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The Metropolitan Museum of Art

May 5 to August 7, 2005

The New Woman

All color photographs in this article were taken by Michele Leight. Black and white photographs courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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 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 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.

Karl Lagerfield, Anna Wintour, Phillipe de Montebello, left; Anna Wintour, right

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.

Left, "Coromandel" evening ensemble, by Chanel by Karl Lagerfeld, 1996-7, coat of black silk organza over embroidered in black, gold and red sequins and bronze seed beads in Chioiserie motives. Although Chanels' fashions reflection both Indian and Japanese influences, they rarely reflected chicnese influences. Inspired by Misia and JosÚ Maria Sert, however,her aparmtent in the Rue Cambon, antithetical to her fashjio aesthetic in terms of its eclecticism, was lavishly decorated with an impressive section of Coromandel lacquered screens.

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 Ó 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.

Philippe de Montebello, Karl Lagerfeld with "mit," and Anna Wintour, left; Harold Koda and Marie Maillard the artist who created the "Video Projections" for the Chanel show, right

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."

left picture, right dress, evening ensemble, 1992, Chanel by Karl Lagerfeld; center picture, Gabrielle Chanel "gypsy" evening dress, 1939; right picture, red evening dress, circa 1928, Gabrielle Chanel, with signature tiers, narrow, tubular silhouette, allover monochromatic embroidery and ribbons used as both structureal and decorative devices

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 and humorous.

"Evening Dress," 1996, by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, left;

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 a leotard.

Illustrated above right is the signature "Chanel suit" which has stood the test of time and still exudes comfort and grace.

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 smooth.

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 Marie Maillard.

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," she said.

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.

Left picture, right dress, Gabrielle Chanel evening dress 1938, black silk tulle embroidered in multicolored paillettes in fountain pattern

"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.

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