By Michele Leight
"I dislike retrospectives" said Karl
Lagerfeld at the opening press preview of "Chanel" at
the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 2, 2005.
That comment would have pleased Coco Chanel.
"Clothing should be as alive and as mobile as the woman who
wears it," said the designer of her own ground breaking style,
a legacy now so firmly imbedded in the consciousness of how women
think and dress today it is impossible to think of her in the
context of a "retrospective."
"Chanel" is on view at The Metropolitan
Museum of Art in New York from May 5 to August 7, 2005.
Karl Lagerfeld, who was passed the "baton"
of the House of Chanel in 1983, has masterfully scaled the heights
of what for some might have been a daunting task by staying firmly
in his cutting-edge lane, mirroring Coco Chanel's audacity, her
irreverence for fashion dogma and above all her ability to "re-invent"
the stylistic norms of her day - as well as of the past. History
is important, and both these designers share a healthy respect
for it, without ever allowing slavish reverence for the past to
wash away their inventiveness.
Lagerfeld's obvious love for Chanel as a human
being as well as an iconic fashion legend is clearly demonstrated
in the designs he has created for the legendary house of Chanel,
placing it firmly in the forefront of contemporary style. Lagerfeld
realizes that the best way to keep anything alive is to mirror
the "now." The young street fashions, the globalization
of our world, rappers, the heavy metal and punk rockers and youthful
icons of today have made their way into The House of Chanel -
and no one would be more pleased than the ground-breaking designer
herself. The spirit of Chanel is alive and well in the "translations"
and accelerations Lagerfeld has whipped together from her original
designs. Chanel was an indomitable woman - perhaps self-consciously
so in her later years - but her charm, genius, gutsiness, beauty
and femininity casts a softer glow at this show than might be
expected. The harder edges of her "mythical" persona
have been smoothed down in both the newer designs by Lagerfeld
and the staging of this show, which only make her seem more amazing.
There is no looking backwards here. It is as if Chanel is here
with us now.
Mr. Lagerfeld is well known for his ability
to morph stylistically into many periods and styles - both upscale
and refreshingly "not-so" - including the elegantly
polished world of the Regency Bucks. His distinctive gray pony-tail
and high-collared, impeccably tailored, starched white shirt worn
at the opening of the show echoed the proud elegance of those
wonderful 18th century dandies. At the same time, I was pleased
to spy on Mr. Lagerfeld's hand a hugely elegant, "punk"
inspired leather bracelet-glove (the ones without fingers), which
my friends with "mohawks" at art school and my buddies
on The Kings Road introduced me to many, many years ago in London.
My father mistook mine for a golf glove and in fact quite liked
it. I never explained the connection and he was wise enough never
Individuality, freedom of expression and self-invention
are the very soul of creativity. In this Lagerfeld-House of Chanel
extravaganza punk rockers rub shoulders with dandies, and maids
dress like madams - they don't wear madams clothes clandestinely
when she is out for the evening.
Chanel grew up in an orphanage and worked her
way up through her own genius to the highest corridors of social
power where she circulated with her friends who were dukes and
duchesses, business moguls and media barons, famous personalities
and the political power elite. But she never excluded, or forgot
the little guys - her style democratized fashion for women, she
invented "sportswear" to ease the constraints of corsets
and whalebones and she detested pretentiousness and snobbery.
She wanted all women to feel free to be who they wanted to be,
and to feel free in their clothes. She invented "separates"
dressing for women, and she made sportswear available to them
- women could play a game of tennis in white jersey pants instead
of tripping over long skirts and gasping for breath though corsets.
Chanel made sun-tans bourgeois and desireable
- a status symbol advertizing the good life - where they had previously
been looked down upon because they were a sign of "field
work" or outdoor manual labor. She invented tanning creams,
lotions and make-up that allowed a woman to spend a day at the
beach without ravaging her skin or diminishing her elegance. Examples
of these products and their extrordinarly modernist packaging
are on view at the show. What could be simpler than a white box
with a thin black line and two discreet reversed "C's?"
