BONN, GERMANY — Karl Lagerfeld despises retrospectives. “Because I don’t think it’s a good thing when you dive into your past,” he told WWD ahead of the opening of “Karl Lagerfeld. Modemethode” (or “Fashion Method”), slated to open Saturday at the Bundeskunsthalle here.
And yet — perhaps reassured by the presence of his friend and confidante of nearly two decades, Lady Amanda Harlech, who put together the compelling show — he unexpectedly gave the project his blessing.
Harlech stressed: “This is not a retrospective. Karl’s against it. He is a man of the present and the future.”
Instead, the idea was to show “his work process,” something never done before, she explained, noting that it would have likely taken a lot more space had the museum decided to document Lagerfeld’s entire professional life, which to date spans 60 years in fashion.
Harlech’s cocurator and the hall’s director Rein Wolfs said they “made a point of not putting the person but the content and its genesis in the center of this project,” which explains why it stays clear of Lagerfeld’s engagements with H&M, his interior design and beauty projects, focusing on his most enduring fashion ventures instead. “It begins with a sketch and ends with photography,” added Wolfs, quoting the exhibit’s unofficial work title “From Paper to Paper.”
That’s not exactly a piece of cake either, if you ask Harlech, who had six months to sift through piles of archive material at Chloé, Fendi, Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld, the show’s main pillars. “I am not a fashion historian, so I had to look at everything from the very beginning, and then I made a selection, and then another, piecing everything together on the kitchen floor at Shropshire [where she lives and rides horses, much like Coco Chanel before her],” she said.
The first thing visitors get to see is Lagerfeld’s desk overflowing with all sorts of paper: there are bags full of books from Galignani, the designer’s fetish bookstore on Rue de Rivoli, including a biography of Oscar Wilde and Doris Lessing’s “The Fifth Child” (in French) — go figure. Also on the desk are stacks of old copies of The New Yorker; myriad colored crayons, little brushes and powder for his sketches, and Choupette’s bowl, “because she always eats at the table, never on the floor,” Harlech remarked of the designer’s beloved cat.
The desk is an original, one of five tables the designer normally keeps at his loft.
A special soundtrack has been composed by his longtime musical companion Michel Gaubert, based on the sound of a pencil scratching the surface of paper, while Vogue Germany edited the show’s official catalogue, written like a special edition of the magazine, complete with photos, interviews and background stories.
The exhibit itself, slated to run through Sept. 13, is arranged like a road, inviting guests to linger and explore the most noteworthy chapters in Lagerfeld’s professional career, such as the yellow coat that “set Karl off on the fashion journey,” as Harlech put it, having earned him the International Woolmark Prize in 1954 along with Pierre Balmain’s attention, for whom he apprenticed. As the original piece no longer exists, a seamstress (under Lagerfeld’s supervision) had to make a copy from images, with the look’s palette proving to be most challenging. “Karl said: ‘The color of the coat is something between a lemon and a daffodil,’” laughed Harlech, adding: “We did it.”
Often referred to as Lagerfeld’s muse, the London native has been an astute observer of the designer’s creative output since 1996, though her own role is hard to grasp. “I quite like the idea that I’m indefinable,” she told WWD. “But I don’t think muse is appropriate. Choupette is more of a muse than I am, really,” she said, favoring the term of consultant to both Chanel and Fendi instead.
Harlech met Lagerfeld at a lavish party in the Nineties. “Then, and maybe it will happen again, designers were all really friendly with each other and Karl would invite everybody — film directors, models, hair and makeup artists, editors, friends and designers to his house in Paris. These were the most extraordinary parties; they happened during fashion week, there was dancing, people would talk to each other, it was a happy time.”
She said she remembers him spotting her for the first time. “He was sitting on the other side of the room, he looked at me and I felt the power — it was like a wave of energy sweeping over you.” The same “energy — musicality and attitude” — she says emanate from his drawings.
One of the most impressive parts of the exhibition is “The Reinvention of the Tweed” section, focusing on Lagerfeld’s conceptual approach to fabrics. There is a Chanel dress that has been entirely embroidered to look like tweed, and another number which appears to be slowly disintegrating against a twill background.
All looks are displayed on transparent mannequins designed specifically for the show, allowing a peek into each pieces’ interior. Explains Harlech about the idea: “Karl almost sees things philosophically — the inside is as important as the outside. He takes everything apart and pieces it back together again.”
A vitrine, meanwhile, boasts an intriguing collection of buttons custom-made for Chanel — from shell-shaped ones, to lion’s heads to tiny babushkas, each telling the story of another season’s collection.
The curator said one of the things that surprised her most was how modern the clothes look despite their dateline. “You could put them on today and look relevant,” Harlech noted, adding: “Fashion is timelessness and that’s exactly what you get here.”
Overall, the show investigates Lagerfeld’s oeuvre via 126 looks, 120 accessories and 177 buttons, hundreds of sketches, at times arranged like a wallpaper or curtain, as well as ad campaigns (art directed and photographed by Lagerfeld) and film clips.
Asked why the exhibition was set in Bonn of all other places, Wolfs answered: “We are the Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany, and he is the most important German fashion designer. When we discussed this for the first time one and a half years ago, he agreed to this being an exhibition centered on fashion and looking forward. Maybe it was the right time to ask. There is a lot of psychology involved.”
Regardless, Lagerfeld said he would not attend the exhibition.
“I think it’s interesting for people to see what I do, but I don’t have to go there because I know what I did, and sitting on your laurels mean they stop growing,” he told WWD.
If the exhibit’s grand finale is an indicator, the designer’s future journey is long and copious. There is the couture room, aka the “Paper Palace.” Set against a dreamy paper decor thought up by Wanda Barcelona, it harbors the blush pink feather gown Nicole Kidman wore in the Chanel No. 5 ad as well as a cheeky Neoprene wedding dress conceived for a pregnant bride — a wink to Lagerfeld’s penchant for keeping up with the zeitgeist. Behind it: a wall of blank sketch paper, ready to be scribbled on by the master. As Harlech put it: “Karl’s biggest achievement is always the next thing.”