/ 1 April 2023

‘Wicked’ Kaiser Karl set to have his day at Met Gala

The Real Karl 3
In Vogue: Karl Lagerfeld will be the theme of this year’s Met Gala

“If Karl Lagerfeld is the king of fashion, Anna Wintour is the queen, whose collective influence over fashion and media reigns supreme”

With just over a month to go before the 2023 Met Gala, anticipation is building and there’s much speculation  about how the celebrity guests will dress according to this year’s theme, “Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty”.  

The Met Gala is formally known as the Costume Institute Gala because it is more than a dress-up party for celebrities, it’s a fundraiser for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s (known as “The Met”) Costume Institute in New York.

“The Costume Institute’s spring 2023 exhibition will examine the work of Karl Lagerfeld (1933 to 2019), focusing on the designer’s stylistic vocabulary as expressed in aesthetic themes that appear time and again in his fashions from the 1950s to his final collection in 2019,” the Met says.

The Lagerfeld theme is extremely broad, due to the late designer’s long résumé of designer roles, which include Chanel, Fendi, Chloé, Balmain, Patou and his eponymous brand, Karl Lagerfeld, which made him king of the elite fashion world.

Guests have the luxury of drawing  from these houses’ archives, spanning Lagerfeld’s 60-year career, when they plan their outfits.

Can we expect Chanel tweed and ostrich-feather gowns paired with big sunglasses and flawless slicked-back ponytails? Or perhaps we will see Fendi coats with Lagerfeld’s signature fingerless gloves. 

Hopefully, some of the outfits will include pieces from Lagerfeld’s first Chanel haute couture show, which he presented in January 1983 at the legendary Chanel salon at 31 Rue de Cambon in Paris. 

Despite Lagerfeld’s reputation as a fashion genius who dresses the elite, he expressed unapologetically offensive views. The Met is going ahead with the theme, despite this. 

Lagerfeld publicly made fat-phobic comments (although he was once overweight) and, in an interview with Número, Lagerfeld said he was fed up with the #MeToo movement.

“I read somewhere that now you must ask a model if she is comfortable with posing. It’s simply too much, from now on, as a designer, you can’t do anything,” Lagerfeld told Número’s Philip Utz. 

“If you don’t want your pants pulled about, don’t become a model! Join a nunnery, there’ll always be a place for you in the convent. They’re recruiting even.”

As is traditional, the gala will be chaired by Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, with actresses Michaela Coel and Penélope Cruz, tennis champion Roger Federer and pop star Dua Lipa.

Wintour’s choice of a Karl Lagerfeld Met Gala theme is not just a nod to the iconic designer, it is a smart fundraising move for the Costume Institute. Lagerfeld was very important to the fashion industry, both editorially and financially. If Lagerfeld is the king of fashion, Wintour is the queen and their collective influence over fashion and media reigns supreme.

The Met Gala is often referred to as the “Super Bowl of fashion”. Since taking the reins of the Costume Institute Gala in 1999, Wintour’s business savvy and tight grip on the fashion world has helped her raise $200 million for the exhibit.

In 2014, the Costume Institute was renamed in her honour — the Anna Wintour Costume Centre — since her annual event helps finance the entire department, and she is a board trustee member. But this year’s Met Gala is not Wintour’s first shot at a Lagerfeld exhibit at the Met. 

Many shades of Kaiser Karl

In order to sit at the top of fashion’s most desirable maisons, one needs to be more than a trendsetter, one needs to be an artistic genius whose vocabulary — both verbal and visual — is informed by art, photography and literature, with a dash of the unconventional.

Lagerfeld’s  nonconformity and perfectly timed romantic nostalgia gave him his legendary flair for presenting curiously innovative clothes and accessories that were praised by both the press and retailers.  

“Fashion’s fun and you can’t really take it too seriously. Frivolity must be an integral form,” Lagerfeld once told his close confidant, journalist André Leon Talley, who died last year.

Lagerfeld’s love of books and lust for different forms of luxury is well documented. Things like luxurious linen, fine scents, beautiful bodies and incredible clothes, furniture, cars, as well as classic cinema, serve as pointers to the Met Gala’s guests beyond the low-hanging fruit that is plucking a Chanel gown from the archives.

Lagerfeld’s knack for networking fashion’s media elite and his high-society clientele could mean loyalists will be in attendance, while Wintour has a circle of friends who are at the top of their fields. Perhaps this year’s guest list will be a convergence of highbrow Chanel clientele and contemporary celebrities who keep old brands relevant. 

Lagerfeld’s Chanel creations particularly could be playful, such as a wire Chanel shopping basket, a giant pearl, or even a slot machine, which are layered over a luxurious foundation, such as a black wool coat, reminding the fashion world of its exquisite and expensive qualities made to last through generations.

Many from Lagerfeld’s close circle, including Talley, Amanda Harlech and Hervé Léger, have described Lagerfeld’s generosity with material luxuries but also his ability to be ruthless and unpleasant. Wintour once diplomatically referred to him as “wicked”.  

But within the context of a Lagerfeld-themed Met Gala, chaired by Wintour, the best way to get into the minds of the emperor and empress of elite fashion is via their shared and highly valued confidant Talley, who was one of Lagerfeld’s closest friends and Wintour’s right hand at Vogue. 

