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The Met Walks a Fine Line on Karl Lagerfeld: Judge the Clothes, Not the Man.

I admit: I’ve never fully drunk the Karl Lagerfeld Kool-Aid. I was not one of those critics (and there were some) who clutched their breasts and shouted “genius!” And crap after every show.

I often felt that for every extraordinary piece the designer created for Chanel or Fendi — when I started in fashion, his career at Chloe had come to an end — another boring dress or suit. Will: Restless, annoying, kindly weird I found the set building he did for his Channel shows in later years (supermarkets, rocket ships, and icebergs in the Grand Palace) not just social media. A great move (which it was) but too often a huge display to distract from what was on the runway was abysmal budget and sleight of hand. Sure, that tweed sweatsuit made the model look like a Real Housewife — but everyone was looking at the Double C-branded pasta on the wrong Megamart shelf instead!

Once I spoke to the Chanel press office about not fully “getting” Lagerfeld’s vision. But as I wrote in the designer. Death (He died in 2019), while he undoubtedly changed the business of the industry — its marketing, its branding, its very structure — by taking over a heritage house like Chanel and reshaping it with its own codes. Thanks to his ability to reinvent himself, I didn’t think he had really changed. Closet. It did not give the world a new silhouette, or an expression of identity, as Coco Chanel did with herself, the boucle suit, or Christian Dior. New formator Saint Laurent, with Lee smoking, tuxedo suit for women.

All of this is to say that when I heard that the Metropolitan Museum of Art would dedicate its 2023 Costume Institute to Lagerfeld, I had a mixed reaction. On the one hand it made sense: in a 65-year career that included 26 years at Chanel, 54 at Fendi, 25 at Chloe (in two separate periods) and 35 at his own brand (he held multiple jobs at the same time over the years). , as well as at Patto and Balmain (Ife), the man appeared as a colossus on the modern fashion scene. On the other hand, the show raised many questions.

The bar is set high for one-man shows—usually defined by names that changed the vocabulary of clothing. Only 10 of them have been at the Met over the past 50 years, including Balenciaga, Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen and, most recently, Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons. In general, the Costume Institute has focused on thematic displays, similar to last year’s show. American fashionor 2019’s “Camp” And even beyond questions of Lagerfeld’s original product, there were problems. His public statementsmany of which were fatphobic, Islamophobic, racist and sexist, mocking everyone from former German Chancellor Angela Merkel to singer Adele.

Should his art (if it was such) really be separated from his self by placing him on a museum pedestal?

The answer can be found in it now. “Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty,” which opens May 5 in the museum’s Tisch Galleries. This is a tightly edited, highly entertaining, ultimately persuasive argument from Andrew Bolton, curator in charge of the Costume Institute, that when you strip away the controversy and myth, what you’re left with is a great technique. It is a pure expression of imagination. An omnivorous cultural curiosity. The benefit of 65 years of work that produced more than 10,000 pieces of clothing (at least that’s the number Bolton said he used for the show) is to distill them down to just over 200 garments. I, Bolton is free to focus on the most emotional pieces. . And almost all of them are, indeed, brilliant.

But even this exposition fails completely, and deliberately, to address the complexities of the man. Bolton admits as much in the exhibition catalog introduction: “We didn’t want to emphasize ‘Lagerfeld the man,'” he writes, but rather “Lagerfeld the designer”; Exploring the connective tissue in a 65-year career that can often seem highly dysfunctional: flipping here, there and everywhere; reluctant to do. In an interview this week, the curator explained his position, saying he wanted to leave judgments about the character to historians and biographers. And yet the Lagerfeld man is a ghost in the show’s machine: impossible to ignore.

Indeed, the concept around which the exhibition itself is built—a narrative of duality—implies a contradiction at the heart of Lagerfeld’s story: he was a man who loved, and made, beautiful things. , while sometimes voicing ugliness.

If not officially retrospective – Lagerfeld famously hated them, saying that no one “wants to see a bunch of old clothes” – the show was mostly an essay in clothes. , which is based on an organizing principle derived from an 18th-century artist and writer. William Hogarth’s 1753 book “Analysis of Beauty”, with the author’s beloved serpentine curve, or “line of beauty”, indicating liveliness and variety, juxtaposed against the straight line as his aesthetic forces. But what is also called valuable. (The “line of beauty” is also, as it happens, a 2004 Booker Prize-winning novel by British author Alan Hollinghurst about gay life, class and politics in Thatcherite Britain, but although Bolton admitted he loved the book, he said it had nothing to do with the exhibition. ).

