By Michele Leight
"I dislike retrospectives"said Karl
Lagerfeld at the opening press preview of "Chanel" at
the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 2nd 2005. This 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 5th-August 7th, 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 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-concsiously
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-collard,
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 to ask.
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 fasions that it 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, their's 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 skilfully 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 every major
residence in the world - from palaces to penthouses offering views
of all of New York, but they were anti-thetical 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.
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 mugal fabrics for the woman today
are wonderful, as in "Evening Suit," pret a 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.
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 designes 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 prevently 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 youunger
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," (left photo above),
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 and humorous.
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 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 "oevre," 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 - cammelias, 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. This
legendary designer is now the subject of a refreshingly innovative
show "Chanel" at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New
York, on view from May 5th-August 7th, 2005.
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
camoflage 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.
"I have no time for retrospectives"
said Karl Lagerfeld at the press preview. For him, this assignment
is a living, breathing legacy of the moment - not a mummified
fashion retrospective of a departed fashion designer. One sensed
his deep respect and love for this task; after all, there is only
one Chanel. No could ever fill those shoes, but one can interpret
as she might have done if she were alive today.
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.
Lagerfeld has trasnposed the visual imagery
of such Chinese screens to a stunning (describe and give name)
and (describe the coromadel outfits)
Another motif that runs through both Chanel's
and Lagerfeld's creations are Mughal floral patterns. Illustrated
below is the show stopping "opening" gown of the show,
bearing the signature body-hugging silhouette of Coco Chanel -
but interpreted here by Lagerfeld in exquisitely embroidered gold
fabric as finely fashioned as a gossamer thin, filigreed, jewelled
glass goblet from the 16th century intended for a Mughal princess.
(See Mughal lala cityreview
One is immediately struck by an airiness, a
sense of being unfettered when confronted by Chanel's creations
in the open ground floor gallery of The Metropolitan Muesum; the
mannequins appeared to walk among the throng gathered excitedly
for the press preview, hob-nobbing with the crowd. The innovative
design of the show concieved by(give name) enhances the presentation
via a series of creamy, open fronted cubes. Thematically arranged,
each cube or "room" contains one to six Chanel creations
mercifully unobstructed by glass. Video projections created by
(give name) of what appear to be stars and constellations animate
the gowns and suits, making them come to life and move in what
would otherwise be the familiarly static setting for apparel.
. Yet there is pause enough between twinkling
and sparkling stars - and virtual cammelias suspended in mid-air
in a cube of their own, without any additional accompaniment -
for the viewer to appreciate the hours of labor involved in the
intricately sewn hems, gossamer slips visible to the eye through
exquisite chiffon and lace, and corsages of cammelias cut from
"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 - a characteristic
of any man's suit made by a Savile Row tailor in London.
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 "weight" 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 psycadelic 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,
perfectly paired in