“I like fashion to be part of daily life” is the message from Karl Lagerfeld. The words flicker in neon over the first museum study of the designer (with his blessing), in his birth country of Germany.
A mock-up of Karl’s desk, covered with pencils and crayons, surrounded by books and pieces of paper, crumpled and discarded, is the leitmotif of ‘Karl Lagerfeld: Modemethode’ at the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn (from March 28 to September 13).
‘Paper to Paper’ is the theme that runs through a show that has a selection of Karl’s working drawings for Fendi and Chanel, before the exhibition reaches its zenith with a ‘Paper Palace’ for haute-couture dresses, surrounded by paper flowers and leaves with an ending of blank pads, ready for Karl’s next collection.
The first piece on display is a yellow wool coat with which the young Karl Lagerfeld won a Woolmark award in 1954. It is the only garment which had to be re-created, with the designer demanding from Amanda Harlech — his muse, creative partner and the fashion curator of the show — as being the exact shade ‘between lemon and daffodil’.
Next comes a wall of drawings by Karl for Fendi over 50 years, chosen from 40,000 by Gerhard Steidl, the exhibition’s designer and Karl’s guru for anything the multitasking photographer and fashion creator prints on paper. The background is a gritty street, created by Steidl with digitally printed cement walls, complete with kerbs, photographed in Berlin.
Even Karl himself seemed surprised at his longevity at Fendi, when I talked to him about the exhibition in Paris earlier this month.
‘I have been doing Fendi for 50 years — can you believe it? It is a world record!’ he said. ‘Nobody, nobody! — not even for their own companies has worked for such a long time. But for me it is like the past few days. And I like it much better now.’
Fendi’s road trip of inventive furs has a side wall filled with colourful accessories, while a film of Rome puts the Italian company in its heartland.
Although I was fascinated by a boiler suit and oriental Persian pants from the Eighties among the 30 Fendi looks, I empathised with Amanda, as joint curator with the museum’s director, Rein Wolfs, when she said: ‘I would have liked to do the exhibition 10 times bigger — there are only 126 mannequins, and that set up enormous challenges.’
Steidl has made those mannequins, in his own word, ‘sensational’, by using a digital 3D invention to produce a striking realism. That is especially effective in the joyous Chloé session of 20 pieces, where the models sprawl over a fan-shaped sofa wearing Lagerfeld’s 1970s look at his most light-handed and romantic. The end of this section has the mannequins dancing at a fictional Studio 54, one dress famous for its embroidered water taps launching a stream of crystals.
Already, even before the small 14-piece section of graphic black and white clothes under his own KL label and the circle of tailored suits that is the start of a long tribute to Chanel, any museum visitor has to ask the question: how does Karl juggle all these brands? Steidl has created an entire wall of logos. Aside from the issue of his own Lagerfeld brand seeming puny beside the might of Chanel, and the fact that he is now in his eighties, what is the secret of these alter egos?
‘We live in the days of multiple identities,’ says Rein Wolfs. ‘That is Karl Lagerfeld’s strength. He is always able to come up with something I did not expect. I feel that as a strength. He is a good photographer and great at drawing — but we have to celebrate him for fashion. And it’s our duty as a museum to show the historical development.’
For me, the exhibition works because it is so selective. Would I have mentioned the designer’s seed bed at the couture houses of Balmain and Jean Patou? Maybe. Would I have swapped his dalliance with Swedish fast retail H&M that set off the hi-lo trend in 2004 for a showing of some of Karl’s films? Probably. Should there have been less Chanel? I don’t think so, for this is an exhibition that is delicately balanced between its curator’s romantic passion and Steidl’s visual modernity.
There is no doubt that Chanel is the ripe fruit of Karl Lagerfeld’s fashion. The curator takes its survey of the intrinsically French brand slowly: the iconic suit; the uniform of black; the wit of accessories that include a pair of Coco sneakers dating from 1983, the year Karl started at Chanel. There is even a display of a multitude of Chanel buttons.
After the ‘Reinvention of Tweed’ — including, Amanda explains, trompe l’oeil woven effects in embroidery — there is a flash of eighteenth-century exaggeration. That includes giant wigs created by coiffeur Sam McKnight — a memory to me of Karl in his baroque, fan-carrying days.
Chanel drawings, turned into vast posters by Steidl, lead to the dramatic ‘Paper Palace’, created by three hand workers over three weeks. The beauty and the workmanship of the dresses are breathtaking — not least because Steidl insisted on no glass cases in the exhibition.
This ‘Paper to Paper’ story is only comprehensible at its ending. But what an exit line! The last mannequin has a Neoprene dress covering a swollen stomach under her ravishing gilded cloak — a representation of the pregnant model who walked the couture runway last summer. It seems like a symbol of each show giving way for the birth of another.
Amanda is open about her emotional attachment to the exhibition and to what she hopes visitors will understand as ‘an incredible arc of Karl’s work’.
‘It’s about falling in love with Karl — I thought I knew the work, but this has been an incredible discovery,’ she said. ‘It’s the energy, the emotion, the eye that never stops looking and searching for a clear line. He is a genius of sculpture, texture, colour, detail, lightness — and grace.’
How exactly did this exhibition happen, with Karl giving it the seal of approval without being part of it at all?
Rein Wolfs says that he discussed the possibility with Lagerfeld 18 months ago, and that the designer was without question the most important German fashion designer.
Karl wanted a forward-looking exhibition and he insisted on the collaboration of Amanda Harlech and Gerhard Steidl to execute the work.
Amanda says that Karl told her: ‘This is the best museum in Germany’, referring to the Bundeskunsthalle, which is the Art and Exhibition hall of the Federal Republic of Germany. But that subsequently he left her, Steidl and the museum team severely alone — an unimaginable attitude in a world of controlling global brands.
Will Karl eventually sweep or sneak into the exhibition to see his life in fashion? I asked him in our Paris conversation why he was so adamant that he would not go to the Bonn show?
‘It could interest other people — not me, I couldn’t care less,’ Karl said. ‘In fact, it is not that I don’t look back — it has vanished, you see. I like my life today, anyway, 100 times better. You know, there is a moment in your life when you are not 20 or 30, and you feel much freer in a way. You have to use that freedom.’