New York — The history of the house of Chanel began during World War I, when Gabrielle Chanel kept her shop open in the north of France to outfit the influx of wealthy dispossessed as the front moved closer to Paris. As Edmonde Charles-Roux writes in his seminal Chanel biography, "What a curious fate that a Frenchwoman should owe the Germans the opportunity to improve her business and make herself known."
She owes another German too -- Karl Lagerfeld. Because for today's fans, Chanel does not exist apart from the designer, who took over 22 years ago, building the name into one of the world's most successful luxury brands. Which is why it's appropriate that his role is documented alongside hers in the new exhibit that opens Thursday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
When Lagerfeld was hired in 1983, 12 years after the death of Chanel, the idea of resurrecting a dusty label was new. Now it's common, with Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton; Nicolas Ghesquiere at Balenciaga; Olivier Theyskens at Rochas; Alber Elbaz at Lanvin; Tom Ford, formerly at Gucci; and on and on. Some critics may bemoan the presence of Lagerfeld's work, but he was the trailblazer for today's new-old fashion system, designing Chanel with the perfect blend of reverence and irony. And the show provides a rare opportunity to see how the dual processes of appropriation and reinvention can work.
If Chanel was the modernist who took women out of fussy clothes and hats, introducing them to jersey sportswear with nautical details, and beach pajamas -- ideas she claimed to have stolen from menswear -- then Lagerfeld is the postmodernist, mining the mean streets of bikers and hip-hoppers for inspiration, and two seasons ago responding to the metrosexual revolution by putting men in women's tweed jackets on the runway.
The exhibit, underwritten by Chanel, is somewhat controversial in that it is not a retrospective. In fact, there is not a shred of biographical information. Instead, it is organized thematically, delving into the Chanel style by highlighting the language of signs used by the designer born in 1883, and expanded upon by Lagerfeld. The iconic camellias, quilted bags, tweed cardigan jackets, gold chains and double C logos are all here, displayed on 63 mannequins grouped in white Corbusier-like cubes, between cases of Byzantine crosses and ropes of pearls, and the first 1923 flacons of Chanel No. 5 perfume, still the world's bestselling fragrance.
Although Lagerfeld had no direct involvement in the project, having said in the past that he detests the idea of fashion in a museum, he was in town from Paris for the opening because he is as much the face of the brand as Chanel ever was. Touring the exhibit for the first time Monday afternoon in his signature skinny black jeans and white shirt with a collar as stiff and high as a neck brace, Lagerfeld had trouble distinguishing his own work from Chanel's.
"These are things I did. But for me, I don't see myself doing them," he said referring to his closeness to her designs. His favorite piece was a simple wisp of black silk chiffon with a draped back from 1925. By then, Chanel's little black dress had become such a design standard that Vogue compared it to Henry Ford's Model T. The idea of wanting the same dress as everyone else was revolutionary at the time, when the industrial assembly line was transforming culture and made-to-order couture was beginning to be replaced by ready-to-wear.
The display of two Gypsy-style dresses from 1939 with floral embroidery, striped sashes and crinoline overskirts speaks to Chanel's "upending of fashion orthodoxies," according to Andrew Bolton, associate curator. "She welcomed outsiders," he said. Perhaps that's because she was an outsider herself, an orphan who eventually rubbed elbows with the Duke of Westminster, Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau and Salvador Dali, constructing her identity as carefully as her dresses.
During her life, she sang in a cabaret, where she earned her nickname, "Coco," after performing a song with the name in the title; was kept as a kind of modern-day courtesan by several aristocratic men who helped bankroll her business; and became romantically involved with a German officer during World War II. She never married.
Lagerfeld, who is in his 60s, is similarly fascinated by subcultures, as evidenced by a quilted motorcycle jacket from his 1991-92 autumn ready-to-wear collection, and a riff on the classic Chanel spectator pump, redone as a kind of hooker heel in 1995. Clearly, he has been inspired by everything about the raven-haired designer, including her Rue Cambon apartment with its famous Coromandel screens, which he re-created on a trio of embroidered chinoiserie print gowns for the 1996-97 couture collection.