Chanel overturned stifling snobbery and airless
conventions and in the process invented a modernist framework
for women's fashions that is as contemporary and wearable now
as it was in her day; she would be so pleased to see female senators,
female corporate heads and female attorneys and judges wearing
her famous suits today, contemporized by Karl Lagerfeld. When
she first created her suits and jersey dresses and coats for women,
they did not hold such positions in society; but in her forward-thinking
imagination that had no boundaries, females could and would by
jove become judges and senators, so she created a style for them
that would empower, not constrict, their forward progress. Men
love women in Chanel suits as well. She borrowed heavily from
menswear - and menswear fabrics - longing for the clean-cut elegance,
mobility and wearibility of their garments.
Mr. Lagerfeld shares with Coco Chanel a distinctive
"haute bohemian" chic, albeit of the most de luxe variety.
As is clearly demonstrated by this show, it is the edgy kind of
style that makes magic out of jersey fabric, or fashions a racy
"haute couture" bracelet out of a punk rockers "mit."
While Chanel's clothes are now considered "classically"
contemporary, in her day she and her famous style were
at the outermost limits of the "cutting edge." Couture
is high-brow, magnificent, a domain where the imagination can
bloom to its fullest, an elevation of the seamstress and the milliner
to the ranks of the fashion aristocracy - and the world would
be a dull place without it. By adding "edge" to Chanel's
modernity, Lagerfeld makes le style Chanel even more enduring.
As he re-interprets Chanel for a new generation,
Mr. Lagerfeld's democratic genius skillfully draws inspiration
from the stylemakers' unleashing of the humble jersey fabric into
the aristocratic parlours, rarified clubs, grand hotels, restaurants
and race courses of the rich and famous - where the fabric had
once been relegated to the undergarments of men. Incorporated
in Lagerfeld's vision of Chanel now, lycra cat-suits are
paired with extraordinary embroidered and beaded fantasies of
the chinoiserie coromandel screens she loved so well from the
first time she saw one, aged 18.
These spectacular screens grace almost every
major residence in the world - from palaces to penthouses offering
views of all of New York, but they were antithetical to Chanel's
style, which only makes her fascination with them more mysterious.
Karl Lagerfeld, however, has re-interpreted and acknowledged Chanels's
fantasy in "Coromandel," (1996, 1997)" an evening
ensemble for Chanel Haute Couture. Worn over a catsuit of black
nylon and polyester blend elasticized knit is an extraodinary
evening coat of black silk organza over-embroidered in black gold
and red sequins and bronze seed beads in chinoiserie motifs.
Some of Lagerfeld's "takes" on Chanel's
style allude more to her personal history and they are downright
ravishing - as for example the outfits inspired by the ornate
coromandel screens she loved from the first time she set eyes
on one aged 18. The opposite of her "pared down elegance,"
these ornately crafted coromandel screens usually grace the most
lavishly appointed homes in the world, surrounded by damask, fine
porcelain and exotic rugs; but when paired with Chanel's sleek
Deco mirrors, sofas and tables visible now in photographs of her
own home, they evoke a very different kind of luxe - quintesentially,
sensually modern, like her clothes.
Chanel expressed her cultural fantasies in
the more restrained designs and motifs of Japanese and Indian
culture, but Mr. Lagerfeld has created extrordinary variations
on the original Chanel themes on view at this show, made of the
finest fabrics money can buy - fabrics once reserved for Mughal
maharajas and their maharanis. Pared down and hugging the form,
Mr. Lagerfeld's re-inventions of Mughal fabrics for the woman
today are wonderful, as in "Evening Suit," pret à
porter, autumn/winter 1996, which is a direct descendent of Chanel's
own Mughal inspired "Evening Suit" of 1960, which is
made from a brocade with Mughal iconography.
But not far away from the most lavish fabrics
in the world are the spandex scuba diving pants paired with sequinned
jackets as slick as sealskin - the kind of clothing women today
wear just about everywhere - from elegant parties to jogging around
the reservoir or working out. It is this remarkable re-interpretation
of a legendary style that makes this show sparkle, and no one
would be happier than Chanel herself.
