Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty
Introducing Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty - the exhibition is now on view at the MET Fifth Ave, Gallery 899.
Calling all the fashion souls in NYC…if you’re a fan of 2023’s MET Gala theme, you probably have already seen this hottest fashion event happening in the UES. This year, the MET invites all the celebs, fashion icons and fashion enthusiasts to join the summer-long exhibition and honor the famous late designer, Karl Lagerfeld.
A Line of Beauty is currently the hottest exhibition at the MET. It is also the most ambitious show of Karl Lagerfeld to date. This exhibition has approximately 180 garments from Lagerfeld’s remarkable 65 years of career in fashion designing, and offers a detailed view of the designer’s great legacy from top fashion houses such as Chanel, Chloe, Fendi, etc. The name and theme of the show is inspired by William Hogarth’s concept, a line of beauty, and S-shape curve lines (aka the serpentine lines) appearing within an object or as the boundary lines of an object. These two lines (the straight lines and the serpentine lines) are physically and conceptually manifested in this exhibition. The serpentine lines symbolizes romantic, and decorative impulses, while the straight lines demonstrate modernist, classicist, and minimalist tendencies.
As you enter the exhibition, the show begins with Lagerfeld’s most iconic sketchings. Guests are welcomed with a wall video of Lagerfeld sketching, followed by a representation of his sketching working station. Sketching is a critical aspect of Lagerfeld’s design processes and it is considered as the primary motif of Lagerfeld’s communication in all their fashion dialogues.
To an untrained eye, his sketchings might seem spontaneous and expressionistic, but the skilled eyes (who were responsible for translating Lagerfeld’s 2-dimensional sketchings to the 3-dimensional garments) would spot the precise details and almost mathematical instructions.
The Introductory Gallery is a room dedicated to the premiere of Chanel, Fendi, Chloe, and Lagerfeld's eponymous label, with whom Lagerfeld had the longest working relationship. In a series of interviews, they discussed how they decoded his encrypted drawings to transform them into finished pieces. This gallery has some of my favorite classic CHANEL pieces, including the Sketch of Dress (autumn/winter 2022-3 haute couture) and the Sketch of ensemble (spring/summer 2003).
As you continue through the exhibition, each gallery explores the serpentine line and the straight line’s duality. Bridging these dualities are what we called “explosions”, in which the competing aesthetics are resolved and reconciled in the garments. For example, the garments in the Romantic Line are shown embedded in a curved wall, and those in the Military Line are shown alongside 2 straight walls, with the garments arranged as a pyramid.
The Romantic Era, beginning in the late 1700s and lasting through the 1850s, was a constant source of inspiration for Lagerfeld, especially its idealization of Nature is reflected in its fashion. The pastoral lifestyle from this era prioritizes 2 of my favorite revivalist silhouettes: 1) 1830, Gigot (Leg-of-Mutton Sleeves) 2) 1850, characteristic dome-shaped, crinoline skirts. In Lagerfeld’s imagination, the costumes of Romantic heroins coexisted alongside the uniforms of military heroes, whose severity and sobriety stand in stark contrast to the sentimentality of Romantic era fashions.
For Lagerfeld, the hand and the machine were creative rather than contrasting or contradictory tools in the production of fashion. This ensemble below is entirely hand embroidered, with tiny paillettes and seed beads that involved 700 to 1000+ hours of workmanship. The ensemble was part of Chanel’s spring/summer 2009 haute couture collection, which was an ode to paper, Lagerfeld’s favorite material. It is one of the dreamiest collections I've ever seen, and it serves as a prologue for the Floral Line.
As we proceed to the Floral Line, we see this section focuses on one of the most refined and rarefied couture metiers, the artificial flowers. For many costume connoisseurs, artificial flowers are emblematic of the triumph of the art of fashion. For Lagerfeld, the flowers that bloom on the designer's garments are not after-the-fact decorations, but enabling principles that simulating Nature's abundant beauty. What makes Floral Line extra special is the massive use of camellias, symbol of Chanel since 1913, on the garments. These legendary masterpieces are just unreal to see.
Lagerfeld held a strong opinion that fashion was not art and that fashion designers were not artists. For Lagerfeld, fashion was intensely practical and irrevocably commercial.
The exhibition concludes with the Satirical Line, which consists of 2 parts. The first part includes garments that reflect Lagerfeld’s razor-sharp wit, and the second part features ensembles that mirror Lagerfeld’s self-presentations through various representations of his iconic black-and-white uniform.
As Lagerfeld said, "I only know how to play one role: ME". He once described himself like a caricature, a mask. For Lagerfeld, the Carnival of Venice lasts all year.
As you wander through this section, you will find a very unique piece - a qipao-style black garment with an embroidered giant candlestick lighting up at this corner of the showroom.
This peculiar dress from the A/W 1985 Collection of Lagerfeld’s eponymous label is one of Lagerfeld's most significant masterpieces. The embroidered candlestick becomes a surrogate for a woman’s body, speaking of metaphor and metamorphosis. It also invokes the somnambulant world of surrealism, suggesting nocturnal reverie and the transition from day to night, from real to the imagined, and from the conscious to the subconscious.
Before the end of the exhibition, there is a Lagerfeld's echo chamber, where they show footages from Loic Prigent documenting an impromptu moment from 2011 when Lagerfeld was filming a special feature for the French-German TV channel Arte. The footage shows Lagerfeld dissolving into laughter as he confuses his English, French and his native German. The space reveals the centrality of his iPhone to his creative process and presents his epigrams or Karl-isms in a dynamic installation conceived by the British director Baillie Walsh, granting Lagerfeld the final word.
The exhibition ends with a collage of Lagerfeld’s dandiacal black-and-white uniform, which was paradoxical in its modernist and historicist aesthetics. The whole show is impeccably structured and set up - you almost feel like you are time-traveling between now and then as you study Lagerfeld’s fashion design legacies throughout his lifetime.
Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty is ongoing at the MET museum until 16 July 2023. This week is your last chance to view the show at Gallery 899!
(Sources: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Karl Lagerfeld: A Life in Fashion)