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Art and fashion don’t always go together. But if there is one man who can always be relied on to wrap those two concepts up in a way that is both a la mode and capable of making you see the world slightly differently, then it is veteran designer Karl Lagerfeld. Even at the age of 82 the remarkable Lagerfeld is still producing dress designs and jaw-stopping catwalk extravaganzas that put him at the cutting edge of his chosen profession.
Lagerfeld’s acquaintance with couture began early – his mother was an underwear saleswoman in Berlin in the 1930s. His father’s professional life as a milk supplier may have shielded the family from the hardships of the Second World War, but it was his mother’s more artistic tendencies that shaped his destiny.
The young Lagerfeld studied at the Lycée Montaigne in Paris before winning a prize to design a woolen coat and being taken on as assistant to the famous designer Pierre Balmain in the mid-1930s. Balmain’s famous declaration that “dressmaking is the architecture of movement” is clearly something that the young Lagerfeld took to heart. Sharp lines and sophisticated layering are long-standing hallmarks.
From those early days Lagerfeld has, by dint of a wonderful eye for design as well as a canny knack of attracting publicity, become one of the most recognizable and celebrated figures of the contemporary fashion scene. The word “iconic” is regularly used to describe him – something which no doubt pleases him greatly since he has never been shy in terms of self-promotion. Whether in the form of media appearances or the use of his name, or even making play of the letter K in his early designs, Lagerfeld has rarely spurned an opportunity to stress his own self-regard. His unashamed self-promotion is at odds with more self-effacing designers such as Borris Powell, who featured on these pages recently.
But it is as a provocateur that Lagerfeld is most notorious. And he has been enjoying a certain sport with the manipulation of notoriety since his earliest shows. As early as 1958 Lagerfeld was shocking fashion writers with his wide and plunging neck lines and enthusiastic exposure of his models’ naked backs. At a time when modesty was far more stringently applied than it is now, such disregard for the standards of the day put Lagerfeld in the Avant Garde. It is perhaps no surprise that fashion has moved in his direction over the years.
More recently Lagerfeld’s shows for Chanel have become must-see events in their own right. Spectacular sets that frequently deliver arch comments on the zeitgeist of the time, and that juxtapose his elegantly clad models with mundane scenes are now as eagerly anticipated as the designs themselves. In recent years, Lagerfeld has made play with such disparate settings as an airport, a feminist rally, a supermarket, and the abundant luxury of a high-class casino populated by Hollywood royalty for just that extra spoonful of glamour.
Whilst it is fair to say that associations of wealth, luxury and seductive pleasure chime perfectly with the ideas of high class gaming dating back to Roman times, it is Lagerfeld’s genius to play on those associations to make a wider statement at a time when words like “austerity” are dominating the headlines. His casino show was vast in its scope and typically bold in its celebration of the classic, conservatism of high glamour casino gambling. Great artists throughout history have embraced the casino theme, including literary icons such as Jane Austen and Dostoevsky. Even one of the original fashion leaders hailing from the 1800s, George ‘Beau’ Brummell, embraced gambling in his everyday life, which makes it somewhat unsurprising that Lagerfeld utilized this time-tested casino theme in his recent show at the Grand Palais. The marriage of such a richly redolent evocation of an almost clichéd fantasy world with designs from the cutting edge was typical Lagerfeld. By juxtaposing the historic trends and glamour of casinos with designs – and audience expectations – geared towards the forefront of contemporary fashion, Lagerfeld was at his politically playful best. Typically, his play with the other scenes is every bit as mischievous.
Of course, the main provocation was the appropriation of a serious message in the service of a commercial promotion. For all the talk of high art and a heightened sense of cultural appreciation, Lagerfeld has always had a sharp eye for business. Few other designers of his stature have been able to dally with mass market brands such as H&M and Diesel as enthusiastically as Lagerfeld has done and still retain their status amongst the fashion elite.
Irony writ large
But of course a great line in irony is a key part of the Lagerfeld armory. The “Supermarket Chanel” show of spring 2014 was about as anti-fashion as it was possible to conceive of – all the kitsch of an out of town superstore was there is all its dayglow splendor. Whether there was a political message amidst the aisles, or instead – as many suspected – Karl was just enjoying himself at the pretentiousness of the Parisienne beau monde was left for us to ponder. Fashion and fun have always been Lagerfeld watchwords.
They said something similar of his airplane show this year, although there were one or two jarring voices who – perhaps tiring of the effort to decode the Lagerfeld sense of irony – were quick to suggest that the underlying message was that there was no message, and that all the stunts were just that – stunts.
Whether that is true or not, there is no doubting the incredible longevity and success of Lagerfeld’s career as a designer. The trouble with all those shows is that for all the attention they attract they inevitably get in the way of the designs that are at the heart of the piece. There is a sense that after more than half a century in the business Lagerfeld is interested above all else in the promotion of Karl Lagerfeld the brand. The shows, and perhaps even the designs, are now merely adjuncts to that broader agenda.
Once again, we are left guessing. That, as much as anything else, is the defining Lagerfeld hallmark. You might almost say he has taken the generation of that uncertainty and taken it to the level of an art form.