Street and sports chic counts, even in the
highest realm of the fashion world, and it has revolutionized
the way the young across the globe dress today; these days jeans
and spandex leggings, T shirts with logos and designer sneakers
are well represented in both haute couture and ready to wear collections.
It is a universal style that is as visible on the streets of Shanghai,
Delhi, New Mexico and Dubai - as it is in New York, Milan, London
and Paris. Globalization is exploding now, and Mr. Lagerfeld
and The House of Chanel are a part of this incredible phenomenon.
The spirit of invention and the imagination
must never die - mercifully, these two qualities do not have a
price tag so anyone can exercise them, especially the young who
usually have very little money. Perhaps more than any designer,
it is possible to "take apart" Chanel's clothes, because
the methods of their construction are revealed in finely sewn
exterior details. One becomes part of the process, part of her
inventiveness. By relying primarily on invention and imagination,
Chanel invented her unique "class-less" style.
In his introduction to the exhibition's lavish
catalogue, Harold Koda, the director of the museum's Costume Institute,
provides the following commentary:
"In the history of fashion Paul Poiret
is generally regarded as the first couturier to manifest the changes
of the last century through his advocacy of the uncorseted body.
His designs, however, when compared to those of Chanel, appear
less in the vanguard of modern life and more a persistence of
the aesthetic values of the Belle Epoque. Chanel repudiated all
prior canons of style and beauty. Her fashions epitomized the
New Woman, youthful, independent, lithe, and atheltic. For Poiret,
this ideal had all the appeal of a 'telegaph clerk,' a meager
shadow of the volutptuous odalisques that he championed. The disjunction
felt in the juxtaposition of a Poiret woman viewing Picasso's
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) evaporates if she is imagined
dressed by Chanel. Fashion needed Chanel to bring it into the
twentieth century, to alight it with the advancing aesthetic principles
of art and architecture.....Chanel's designs prioritzed comfort,
simplicity, and functionalism....For Chanel, elegance emanated
from barely perceptible but labor-intensive finishes such as waxed
tulle to support webs of lace or shirring that is heat pressed
and then unpicked to give buoyancy to chiffron ruffles."
A freshness accompanies this exhibition, both
in the design of the show by Olivier Saillard and its "staging
" via the video art projections designed by Marie Maillard.
Mr. Lagerfeld's refusal to be intimidated by an iconic legacy
that may otherwise have weighed itself down in reverential self-consciousness
may well have resulted in this unique presentation. Whether you
like it or not, your critical eye will have to adjust to clothes
displayed without the barrier of glass - a mercy - and without
the regulation spotlights announcing their "importance."
Instead, this presentation respectfully translates Coco Chanel's
style for a whole new generation, who will as a result understand
and appreciate the spirit of Coco Chanel - and enjoy wearing and
appreciating her style today. By enveloping the mannequins
and the gowns from another era in a thoroughly modern atmosphere
- and pairing them with Lagerfeld's newer designs for the House
of Chanel - they are freed from the mothballs of the past and
allowed to walk with their newer in the spirit of today, like
proud grandmothers with their grandchildren.
With constellations of stars bouncng around
the room via video projection, showering the gowns filled by mannequins
with bursts of light showers, there is movement everywhere. The
place is alive and the customarily static mannequins "stuffing"
the gowns appear instead to be walking amongst the viewers. This
is an intensely viewer-friendly show, inviting the curious to
come close and examine the flawless seams and moderninst structures
of Chanel's imagination. The original innovations and the re-inventions
intertwine, deftly preventing the lofty House of Chanel from getting
frumpy - that would never do.
Mr. Lagerfeld has been able to continue Chanel's
frankly mythical legacy without ever once stepping directly into
her shoes or imposing his persona on her distinctive style. Chanel
would be so pleased. Ever the innovator, her vision must never
wither on the vine if her legacy is to continue in the younger
generation, and Mr. Lagerfeld understands that. The playful "tongue-in-cheek"
jab at logos and "signature" elements of iconic style
demonstrated in Mr. Lagerfeld's oversized pearls and gi-normous
back to back "C's" are wonderful. Logos are so self-conscious
- and so about money and not about style or elegance - they can
be positively nauseating when the human frame is plastered with
them. Here, for the House of Chanel, Lagerfeld has made them charming
The first "Evening Dress," of the
show (Haute couture, 1996) designed by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel
sets the pace. It is a knock-out copy of a gold lace gown worn
by Coco Chanel in a photograph taken by Cecil Beaton in 1936.
