There are those who might argue that, over the past half-century, Karl Lagerfeld has set the template for contemporary fashion. He’s the original superstar designer. While he claims to have no ego, his personal construct is as, if not more, well known than any clothes. Lagerfeld is a polymath – he photographed his own campaigns and fashion editorials long before others did so. He is also a publisher in collaboration with Steidl. Lagerfeld designs not only Chanel, the most successful fashion brand in history, but also Fendi, and famously has little time for others of his profession bemoaning their workload. Lagerfeld was responsible for the first mega-wattage designer high street collaboration too: in 2004 he came up with a sell-out capsule for H&M setting the precedent for years to come.
From the year 2000 onwards, under his direction, Chanel paved the way for cruise collections being worthy of their own catwalk presentation. These have since taken in destinations including the Venice Lido, Santa Monica airport, Los Angeles, the hotel Eden Roc on the Cap d’Antibes, the gardens of Versailles and DDP, Seoul. Once again, the rest of fashion followed suit and locations become ever more far-flung. In 2002, he took the concept of the travelling collection still further and has since showcased an annual Métiers d’Art show everywhere from Edinburgh to Salzburg and from Moscow to (this year and earlier this week) New York.
The Chanel show experience is blockbuster by any standards: the biannual ready-to-wear shows with their extraordinary installations in Paris’ Grand Palais might not unreasonably be described as the greatest shows on earth – and in newspaper headlines they most probably have been. There’s a particular romance to the Métiers d’Art collections, though. Many of the embroiderers, milliners, jewellers and specialists in feathers, flowers, pleating, shoes and were facing extinction before Chanel acquired them. The name of the subsidiary company that presides over them speaks volumes. Paraffection – with affection, an expression of tenderness, even love. They are now thriving businesses working with Chanel, of course, but with any other self-respecting fashion name one might care to mention.
Last year’s Métiers d’Art show was staged in Hamburg, Lagerfeld’s city of birth: the looks that came out at the extraordinary Herzog de Meuron-designed Elbphilharmonie concert hall referenced those he had grown up with as a child. This time, the Temple of Dendur, the ancient Egyptian monument dedicated to lovers Isis and Osiris, and given to the Metropolitan Museum in New York 40 years ago set the scene.
The connections are manifold. 1965 was the year that the temple arrived, given to the US to avoid destruction by rising flood planes. Jacqueline Kennedy was a representative at the time of the handover. Kennedy was dressed in a pink Chanel suit when her husband was assassinated. She wore it, stained with his blood, when she flew back to Washington with the president’s body. On a rather lighter note, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, was released two years before the temple arrived. From hair and make-up to the emphasis on gold – gleaming brightly or with a patina of antiquity – this was among the references here.
More broadly – and of interest to Lagerfeld – when Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered by Howard Carter in 1922, the Egyptomania that followed was nothing if not influential over the Art Deco elements of the Manhattan skyline. These were evident, in turn, in the beautifully worked surface details realised by aforementioned artisans and in the silhouette: using a gauzy foundation only added to its tall, narrow effect.
In her marvellous 1990 collection of interviews, Sultans of Style, Georgina Howell reported that Chanel was a tomb of excavated treasures when, in 1983, Karl Lagerfeld arrived. It’s all too easy to forget that. His friends advised him not to touch it. How wrong they were. The miracle of the man is that he continues to mine the codes that Gabrielle Coco Chanel herself started, fusing them effortlessly with the endlessly inventive, preternaturally knowledgeable passions of his own.