his kindness. I am so sorry about this, Karl,” she said, looking up to the skies visible through the glass ceiling atrium.
The model and sometimes singer recalled how the late designer was constantly sketching and photographing things, even during “dinners” and that he was generous in sharing his creativity. “His inspiration was timeless, but in the world of the ephemeral, he has become permanent. It was often frantic and intense being with him, always striving to create a vision of a woman; he made being a woman in fashion both thrilling and fun,” she continued. She also noted that he was a great listener and a lover of personality.
“Deep down, Karl isn’t gone; it’s as if he will enter the room any minute following. He succeeds in leaving a trace of himself that still beats and resembles him. I imagine him leaning over us from above, perhaps even mocking us for honoring his work, something he scoffed at. Everyone knows the character and the aura around him, but all those who approached him knew that behind the armor image was a kind heart. So sorry for this too, Karl,” she said, looking up again, noting this was the memory she cherished most about the late creative force.
Before directing guests to enjoy the exhibit, Bolton shared a few words about his approach to crafting the show.
“When I first met Karl, he said that fashion didn’t belong in a museum, but he never declined a request for his work to be featured; in fact, he had a lot of works in the shows over the years,” the curator affectionately recalled, noting the challenge to represent the work of a designer whose career spanned 65 years and at least six design houses if you count his early career which included stints at Balmain and Patou, along with Chloé, Fendi, Chanel and his eponymous brand.
“How best to represent a chameleon of a designer who embraced several styles and one who was a total designer also creating accessories and sets. He was a polymath, a writer, a photographer, a designer, an interior designer, and more. I wanted to focus on Karl Lagerfeld, the designer. One critical aspect was the practice of sketching, which was unique even among his peers,” Bolton said.
Indeed, the designer’s infamous sketching was highlighted at the beginning of the exhibit via a film by Loic Prigent that showed the designer furiously at work sketching. Subsequent films in the following galleries featured interviews with his atelier team, who reminisced about working with Lagerfeld to make those sketches into realities.
In a sense, Bolton approached the retrospective as a tale of two designers; one who followed a “serpentine” line that related to Lagerfeld’s tendencies for the historic, romantic, and decorative expressions, and the other his straight line that was evidenced in his modernist, classicist, and minimalist leanings. Within these two-overarching themes, the curator broke down subthemes and put them together in a compare-and-contrast manner in the different rooms.
After a delightful viewing of a recreation of Lagerfeld’s uncharacteristic messy desk and an introduction to his work which began by winning the International Woolmark Prize for a coat design that was recreated in muslin, the following galleries organized the various aesthetic themes he explored.
These included Feminine/Masculine; Romantic/Military Lines; Rococo/Classical Lines; Historical/Futuristic Lines, Artisanal/Mechanical Lines; Canonical/Counterculture Lines; Floral/Geometric Lines; Figurative/Abstract Lines; and finally, the Satirical Line. Each room mainly contained looks from Chanel, Fendi, Chloé, and his collection to demonstrate these opposing forces in the designer’s work. A singular look punctuated each gallery on a pedestal in the center of the room with a look that embodied the concepts to a T. Like many a Costume Institute exhibit, several looks were displayed second story, which is a shame as viewing them in detail is next to impossible.
Karl Lagerfeld CEO Pier Paolo Righi worked alongside the late designer for ten years at the exhibit. Seeing the exhibition come together was an emotional experience for him and his team.
“Karl never allowed us to look back at his achievements; he always wanted to look forward to the future. It’s the first time we can somehow gift him the homage to himself that he never allowed to give to himself. That is emotional for the solo house that bears his name at the doorbell; we are the only ones to take his legacy into the future,” said the executive. He and his team had just taken a photo in front of the few personal-style artifacts from the German-born designer on display.
The CEO acknowledged that the brand had several of its archives in the exhibit, usually reserved for design director Hun Kim, whose role is to continually revamp the designer’s vision for today’s market in what is typically a black-and-white palette the designer was known for.
But Righi points out that viewers would be particularly surprised to discover some of Lagerfeld’s 1970s work shown in the Figurative/Abstract Lines and the Satirical Line, mainly demonstrated in his career at Chloé.
“Particularly when it comes to the colorful explosions because often, we think of him as a designer of monochromatic and subtle colors, and the colors would be a surprise to some,” he said. Indeed, no matter what you think you know about Karl Lagerfeld, this exhibit is full of surprises.
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