By kicking off with this gown, the dialogue between past and present
is established immediately upon entering the show - Chanel's modernity
and Karl Lagerfeld's post-modernity in tandem place the style
of Chanel firmly in the present. Lagerfeld is letting the public
know immediately that this is not going to be a "homage to
Chanel" kind of a show, thank goodness. The gown is a luscious,
sensuous creation in gold lace trimmed with gilt metal and multicolored
paillettes recalling the fine tissues, embellishments and the
magical handiwork of the Mughal artisans Chanel loved so well
- but the silhouette is as lean and spare and body-conscious as
Illustrated above right is the signature "Chanel
suit" which has stood the test of time and still exudes comfort
Chanel would surely love the sense of fun,
the mischieviousness and the downright sexiness of Mr. Lagerfeld's
"Scuba" Evening Ensemble (Ready to Wear, spring/summer
1991). The jacket is of white synthetic jersey with allover white
paillette embroidery and black silk grossgrain ribbon trim. And
then there is the clincher - leggings fashioned from black lycra
and cotton blend jersey. The high-priestess of fashion would have
chuckled over this combination, which draws inspiration from the
body-consciousness of a scuba diving suit, and marries it to sealskin
One senses not only a great respect in him
for Chanel's "oeuvre," but a genuine love of her charm
and indomitable spirit - a spirit which endures and walks amongst
the mannequins wearing her creations sprinkled at regular intervals
by the gentle rain of a myriad stars, created by video artist
Harold Koda spelled it out very clearly at
the press preview: Mr. Lagerfeld would not have tolerated a retrospective
of a "deceased" designer's work for the likes of Coco
Chanel, and certainly not while he was on the job! By way of an
understanding, Mr. Lagerfeld put it plainly:
"I will be there, yes?"
Once again thumbing the proverbial nose at
tradition - very charmingly and elegant - it was made clear at
the outset that the last thing Mr. Lagerfeld wanted was for Chanel
- and himself - to be consigned to the dust and archives of the
fashion history books. Heaven forbid! The energy and spirit of
Chanel is alive and well and walking around on the bodies of women
today because the mixture of her original vision is constantly
being stirred and re-invented. Today and tomorrow are as important
as the past, even a past as luminous and legendary as the House
of Chanel. There is absolutely no danger of the Chanel legacy
turning into a mausoleum with Lagerfeld at the helm.
Stepping back and absorbing the basic ingredients
of her style, one is struck by the mysterious, charming and utterly
baffling combinations of materials and accents that contribute
to the whole - camelias, linen, military trim and gilt buttons,
lace, stars, jersey, grossgrain ribbon, horsehair - that somehow
via the magic wand of imagination makes classical order out of
potential chaos. Through Chanel's imagination and innovation,
the fabric relegated to mens undergarments and swimwear emerged
from the crysalis as the famous "Coat and Day Dress,"
ca. 1922-28, in ivory silk knit with ivory silk ribbon trim.
"By inventing the use of jersey, I freed
the body," said Chanel matter-of-factly. Chanel wore the
clothes, they did not wear her - and with that philosophy she
reached out to the women of her day, offering them release from
the bondage of mere fashion and its ephemeral dictates, giving
them instead style, ease and impeccable modern elegance.
It is important to be reminded of Chanel's
monumental contribution to the liberating of women from the suffocating
constraints of fussiness, corsets and immobility that governed
her world. These days we take freedom of movement for granted,
as well as uni-sex clothing like jeans, which are worn across
the globe by young and old alike. Such simple things were once
unthinkable, but thankfully not for the likes of Chanel, who blazed
a trail sporting in her own personal style - a style as clearly
defined and versatile as one of her "little black dresses."