Through the lens of Talley in his 2020 memoir The Chif fon Trenches, one can get a clearer idea of how this year’s theme might have come to be. 

Talley’s ability to navigate fashion’s social circles, dominated by Lagerfeld, Wintour, and Lagerfeld’s rival Yves Saint Laurent, shows the deeper relationship between Vogue (under Wintour) and Chanel (under Lagerfeld).

“Karl Lagerfeld did things for Vogue he would not do for anyone else,” wrote Talley. “Four times a year, all of Vogue descended on Paris […], each time, Karl would give a special dinner for the entire staff, at his house, surrounded by his eighteenth-century decor and his porcelains and silverware. If we had visiting writers, they would come as well.”

Talley, whose friendship with Lagerfeld was decades long, recalls his ability for social networking with the fashion’s influential editors, including Wintour. 

But, “he did have one spat with Anna Wintour, when she approached him about doing a Chanel retrospective at the Met”, Talley recalled.

“[Lagerfeld] was dismissive of curatorial exhibitions of fashion […], he did not like seeing old, dusty clothes in museums, and he loathed coming to the Met. He came to the Met Gala for many years out of respect for Anna Wintour, but then one year he didn’t come, and he never came back,” wrote Talley.

One of his closest friends, Harlech curated an exhibit of his work in Bonn, Germany, in 2015, but he did not attend. 

So, when Wintour proposed the idea of a Chanel retrospective at the Met to Lagerfeld, she was asking a loaded question. The show was on, then it was off, Lagerfeld was against the exhibit.

“In his mind, Karl was still at the height of his career, and a retrospective was for a designer on his way out,” wrote Talley.

Five years after Wintour’s initial pitch to Lagerfeld, she returned to Talley to ask whether Lagerfeld might be interested in a retrospective show. Lagerfeld agreed to it, and a Chanel-themed Met Gala was held in 2005.

“I suffered in exile for a season but learned a valuable lesson: Never trust anyone close to Kaiser Karl. People are always ready and waiting to destroy your place in the line of courtiers, and to decimate your influence with the king,” wrote Talley.

Perhaps this year is a better time for a Lagerfeld-centred themed gala, financially supported by the brands he once helped propel to the top of the fashion world. The Met’s website shows support from Chanel, Fendi, Karl Lagerfeld, as well as Vogue’s parent company, Condé Nast.

Four years after his death, it might be easier for Wintour to get the blessing of Lagerfeld’s business partners than Lagerfeld himself. Regardless of his ego-fuelled disdain for retrospective exhibitions of his work, this year’s exhibit is a special and rare curation of some of fashion’s most beautiful modern pieces.

King of fashion’s kingdom

Lagerfeld was a prolific designer and  the rich history of his designs will be on show at the Met from May to July.

The exhibit will show 150 pieces, accompanied by Lagerfeld’s sketches, which informs the “A Line of Beauty” element of the exhibition.

“I saw him as a kind of magician. He would sit down, all you’d see were a couple of lines, and then those lines turned into a complete silhouette, which came to life in the next meeting,” Silvia Fendi recalled in Karl Lagerfeld: A Life in Fashion.

“Almost every day, ideas flew back and forth between Rome and Paris by phone and fax […] The sketches arrived in parcels, and only in recent years by mobile phone,” wrote Kaiser.

When Lagerfeld arrived at Chanel in 1983 after leaving his post at French maison Chloé, (which he helped revive), while keeping his position at Fendi, he was tasked with modernising the tired house of Chanel without losing its long-time clients. Lagerfeld’s ability to refresh the brand without discarding its history is what made his Chanel so spectacular.

In 1985, The New York Times wrote he “succeeded in bringing the Chanel image into the modern age. He has reshaped the suits, recoloured the clothes and introduced knitted styles that are both pertinent and contemporary. Best of all, he has silenced the nay-sayers who perpetually complained that this is not the way Chanel would have done it.”

Under Lagerfeld, Chanel’s shows were highly anticipated spectacles, and remain in the minds of fashion fans today. 

In 2014, he would transform Paris’s Palais Galliera into a Chanel supermarket, a very fashionable protest in 2015 and a rocket launchpad in 2017.

Over the decades of his creative career, Lagerfeld styled himself as a living logo and as someone who made beautiful things, despite his sharp tongue and “wicked” ways. His uniform became a pop culture symbol. His stiff-collared white shirts, dark sunglasses and steely ponytail became a self-imposed caricature, instantly recognisable as Karl Lagerfeld.

In 2021, Sotheby’s auctioned more than 1 000 objects including Lagerfeld memorabilia; exquisite works of art and furniture; Goyard trunks; signature garments from his wardrobe and his 2017 Rolls-Royce Phantom. Lagerfeld’s self-portraits sold for over $3 000.

“I love to be creative all the time. If not, I would be bored and boredom is a crime,” Lagerfeld famously said.

Despite his beautiful and his ugly sides, the golden thread of the Met Gala is, of course, to honour Lagerfeld’s impact on fashion. With the hierarchical structure of the fashion world, is there any honour higher than being at the centre of Wintour’s Met Gala?

The Met Gala will take place  in New York on 1 May.