NEW YORK — The Chanel exhibition, which officially opens at the Metropolitan Museum of Art next Thursday, isn’t a retrospective. Instead, it offers a glimpse of the creative dialogue between the French house’s two icons, founder Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, who died in 1971, and Karl Lagerfeld, who joined the house in 1983.
Take, for instance, juxtaposed quotes from both that pepper the exhibition space and only serve to exemplify the duo’s kindred spirit.
“When one reads Chanel’s and Karl’s quotes, there is the same kind of astute and acerbic quality to them,” explained Harold Koda, curator of the Costume Institute, on a walk-through Thursday afternoon. “Sometimes they disagree, but that is the nature of strong personalities.”
The show features 23 LeCorbusier-like modules. Twenty display clothing vignettes and three are devoted to video installations, from camellias to abstract images of Marilyn Monroe holding onto a Chanel No.5 perfume bottle. These cubic modules are placed progressively in a grid, though they do not adhere to a chronological order. Displayed vignettes mix pieces designed by Chanel and Lagerfeld, and are arranged by themes such as silks, sequins and ribbons.
“We wanted to make a statement that this exhibit is not a retrospective, but it is really intended to be a conversation with the present and the past,” Koda said.
Lagerfeld, for his part, balks at the term retrospective, and he is a harsh critic of self-congratulation. Instead, he said the key message from the exhibition is the longevity of the French fashion house, for which he has been designing successfully for more than 20 years.
The Chanel exhibit is situated in a space usually reserved for temporary exhibits on the museum’s ground floor rather than in the lower-ground Costume Institute space. Koda put the exhibit together with Chanel; Lagerfeld; associate curator Andrew Bolton; creative consultant Olivier Saillard, a curator for the Musée de la Mode et du Textile in Paris, and Marie Maillard, who did the video installations. It is sponsored by Chanel and Condé Nast Publications and runs May 5-Aug. 7.
Chanel famously liberated women from the stiffness of corsets by inventing sporting-specific clothes and eventually jackets, blouses and sailor shirtsThe show, which showcases up to 65 pieces, opens with Karl Lagerfeld’s 1996 gold lace couture gown, which is inspired by a dress Chanel wore in a 1937 photograph by Cecil Beaton.
“Karl, most of the time, interprets Chanel in an irreverent way, but sometimes he evokes it with reverence,” Koda said. “We wanted to start the exhibit off with something that said historic Chanel but that was done by Karl.”
The room-like module is backed by a video display, for which Maillard took detailed shots of the dress and transformed them into a pattern, which is then manipulated to unveil the image of Chanel.
“That establishes our premise,” Koda explained. “We didn’t want to do a traditional retrospective. So much of what she designed responds to contemporary ideas of fashion. We felt it would almost not be exotic enough, but by adding Karl’s work, there is a poignancy that makes the past more potent.”
Koda and Bolton culled most of the looks from the the Chanel and Metropolitan Museum archives, though some were borrowed from Chanel customers and other institutions. The curators made an effort to position the modules in a way to give them exponential meaning. For instance, a room featuring Chanel’s seaside looks, such as the silk dress with matching coat, and Lagerfeld’s looks referencing neoprene wet suits faces a vitrine of Chanel products concerned with women’s active lifestyles, from tanning gels to weekend creams. There are also areas devoted to accessories and fine jewelry. One vitrine, which features signature quilted Chanel handbags, faces another showcasing how the bag has influenced other categories, such as a quilted moon boot or sandals made with the handbag’s signature gold and leather chains.
“I found editing the largest challenge,” Bolton said. “As curators, there were so many pieces to choose from. We didn’t want a retrospective, but a conceptual exhibit. The visitor will hopefully walk away thinking, ‘My goodness, I can’t believe these dresses are from the Twenties.’ I think they will be surprised.”
The catalogue sure is full of surprises, too. Leave it to Lagerfeld to elevate the exhibition catalogue to the level of couture, but with only two “petits mains,” his own, to do all the work. “I put myself in a job that took three weeks, and I had to get up at four in the morning to do it,” Lagerfeld quipped.That job involved hand-painting and coloring heads, faces and limbs to give static photos of the dresses on forms some personality, life and sense of period. (The Met forbids clothes in its collection ever to be worn. “Curators cannot party in museum dresses,” Lagerfeld quipped.)
“Dresses are about the woman at the time when they were worn, not just old material,” he says, describing his renderings as “a poetic evocation of the women of the period.”
For Lagerfeld, it meant working for hours with a multistep procedure loosely known as “algraphy.” While computers were employed to achieve the ultimate effect, the delicate shading of color Lagerfeld achieved, using eye makeup powders and tiny sponges, could only be achieved with human hands.
Lagerfeld matched hairstyles and makeup to the vintage look of each dress, occasionally drawing inspiration from real women associated with the house over the years. Flipping through the catalogue, one can divine the presence of the Duchess of Windsor, the models Audrey Marnay and Stella Tennant — and Mademoiselle herself.
Even the colors of some of the fabrics were refreshed and brightened as Lagerfeld is no great fan of “a bunch of old clothes,” to use a refrain of his from 2000 when he had a dispute with the Met over a planned Chanel exhibition.
Lagerfeld admits he’s hardly enamored of every look in the exhibition, especially some boxy suits from the Fifties in sizes too large for a man now accustomed to the stick-to-the-ribs tailoring of his friend, Hedi Slimane, designer of Dior Homme. Asked to identify his favorite look, he points to a stunning cocktail dress in blue silk crepe with long silk fringe from 1926.
The exhibit ends with a module of Lagerfeld dresses inspired by coromandel screens in Chanel’s apartment. “We wanted to reemphasize the dialogue between Karl and Chanel,” Bolton said.
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