So striking was she in a crowd that women - and always men - took
notice. Her style was imbued in paring down, in the "taking
away" and removal of excess to the barest essentials. The
now iconic minimalism of her tailoring and designs made her designs
stand out all the more amidst the padded, frilled and flouncy
camouflage that passed as women's "fashion" in her day.
Now we embrace the contours and silhouettes
of Chanel's garments as those of today - as of our time
- because they are visible everwhere. Her clean lines and comfortable
jersey fabrics are in the streets, worn by joggers around the
reservoir in Central Park, in offices and at chic restaurants
and parties. Nothing would please Chanel more:
"I want to be part of what is to come,"
So much more than "fashion," Chanel's
philosophy and attitude about womanhood were entwined with each
of her creations. As spare, modernist, revolutionary and awesome
as the designer herself, "Chanel" the show pays homage
to the legendary style maker by placing her firmly in the "now,"
not as some historical fashion goddess from the past, with the
inclusion of Karl Lagerfeld's fine-tuned, supremely elegant interpretations
and spin-offs of her original themes for the House of Chanel.
"Couture" comes to life not in an
abundance of jewels or luxe fabrics, but in the dexterity required
of a seamstress in achieving the grossgrain ribbon edging of a
silk shirt, or the impeccable military style detailing on the
now iconic Chanel two piece suits, whose interfacings are as finely
sewn as their outsides. These jackets and coats could literally
be worn inside out. The designer once remarked that a coat should
look as beautiful on the inside as it did on the outside.
Throughout her life Chanel was close with men
- and the mistress of some - from all stratas of society and backgrounds;
some with deep and others with shallow pockets; some were self-made,
others holding prestigious titles or inherited wealth, but, each
had their own inimitable "style" - as for example the
Duke of Westminster, and "Boy" Cappel, reputed to be
the love of her life who died tragically in a car crash. "Boy"
made his fortune in coal - not considered terribly cache by the
titled and landed set, but Chanel didn't care - was devastatingly
handsome, lived life in the fast lane, drove Bugattis and afforded
himself all the pleasures his self-made fortune would allow -
including the companionship of Coco Chanel. She never married
after his death, despite many covetable offers. She was as singular
in love as she was in style.
For Chanel, luxury was expressed in the way
a garment was made, but not necessarily what it was made of.
Thus the modest jersey fabric - reserved for men's undergarments
and swimwear at the turn of the century - was transformed into
dresses, suits and coats that followed a woman's form through
flawless stitchery. There is no margin for error in such tailoring
- there are no frills or furbelows to cover up an unsightly hemline.
My mother had a classic beige boucle Chanel suit with navy trim
and brass buttons - "the military uniform" as transcribed
by Chanel - and I distinctly remember the chain at the base of
the lining of the jacket - designed to "weigh" it down
so that it lay flush against the body. I was fascinated by this
suit as a child.
While I experimented with adolescent interpretations
of gypsy attire - none as elegant as Chanel's gowns in the current
show - and psychedelic Hippie design and color combinations that
made my father pour himself a double Scotch, my mother held steadfastly
to her Chanel inspired "little black dresses," pearls,
two-tone pumps and classicly modern suits and never criticized
what I wore. She wisely believed that reason would prevail once
I was done with Art school and she continued to dress like
Coco Chanel, thereby giving me something to aspire to some day.
My mother gave me the Chanel suit when I was
15. I stared at it for quite a while and then - totally inappropriately,
and my mother remained silent - decided to wear it on a tour of
a kibbutz, inspiring one young Israeli man to refer to me as "princess"
as I proceeded through the orange groves. Frankly the luxe tailoring
of the boucle suit made me feel like a princess. Mothers are the
subtlest of geniuses; after the tour she said how well I looked
in the suit although I should set it aside now to wear in Venice.
Chanel would have been horrified, but I sense she would have forgiven
any sixteen year old whose style was still in the evolving phase:
"If you are sad, if you are lovesick,
put on make-up, take care of yourself, put your lipstick on and
go forward: men detest those who cry."
For some it might be lipstick, but the same
applies to any Chanel garment or accessory: there is a sense of
being pampered, of giving yourself a gift.
Coco Chanel's genius linked a Bauhaus "form
follows function" modernity to femininity and romanticism.