The Karl Lagerfeld Retrospective that’s Definitely Not a Retrospective

Given fashion exhibitions’ new limelight, a most intriguing Karl Lagerfeld exhibition at the Bundeskunsthalle museum in Bonn, Germany, has been drawing visitors far and wide. But as the couturier’s aversion to retrospectives is well-known, how would co-curators Rein Wolfs (also the museum’s director) and Amanda Harlech (also Lagerfeld’s right-hand at Chanel) tackle an exceptional 61-year career? Wolfs told Hint that they “excluded a retrospective character of the exhibition right from the beginning and wanted to show his exceptional quality of profiling different labels [often] at the same time.”

The audience is first greeted by a recreated Lagerfeld office, with sleek chairs and a table laden with books ranging from Doris Lessing to Beau Brummel to Man Ray, as well as glue, pencils, and stationery. On the floor are bags from one of his favorite Parisian bookstores, Galignani, next to crumpled balls of paper. The set reflects his aerobic, magpie creative mind, and also his appetite for paper, the sub-theme of the show. “It’s about Karl’s vision, which he draws,” said Amanda Harlech in German Vogue, “then this creation comes to life, before becoming a photograph, which is another piece of paper.”

The rest of the space has been transformed into a sort of avenue, and the first stop is a reproduction of the famous off-the-shoulder yellow coat that won him the International Wool Prize back in 1954, jumpstarting his career. Then the exhibit explores his stellar 50-year collaboration with the Fendi sisters. There are sketches on the left wall, a moody video of Rome on the right, and in the middle, clothes from various decades. What the assortment — a spiky fur coat (1982), overalls (1985), a rag-like coat (1993) — makes clear is that while Lagerfeld has pushed fur experimentation at Fendi, the brand’s sartorial influence on fashion is rather difficult to assess, as many pieces look somewhat otherworldly. There is also a display of petit baguette bags, which earned the house worldwide acclaim in the late nineties.

The next stop is Chloé, where the designer had two stints: 1963-1983 and 1992-1997. The modern, quirky romanticism he championed at the house is best exemplified by fluid dresses with magnificent embroideries in the shape of showerheads pouring water or circus performers. Chloé is clearly one of his most original achievements, something a previous Chloé retrospective three years ago in Paris demonstrated. There’s nothing else in fashion history that looks quite like it. Regrettably, few pieces from his second tenure at Chloé are featured in the show. “There are not so many outfits in the years between 1992 and 1997 existing neither in the Chloé archive nor in the collection of museums,” explained Wolfs. Perhaps Lagerfeld’s Chloé creations seemed a bit anachronistic during the era dominated by the bold vision of Helmut Lang. But he did pure gems then, notably the “pop romance” collection of summer 1997. Those pieces had a retro edge that were a harbinger of the vintage craze that has been defining fashion since the early 2000s.

The next space, devoted to Lagerfeld’s eponymous label, is the smallest, just 14 dresses, sharing a widely held opinion that his own brand, with its checkered past, has never reached the heights of his other ventures. When asked about the brand’s minuscule showing, Wolfs explained, “It’s basically a matter of development. The other labels show a more interesting development over a long period of years.”

The show ends with Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld’s crowning achievement, a magisterial lesson in house revival. A circular stage chronologically displays several Chanel suits from the 1980s to now. It’s interesting to see that the looser shapes of the eighties led to the curvaceous, overtly seductive styles of the early nineties, his high noon, before morphing into the more architectural and boxy shapes of today, echoing his work at his eponymous label. 

His fascinating experiments with tweeds, a Chanel signature, are also well-represented, ranging from a 1993 speckled black-and-white suit sprouting tufts to a 2003 ensemble disintegrating into chiffon. The eveningwear ranges from the kitschy (an embroidered lamé gold jacket from 1988) to the iconic (the famously ultra-expensive gold dress from 1986). Fairly-tale-like, hit-or-miss dresses are showcased in a spectacular tent made entirely of paper foliage by Wanda Barcelona.

It all makes for a pleasant stroll down memory lane. And yet at times it seemed that an essential element of Karl’s vision at Chanel was missing — the fun. The fake fur jackets or the scoubidou-braided minisuit from 1994, which aren’t featured in the show, are blatant examples. That fantasy can be found in the accessories shown here with a chain bottle-holder from 1994 (what a year!). Nor is his relationship with many supermodels alluded to. Since photos of Cara Delevingne are on display, maybe vintage pictures of Inès de la Fressange, Claudia Schiffer, or Karen Elson, some of which appear in German Vogue, would have been welcome, and would surely have fit the paper theme.

While visitors will appreciate Lagerfeld’s exceptional designs, but will they understand why these clothes had such an impact? Context is everything in fashion, particularly in Lagerfeld case: the daring show soundtracks by Michel Gaubert (who also did a soundtrack for the exhibit), the over-the-top sets, and, above all, his ability to radically change subject from one season to the next. 

Karl Largerfeld: Modemethode, through September 13, 2015, Bundeskunsthalle, Bonn, Germany

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