By Nancy McKeon
THE NEW exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute celebrates the 65-year career of the late designer Karl Lagerfeld, who distinguished himself by creating not for one fashion house but for four. And that output—for Chanel, Fendi, Chloé, and his own Karl Lagerfeld line—wasn’t sequential but overlapping.
The most elaborate Costume Institute exhibit to date, according to Andrew Bolton, the curator in charge of the Institute, the show features 180 garments and accessories. Lush? Lavish? Yes, both. Also at times austere and tailored. In their totality: breathtaking.
It was always fun to watch as Lagerfeld danced within the boundaries of Coco Chanel’s demure open-front jacket, adding bounce and sex and youth to what had become, over the years, a rather dowdy “lady look.” The longtime fashion editor of the Washington Post, the late Nina Hyde, once instructed me not to pay attention to the skirts, cut scandalously short in one 1980s foray, but to look closely at the jackets. That, she said, was where the action was. Back in those days, a Chanel ready-to-wear jacket could cost maybe $1,600, a day suit $4,000. Now: At Saks Fifth Avenue, I just found that one cotton-tweed jacket from the Spring-Summer 2023 ready-to-wear collection is $7,300, its matching skirt $15,200. A black-and-white cotton T-shirt from the same collection is $2,000.
No wonder then that the relatively unadorned ready-to-wear fashion most of us “know” from newspaper and magazine fashion coverage is rarely encountered in the wild. Much, much less the truly elaborate confections Lagerfeld created for Chanel’s haute couture collections. The notes on those dresses and suits catalogue materials such as leather, sheets of gold metal, embroidery, sequins, bugle beads, tulle, cotton-and-synthetic tweed, silk jersey—sometimes on the same outfit. Also noted, the hundreds of hours by artisans to do all that embroidering, beading, tucking, welting, and, yes, sewing, by hand.
The genius of Kaiser Karl becomes apparent as you wander through the exhibit and see all his many manifestations. Yes, the Institute has divided the looks into the straight line and the serpentine, but the lines are crossed in inventive ways, with a different personality emerging depending on which house Lagerfeld was addressing, Fendi seemingly getting more geometrics, Chloé more patterns.
One charming aspect of the retrospective is a pair of videos, interviews with the premières d’atelier in the Chanel and Fendi workrooms, the head seamstresses whose talent was to take the sketches given to them by Lagerfeld and translate them from two dimensions into three. They speak with a certain amount of reverence for the designer but also with what seems to be a genuine affection.
And if you absolutely cannot get yourself to New York for the show, you can get a very hearty glimpse of the treasures through this walk-through with Institute curator Bolton:
Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty runs through July 16, 2023. Costume Institute, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue (81st Street), New York, NY 10028; phone 212-535-7710; met museum.org.