New York | Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty, the new highly anticipated exhibition at the Costume Institute, part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is now on until 16 July 2023. Featuring an installation by the star architect Tadao Ando, the exhibition takes visitors on a journey of discovery of the great designer’s extraordinary creative method, covering a period from the 1950s to the 2000s. The focus is on the eccentricity, innovations and revolutions that made him one of the most fascinating figures in the modern fashion scene.
Led by Andrew Bolton, Chief Curator at the Costume Institute, the exhibition includes around 150 pieces from the historic maisons where Lagerfeld worked – Balmain, Patou, Chloé, Fendi and Chanel – and from his eponymous brand, together with original sketches. In particular, the story focuses on the preparatory drawings and sketches of Lagerfeld’s models, in an attempt to reconstruct his stylistic vocabulary through the aesthetic themes that recurred in his designs from the 1950s to his final collection in 2019. While the introductory spaces aim to explore the dawn of the designer’s career, the following sections look at his creative process, showing the evolution of his drawings that took shape from a two-dimensional sheet into exceptional couture creations in 3D.
Another contributor to the event is the Italian company Bonaveri, once again selected by the Met to provide the 160 custom mannequins featuring in the exhibition. The brand’s Schläppi mannequin has been a mainstay of the Costume Institute’s exhibitions at the Met for 50 years, as a result of the iconic model’s hallmarks of timelessness and flexibility. For this event, Schläppi mannequins have been adapted to meet the stylistic requirements of the exhibition, recalling the renowned designer’s aesthetics and providing context to the figures using styling, staging and interaction with other items.
Presented as a thematic and conceptual essay on Lagerfeld’s work rather than as a traditional retrospective, the exhibition opens with introductory galleries exploring Lagerfeld’s early career, including his receipt of the International Woolmark Prize in 1954 and his subsequent roles as assistant at Balmain and artistic director of Patou, where he continued to perfect his unique style in drawing. With the aim of illustrating the designer’s creative practice, another introductory gallery is dedicated to the studio premieres, to the seamstresses considered Lagerfeld’s architects, who worked closely with him to translate his two-dimensional drawings into 3D creations.
“If Lagerfeld were a superhero, his superpower would be the ability to exist across dimensions”, noted Andrew Bolton. “Paper was the designer’s favourite material, the canvas, as it were, for two-dimensional drawings that the studio premieres would read and translate into three-dimensional garments”.
The exhibition plays out over two main threads, inspired by the two most representative lines of Lagerfeld’s drawings: the “serpentine”, to indicate his historiographical, romantic and decorative impulses, and the “straight” line to represents his modernist, classicist and minimalist tendencies, setting out two opposing yet complementary forces in his work. The same concept can also be found in the installation by Tadao Ando, who has created a design based on the intersection of straight and serpentine lines, to act as a physical manifestation of Lagerfeld’s thought and creative dynamism.
The exhibition’s two main threads are flanked by other “sub-lines”, representing the aesthetic and conceptual dichotomies that manifest themselves in Lagerfeld’s creations for Chanel, Chloé, Fendi and Karl Lagerfeld: feminine and masculine, romantic and military, Rococo and Classical, historical and futuristic, ornamental and structural, canonical and counter-cultural, artisanal and mechanical. Acting as a bridge between these dichotomies is what has been called figurative “explosions”: garments that represent moments of convergence, where the competing aesthetics of these paradoxes are united and reconciled. The series of dichotomies reveals the complexity of Lagerfeld’s multifaceted designs and the breadth of his influences, ranging from art, film and music to design, fashion, literature and philosophy.
The exhibition ends with the “satirical” line, consisting of two sections: the first includes some garments that convey Lagerfeld’s sharp wit, expressed through ironic, playful and extravagant embroidery; the second collates various representations of his recognisably personal style, one of which is the black-and-white “uniform” that helped to define him as a true legendary figure of contemporary culture.
Custom Bonaveri mannequins
For “A Line of Beauty”, Bonaveri has created 160 custom mannequins to take visitors on their journey through the exhibition. The body of the Schläppi mannequins was selected for its versatility and perfect fit for Lagerfeld’s designs for Chanel, Chloé, Fendi and for his eponymous brand. The modern, geometric design that characterises the work of the architect Tadao Ando required mannequins that reflected these traits, to enhance and leverage the serpentine and straight lines featured in the exhibition. The Bonaveri mannequins used are therefore presented kneeling down and with an outstretched leg, poses as the perfect reflection of the dichotomy inherent in the lines, the central concept of the entire exhibition.
For the mannequins’ heads, curator Andrew Bolton chose to build on Lagerfeld’s taste and aesthetic as an art collector. The “Kaiser” of fashion was also a great collector of the porcelain figurines by Gerhard Schliepstein (1886-1963), a German sculptor who formed part of the Art Deco movement; these have served as inspiration for the mannequins’ heads. Based on this idea and with great attention to detail, Bonaveri sculpted four heads that fit perfectly with the body of the iconic Schläppi mannequin, with a finish that emulates the lustre of porcelain. New hands with longer fingers have also been sculpted for these mannequins, to adapt to the stylised faces of Art Deco and emphasise the importance of gestures. The result is harmonious and elegant figures, which assist in the celebration of the work of Lagerfeld as a genius and an innovator in fashion.
Written by Nemo Monti