This week we lost an authentic master. Quel génie! We also lost a renaissance man. Karl Lagerfeld’s curiosity, untiring investigation of ideas, and his unique brilliance will be missed.
One day, many years ago, I visited his bookstore and photography studio in Paris with André Leon Talley. Karl was photographing models for a European magazine. The models were wearing another designer’s garments! I knew Karl photographed lyrical images for Chanel but had not previously known that he was such a serious photographer, even photographing the lines of other designers for commercial magazines. He had a full studio with elaborate lighting, multiple sets and equipment galore.
At the time he was on a strict diet set by his French doctor, eating only simple poitrine de poulet — chicken breasts. He cut a boyish figure in black jeans with white powdered hair pulled back in his signature ponytail.
After André and I observed the photography session and the models left, the three of us sat and talked in Karl’s library/writing room, which was overflowing with books. We talked about SCAD and his simpatico work in photography, fashion and interior design. Karl was also an earnest historic preservationist, having restored and furnished with extraordinary detail several historic properties throughout Europe. He was an interior designer. He also adored and absorbed books. We went into his adjacent bookstore, as well, to admire the books he had carefully stocked.
Karl was generous, too. In 2002, he exhibited his ethereal large-scale photographs at SCAD. For his show, he wanted the photos displayed unframed, mounted to the wall with large strips of angled blue and black gaff tape. Unpretentiously. He surprised us by donating the entire exhibition — 41 works in all — to the SCAD Museum of Art.
Right now, many of those majestic photographs are displayed in the fashion classroom lounge at SCAD Atlanta and in the SCAD Museum of Art lobby at SCAD Savannah. We are very fortunate to be able to honor him with dual showings of his important work as a photographer. His photographs are whimsical and artistic, not at all like typical fashion photography. They are romantic and dance-like, with diffused lighting and poetic storytelling.
SCAD adores Karl’s work, and rightly so. We own quite a bit of Chanel couture in our fashion collection, and we frequently exhibit it. We have dresses and suits donated by Anna Wintour, and an array of vintage Chanel given by Cornelia Guest, William J. McCormick’s Deeda Blair and Patricia Altschul. We’ve featured our Chanel dresses in exhibitions including “Little Black Dress” in Savannah and Paris, and “High Style,” which was one of the inaugural exhibitions at the SCAD Museum of Art. All these shows were curated by Karl’s close friend, André Leon Talley.
Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to attend several of Karl’s couture fashion shows, one of them in a Parisian convent. The guests were all seated on the balconies and within the arcades of the convent single file. Each model walked every floor and at the finale, all the guests thronged to the edges of the open balconies to see Karl and the models assembled below in the open-air courtyard. Exhilarating. Most recently, I saw his final show in Paris where snow dusted us as we walked into a sunny Italian villa scene complete with giant palm trees, and his models strode on pink sand around a large rectangular swimming pool (all an elaborate set created within the glass-domed Grand Palais). Definitely memorable. He expressed drama in everything.
But in person, despite his white powdered hair, he was very down-to-earth, courteous and deferential. He was a man of old school etiquette. He moved quickly and seemed to have so much to do, but not in a frenetic way. Karl conducted himself as though he valued time.
There’s never enough time, but he truly accomplished so much in so many different disciplines. SCAD joins the world this week in mourning the lost brilliance of Karl Lagerfeld. May his beauty be celebrated for generations to come.
Paula Wallace is president and founder of SCAD.
Editor’s Note: As part of the upcoming 10thannual SCAD deFINE ART, the university’s annual program celebrating emerging and established artists and visionaries, the museum is presenting an exhibition of photography by Karl Lagerfeld. The exhibition, which consists of 13 large-scale prints from the museum’s permanent collection, is on display in the museum lobby, free and open to the public during all museum hours and events. Here are some of the images on display: