MILAN — The memory of Karl Lagerfeld is permeating nearly every event in Milan this season, including the press presentation on Friday for the “Camp: Notes on Fashion” exhibition to be held at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute May 9 to Sept. 8.
With a crack in her voice, Vogue editor in chief and Condé Nast artistic director Anna Wintour described Lagerfeld as “a great friend, a benefactor, a collaborator, erudite and incredibly generous,” having lent 120 pieces to the Met over the years. “He had a wicked sense of humor and would have loved this exhibition.
“Camp is hard to define,” added Wintour, noting with a smile that the exhibit will display items “from the Sun King to drag queens,” and quoted Oscar Wilde: “Either be a work of art or wear it.”
Alessandro Michele, creative director of Gucci, which is supporting the exhibit, also addressed a crowd that included Kering chief François-Henri Pinault and Thom Browne at Milan’s intimate, 19th-century Teatro Gerolamo, where two of Michele’s designs were displayed with two Palomo Spain looks.
An image of Susan Sontag, photographed by Andy Warhol in black cat-eye sunglasses, was projected on a screen on the small green and pink curtain of the former puppet theater. At the entrance stood a voluminous pink pleated Viktor & Rolf couture gown declaring “Less is More” in graphics.
Michele enthused about the exhibition, which in itself “holds something of the DNA of what I’ve done in these past years,” and pointed to “the idea of working on something that is an expression of God and human.” He said the theme doesn’t refer only to “exaggerated and extravagant,” but also “it hides the great power of clothes and appearance, I fully embrace this thought and I am happy to be able to give a small contribution.”
“Camp is a beautiful word, it hides all the secrets of those who want to exist,” added Michele, segueing into a brief tribute to Lagerfeld, who embodied life “on the stage not only of fashion, and his love for fashion.”
The exhibition will display 125 fashion pieces as well as artworks including a full-length portrait of Oscar Wilde in a frock coat.
Curator in charge Andrew Bolton said Sontag’s 1964 essay “Notes on Camp,” catapulted camp “into the mainstream where it has remained ever since.” She changed it irreversibly, he noted, adding that it came to the fore especially in the Sixties and Eighties and it is still of the moment. He argued camp never lost its subversive element. “She provided a language to understand camp and that is the one we use for the exhibit,” said Bolton.
“To talk about camp is to portray it, said Sontag in the introduction of her seminal controversial essay,” observed Bolton. “That was very much the case in 1964 when she wrote the essay, at that time it was a private code primarily in the gay community.”
In the first part of the exhibit, Sontag is the ghost narrator, said Bolton, “in a journey from Louis XIV to Molière,” passing through Victorian London, where “camp became a secret language among gay men,” and the 1930s Berlin nightclub cross-dressing scene of Christopher Isherwood. In Versailles, the term camp became the “ultimate expression” of the younger brother of Louis XIV, Philippe I, Duke of Orléans, who “devoted his life to dancing and dressing up and although he was married twice he was flamboyantly gay,” explained Bolton. There will also be “an ensemble from the 1997 collection by Karl Lagerfeld inspired by Versailles.”
In 1909, the word “camp” was inserted in the dictionary, said Bolton, who spoke of the democratization of art through camp. He also said Sontag “believes that camp has affinity for fashion because of its emphasis on texture, sensuous surface and style at the expense of content.”
The second part of the exhibit comprises “100 examples from the 1960s onward,” and Bolton pointed to the “theatricality, duplicity and ambiguity” of some of the contemporary dresses, included those on display at the theater.
Physically, the two sections are also different, as the first part features “narrow corridors with low ceilings,” telegraphing a “clandestine underground” mood with Sontag “narrating in whispers,” while the second part “is an open piazza,” mirroring “mainstream acceptance,” said Bolton, noting that the exhibit “raises more questions than answers. Is camp gay, kitsch, political? What is camp?”
Bolton also emphasized the generosity of Lagerfeld. “This is the 18th exhibition in which [his clothes] are featured,” he marveled.