From there the lines and doublets expand into nine different groups: masculine/feminine lines which give way to romantic/military influences, which give way to rococo/classical, which in turn lead to historical/futuristic and so on. . There are so many lines that it can be difficult to follow. Bolton has a tendency to over-egg his papers, perhaps to justify fashion’s place in the museum. In the end you can ignore them all, and enjoy the show purely as a visual treat.

Line Concept is most useful in providing a template for the show’s designer, architect Tadao Ando (who was once commissioned to build a house for Lagerfeld that was never built). The space consists of multiple galleries that curve and curve around themselves through which other galleries can be glimpsed—to allow a glimpse into the future, or a trip back into the past. The effect is slightly disturbing in a good way, making it easy to lose yourself in fields of Lagerfeldiana.

And what areas are they? Two small tweed Chanel lynching suits appear to evaporate in mist at the hems. An egg-shaped Fendicoat consists of thousands of tiny brightly colored mink mosaic tiles, like a pointe list painting; Second, the scrunch-up is strung with overlapping shades made of layers of tulle that just look like fur. Lagerfeld could see possibilities in materials that seemed unfathomable. She made sequins out of concrete and wood.

There are Chloé dresses in Sonia Delaunay-esque prints and trompe l’oeil Grecian drapes. A Chanel frock coat is cut from the back, not the front, to expose the frothy colors. Almost no logos appear (there’s a fun game: guess which look goes with which brand; all three of his main employers were show sponsors), just as there’s little fun playing with brand iconography that Chanel Helped make it a part. It has been widely imitated in pop culture – Double C boxing gloves, and bikinis – and other brands. But there are cumulus clouds of feathers made of lace and glittering sequin armor and blooming roses that wander through centuries and salons.

Through them all, the same shape appears again and again: the jacket is slightly pinched at the spine, so the shoulder blades roll up and back, lifting the armholes just as well, the line above the waist. Turns downwards. Bolton calls it the “Schlemmer figure”, after a painting by Oskar Schlemmer. “Bauhaus Staircase” Since 1932 (the interwar period in Germany has been one of Lagerfeld’s poles of gravity).

Similar sketches were Lagerfeld’s primary means of communication, and are shown alongside the clothes as his origin story. The designer would give these drawings, conceived in the round (he thought not only from the front, but from the back) to the heads of his ateliers, to be “read” like their own private language. Just how it works is brought to life by a group of absorbing videos created by documentary filmmaker Loïc Prigent, which are interviews of these premiers d’ateliers—the people who translated the designer’s sketches—with Lagerfeld. About their work. They exclude humanity, love and pride.

As it happens, the videos are shown in the exhibition’s first gallery. You reach them after the entrance antechamber with another video, a close-up of Lagerfeld’s hands sketching costumes against a wall. At the end of the room, like punctuation, is a reconstruction of Lagerfeld’s Chanel desk, piled high with books and papers (each element chosen by Bolton to span Lagerfeld’s various obsessions, including from Aubrey Beardsley to Diet Coke). A pair of black designer shoes sit empty on the floor next to the table. It closely mirrors the opening video and desk exhibit: another video of Lagerfeld’s hands, sketching — this time not clothes, but himself. For this visual, Katie Corner is a set of vitrines displaying the designer’s signature accessories: fingerless black leather gloves, black shades and a fan, which epitomized the character she created for herself. Or “caricature,” as he called it.

Just before that, however, is a small oval of a room centered around 80 iPhones Plus Ones, with a single video of Lagerfeld laughing, along with some of his famous quotes: “My “There is one instinct that is stronger than the rest: the survival instinct”; “I always say what I think, and sometimes what I don’t.” None of that is bad, of course, though the latter statement is particularly telling.

This is a missed opportunity. Because by choosing to sandwich the clothes between representations of the man, the show actually suggests that you can’t separate the man, in all his messy, uncomfortable reality, from the alchemy of his art — and you can’t. Shouldn’t do that. It is part of the dirt and discomfort mix; It is part of the legacy, as it is for many of our creative personalities. If the Met can’t encourage this public conversation, what institution can?

Lagerfeld once said, in a quote emblazoned on the entrance to the show, “Fashion doesn’t belong in a museum.” This exhibition makes a wonderful case that the clothes he made really do. But so do complications, and stress.

Karl Lagerfeld: A line of beauty

May 5 through July 16, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan; 212-535-7710; metmuseum.org



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