NEW YORK — Seven words from Karl Lagerfeld adorn a doorway at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s sumptuous new exhibit honoring the late, legendary designer: “Fashion does not belong in a museum.”
Andrew Bolton, who masterminds the New York museum’s blockbuster Costume Institute shows each year, chuckled as he led a visitor through that doorway this weekend, a few days before opening, with crews nearby bustling to prepare for Monday’s splashy Met Gala.
“That’s what Karl said to me when I met him,” the star curator said. “He believed fashion was not art — it belonged on the street. So, I really don’t know what he would think of all this! I’m not sure he would come.”
“All this” is a lavish, loving tribute to the hugely prolific career of German-born Lagerfeld, who died in 2019 at 85 after more than a half-century of designing that left a deep mark on luxury fashion, especially at Chanel, but also at Fendi, at his own eponymous label, and elsewhere.
Set in 14 galleries, the show’s very walls have been constructed to embody the essential contradiction, or duality, in Lagerfeld’s style and persona — a series of curved and straight lines. The show, titled “Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty,” is large in scope but intricately detailed, and clear in its message: Lagerfeld’s creative tentacles spread far beyond fashion into culture, and constantly adapted with the times.
What the exhibit does not do, purposely, is focus on Lagerfeld’s words — despite that quote on the doorway.
Many of Lagerfeld’s best-known quotes have shocked people over the years as he opined on subjects from #MeToo (skeptically), curvy bodies (dismissively), and political issues like immigration (offensively, to many). What was more interesting to Bolton, he says, was to focus on the work, and that was daunting enough. He examined 10,000 items before slowly winnowing the show down to about 200.
“He was Karl,” the curator said, noting that Lagerfeld himself referred to not always meaning what he said. “There could be 10, 20 different shows on Karl. To me, I thought the way to get to know him better, and understand his contradictions, was through his work.” And at end of the day, he says, “that’s his legacy — the body of work you see here.”
Bolton’s shows, which have brought many thousands of visitors to the museum, have mostly centered on concepts and not individuals. But it’s hard not to sense that this show, dedicated to one man, is more personal for him, as he walks through the galleries and stops before a relatively simple tweed suit with a tight ribcage, narrow waist and exaggerated hips that he calls his favorite item.
Each gallery combines contradictory moods: romantic and military, historical and futuristic, feminine and masculine, floral and geometric. Filmy tulle coexists with shiny black plastic. It’s striking to think the same mind conjured up the pastel pink gown with cascading roses, and a jaunty design with huge block alphabet letters, which Lagerfeld loved because, Bolton says, “L comes after K in the alphabet. So, KL.”
One showstopping number is a glittery, golden embroidered dress, at its time said to be the most expensive ever made, Bolton said, because of its ingredients: literally, it’s spun with gold. In contrast, another item is simply “plastic on plastic.”
What stands out is the variety, making it impossible to describe one Lagerfeld style, even though his personal uniform became so recognizable that he called himself a caricature: the gray ponytail, the starchy white collars, the black fingerless gloves, leather pants, dark Chanel shades — a morphing of Mozart and maybe Keith Richards.
But that in itself, the show argues, is what defines the designer and explains his longevity: that he was always changing, in a determined — perhaps even obsessive — bid to stay relevant.
“He was a chameleon,” said Bolton, “able to change with the times so quickly. I think the reason he designed for so many years is that he wanted to remain relevant. Everything he did was about being in tune with the zeitgeist.”
Lagerfeld was also a man with many interests: Literature, film, photography, music — and business, too, making him an early example of designer-as-impresario. Carla Bruni, the singer, former first lady of France and longtime associate of Lagerfeld, spoke of these interests in remarks Monday at an unveiling of the show, which opens Friday to the public.
“He was constantly working, sketching and photographing,” Bruni said. “He was interested in everything, in everyone. Everything interested him — except mediocrity.”
To illustrate this, Bolton has created an item sure to draw eyeballs: a faithful recreation of Lagerfeld’s chaotic desk.
It is piled with books, magazines, favored sketching pencils from Caran D’Ache, and a glass of Diet Coke (actually resin, here).
“He drank it all day long,” Bolton said. “I never saw him without his glass of Coke.”
To create the tableau, Bolton spent three days in Paris photographing Lagerfeld’s library. Not wanting to disturb the actual collection, he sourced books from Amazon. The cultural artifacts range from highbrow to lowbrow.
“He wasn’t a snob,” Bolton says, then catching himself: “Well, he WAS a snob. But he was a democratic snob.”
There’s also a sketchpad: open, and blank: “We wanted it to look as if he was about to sketch.”
It was also sketching that provided the inspiration for the show. Bolton was at Lagerfeld’s memorial at the majestic Grand Palais in Paris — “much hoopla, as you can imagine” — and was touched by footage of the designer sketching, “lost in his imagination, oblivious to everybody.” He started dreaming up a show. (Lagerfeld was also a close friend of Anna Wintour, the influential Vogue editor who masterminds the gala and is one of this year’s hosts. Chanel is the show’s main sponsor.)
The exhibit centers first and foremost on the dichotomy of the curved “S” line (think romantic, decorative) and the straight line (modern, minimalist), with one curved wall and one straight wall in each gallery, and designs that express each aesthetic. Then, raised up in the center, there’s a garment called an “explosion” which combines both moods. So, for example, a traditional pastel-colored ballgown is topped with a black motorcycle jacket.
Speaking of jackets, there’s also a military-style women’s police jacket, designed by Lagerfeld as part of a competition run by the Rome police to dress its female officers.
And there’s a room full of iPhones — yes, iPhones — their screens capturing moments of what the exhibit calls “Karlisms.” It’s an illustration of the designer’s constant use, in later years, of his phone in his creative process — and of his huge collection of smartphones.
“I think he was ahead of the times, I really do,” said Bolton. “I think he saw where fashion was heading, as early as the 1950s. And fashion finally caught up with him.”
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