Karl Lagerfeld is the only fashion designer, ever, to unveil two haute couture collections in a single season. He did it last winter. He’s doing it again. Next week, after his traditional Chanel extravaganza at the Grand Palais, Lagerfeld will ship the fashion world to Rome, for a winter Fendi haute fourrure show titled “Legends and Fairytales”. Lagerfeld himself is a little of both. Legendary in his prodigious output, his constantly renewing creativity that sees new lines, silhouettes and fabric treatments spewing forth from Chanel and Fendi, more and more invention, more and more frequently. And there’s a fairytale aura about Lagerfeld himself, like a benevolent king who infrequently graces his subjects with an audience.
Which was the case at the Pitti Palace in Florence, whose baroque swags of Renaissance stone and gilt could have been lifted straight from Hans Christian Andersen. Lagerfeld wasn’t there – his plane had only arrived in the city 15 minutes after a cocktail party in his honour was supposed to have officially begun. The party was to celebrate Visions of Fashion, a celebration of Lagerfeld’s photographic output over, roughly, the past decade, weighted towards the most recent half, and curated by Chanel Image Director Eric Pfrunder and Gerhard Steidl, of publishing fame. Both are frequent collaborators with Lagerfeld – evidently know his taste, and have gained his trust.
It also coincided with his receipt of the “Fiorino d’ Oro,” the highest honour Florence can bestow, which was probably more Lagerfeld’s bag. It’s not that Lagerfeld especially values awards (he’s received just about all of them, so why would he?), but rather that the designer-cum-photographer-cum-writer-cum-everything else is reluctant ever to look backwards. Which explains why this show didn’t feel like a retrospective, eschewing chronology and collections in terms of a swoop through his photography. 200 works were laid alongside those of the Pitti Palace – the Titians and Raphaels – not in competition, nor comparison. Simply occupying the same space.
And, arguably, the same themes. Lagerfeld photographs in the grand manner: his Chanel campaigns wind up as conversation pieces whose themes further reinterpret the clothes he shows; his personal work often alights on mythological ideas – he has devoted series to “Le Voyage d’Ulysse” and “Daphnis and Chloe”, the former a scrolling photographic panorama, the latter blown up to approximate wall-hangings or murals. Daphnis and Chloe, at Pitti, occupied a series of smaller rooms, Appartamento degli Arazzi, devoted to tapestries and normally surrendered to visiting diplomats. Lagerfeld’s imagery dominated the small spaces, transforming them into elegiac woodland glens. Stumble through the double doors, and let fashion transport you. It was all very Narnia. Another room was plastered with images of Lagerfeld model Baptiste Giabiconi, the fairest of them all, images overlapping and entwined, like the writhing flesh of saints in Michelangelo’s Last Judgement meeting the square-jaw of a Disney prince charming.
The grandest example, however, was Lagerfeld’s installation in the Sala Bianca, where Italian fashion first stabbed at the supremacy of Paris when staging its own version of the haute couture, the Alta Moda, in 1951. The action has since moved to Rome, but for many its is not just Florence but this very room that marks the birth of Italian fashion. Lagerfeld conquered it, installing enormous fabric-printed images from floor to ceiling, like ethereal ghosts of dresses past (and passed). The compelling part was how the static images of dresses – from fashion shoots rather than advertising, and therefore mixing Lagerfeld’s designs with those of labels like Dior, Versace and Valentino – were transformed by the materials into fluttering movement, as if Lagerfeld had revived the gowns, reinvented them anew.
That is, of course, an old fairytale notion: magic dresses, magical clothes, transmogrification through cloth into a better version of yourself. It’s something Lagerfeld achieves season after season – but here, it wasn’t dresses that Lagerfeld displayed, but their idealised eventual image. Lagerfeld captured them in their moment of time and, rather than seeing them as isolated monuments, they’re entirely in context. Despite his reluctance, it’s good, sometimes, to sit back and reflect on Lagerfeld’s relentless reinvention, in a world that his itself constantly striving after the now, the new and the next. And see that the heroes and heroines of his images – and Lagerfeld himself – all seem to live happily ever after.
Karl Lagerfeld: Visions of Fashion is at Palazzo Pitti in Florence until 23 October, 2016.