“Fashion does not belong in a museum,” Karl Lagerfeld told Andrew Bolton the first time they met. A fearless or an obnoxious statement, considering that Andrew Bolton is the most important fashion museum curator in the world. “Fearless” is what Bolton went for in his opening remarks at the press preview for the “Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty” exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “Fearsome” was another adjective Mr. Bolton used to describe Lagerfeld’s missives. Some observers may have stronger words for the late designer, who has been callous on record about feminists, people who are overweight, and victims of sexual assault. But the Met Museum is not in the business of criticism; it’s in the business of crowd-pleasing. Lagerfeld provides ample material. Besides Anna Wintour, who was in attendance but for the first time in my memory did not give a speech, he is the only fashion person who can claim to be a cultural mascot that transcends the narrow and insulated world of fashion. Ask an average person what Lagerfeld looks like and they will probably know.
That Lagerfeld became a cartoon was not lost on him. He spoke of himself as becoming a caricature, which was both acknowledging the truth and also creating a defensive facade. Lagerfeld’s entire persona was a facade – only his inner circle knew his true character. Same went for his uniform – it wasn’t simply the way he dressed, it was his armor. He was extremely insecure. I am convinced that his dress – the high collars, the fingerless gloves – was created to cover up as much of his aged body as possible. (His mother told him during his childhood that his hands “are not very beautiful,” so he stopped smoking so as to not bring attention to them.) Like many insecure people in power he possessed a vicious narcissistic streak, lifting up and discarding people at will. He played an aristocrat (once, literally, in an Andy Warhol film) while making clothes for the haute bourgeoisie that were largely consumed by the bourgeoisie.
And yet, he was a titan. He rejuvenated three failing historic houses, setting the blueprint that the likes of LVMH and Kering have followed. He saved a dozen traditional French craft firms from going under, and even though Chanel bought them at his behest, the company allowed them to work for other French houses. Besides a prodigious design career, he was phenomenally erudite, a voracious reader in four languages, a cultural omnivore, he possessed a manic energy when it came to creation. In both France and Germany he appeared on national television to make pronouncements on cultural matters and current affairs. There will never be another designer so cultivated – the world is no longer capable of producing them.
That the exhibit completely skirts Lagerfeld’s personality is a shame, but understandable. He is simply too complex of a subject to be grappled with by a mass culture institution that is hostage to public opinion. The exhibition therefore is pointedly about the clothes. The title, and the theme, “A Line of Beauty” is based on William Hogarth’s 18th-Century book The Analysis of Beauty. I will spare you the stuff about the lines, which sounds like something Mr. Bolton did to elevate the Costume Institute’s reputation in the museum world, where fashion departments continue to be denigrated. There is something about the S-line and the straight line and a tenuous relationship to Lagerfeld’s prolific sketching – all of this will go over the museum-goers’ heads. On to the clothes, then.
The clothes are arranged in a labyrinth designed by the famed Japanese architect Tadao Ando (a waste of his talent, if you ask me). They are broken down not chronologically, but thematically and in dichotomies of “lines” – feminine / masculine, romantic / military, historical / futuristic, and so on. This arrangement is fine – Lagerfeld’s output was so prodigious that you could construct pretty much whatever you want with it, so why not this? Finally, the clothes themselves are.. also fine. Lagerfeld was never a true iconoclast, he was always in thrall to the ruling class and in his mind he made clothes for them (when he wasn’t making purely commercial propositions for the mass market like he did with his eponymous line, or for H&M and Macys). Though he certainly wasn’t precious with Chanel or Fendi, he never had the dramatic sweep of John Galliano, nor the darkly romantic cri de coeur of Alexander McQueen, nor the irreverence of Jean Paul Gaultier – he was too buttoned up and too much of a control freak to truly lose himself. Lagerfeld’s iron-clad self possession (“I am not one who can get lost,” he once said) was his strength and his limitation – he was not called the Kaiser for nothing. The best thing he had going for him at Chanel was the unparalleled access to premier French craftsmanship. And a razor-sharp wit. It is that, along with his erudition, really a sign of his erudition, that stays with you. That tribute is there in the last hall devoted to “the satirical line.” A viewer may note that this line, unlike the others in the exhibit, has no counterpart.
Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from May 5th to July 16th, 2023. All images courtesy of the museum.