Karl Lagerfeld exhibition examines work of one of fashion's most prolific designers

The flamboyant Metropolitan Museum of Art show offers a retrospective of a career that spanned seven decades

Powered by automated translation

Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty opened at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in May, offering a look back at the career of one of fashion’s most extraordinary characters.

The German fashion designer won the Woolmark Prize alongside Yves Saint Laurent in the early 1950s, and had a voracious appetite for work until his death in 2019. His standard 16-hour working day meant he was the driving force behind not only Chanel and Fendi – which he headed for five decades – but also Chloe, Balmain, Patou and his own eponymous brand. He also designed for Max Mara.

A dive into what the Met calls Lagerfeld’s “stylistic vocabulary”, the new exhibition is a look at the designer’s seven-decade career, told through more than 150 looks. These are accompanied by sketches that illustrate how frequently collections would reach his teams already fully formed, down to what the buttons on each look should be.

It also examines the collaborative relationship between Lagerfeld and his head seamstresses, whose role in interpreting his sketches into the cut of a shoulder, the fit through a waist, or the creation of a whole new silhouette, were vital to Lagerfeld’s success.

With an aversion to frippery, Lagerfeld created clothes that were fluid and elegant, yet innately practical. Like Gabrielle Chanel before him, his designs were about ensuring a woman looked and felt her best, without having to worry about a skirt riding up or gaping at the back. This aesthetic traversed every project he touched. At Chanel, for example, this was realised as a crisp take on everyday grandeur, while at Chloe he crafted an idea of haute bohemia that endures 50 years later. For Fendi, meanwhile, he honed an identity of high-end playfulness.

In addition to fashion design, Lagerfeld was also a prolific photographer and shot many of Chanel’s campaigns. He also published books of his own photography, including The Little Black Jacket: Chanel’s Classic Revisited with Carine Roitfeld, which features celebrities in the classic tweed jacket.

Tirelessly forward facing, Lagerfeld surrounded himself with the latest music, technology and art to feed his creativity. He was unafraid to take huge risks in fashion and pushed his teams to achieve the seemingly impossible, such as the 2015 haute couture collection that included an entirely 3D-printed jacket.

For all his talents, Lagerfeld was also outspoken and was frequently scathing in his judgements. In 2012, he caused uproar when he described the singer Adele as being a “little too fat” (he later apologised by sending a car filled with Chanel bags). He declared that anyone who wore tracksuit trousers had “given up on life”, but was subsequently forced into something of a climb-down, when his namesake label brought out a range of tracksuit bottoms to meet client demand.

Ultimately, it is for his fearless attitude that Lagerfeld is best remembered. When he took over Chanel in 1983, it was in the doldrums. To reignite its spark, he reworked the early vision of Gabrielle Chanel, focusing on fashion that offered freedom to women, along with laid-back sophistication.

Rather than resting on Chanel’s weighty archive, Lagerfeld would experiment with bold new lines each season. He also introduced a more casual element to the house – denim in the 1980s and, more recently, trainers. “My job is not to do what she did, but what she would have done. The good thing about Chanel is it is an idea you can adapt to many things,” the designer once said.

In his later years, Lagerfeld adopted a personal uniform of severe, skinny-cut black trousers and jacket worn with high starched collars. With his hair drawn into a powdered ponytail, it was not without irony that he once remarked: “When I was younger, I wanted to be a caricaturist. In the end, I became a caricature.”

In 2017, The National spoke to Chanel’s president of fashion, Bruno Pavlovsky, who was ebullient in his praise of the designer. “He is a genius. No doubt about that. Think of the work he has done over the past 30 years. He has made the brand strong, he has been able to clarify the direction of the brand, to reinterpret the cult of the brand and to push the brand for the future. So today Chanel is like a jewel, like a diamond. Everything is ready for the future.”

Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty is at The Metropolitan Museum of Art until July 16

Updated: June 15, 2023, 3:33 AM