Exhibition review: Karl Lagerfeld, A Line of Beauty at The Metropolitan Museum of New York
On a given day in New York City, the number of exhibition openings, talks, events, and performances are easily in the hundreds, maybe more. It is often impossible to choose which one to attend and concessions must be made. But there is one thing I never miss: the new installment of The Costume Institute’s annual exhibition.
Many years ago I was lucky enough to intern in The Costume Institute at The Met while studying for my master’s degree. It was a formative experience and a masterclass in curation, collections management, and exhibition design. The last exhibition I interned for was Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty. I will never forget the feeling of walking through that exhibition when the museum was empty.
While the current exhibition, Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty, bares some similarities to the McQueen show, the poignancy of the latter is markedly absent. The exhibition begins with a video of Lagerfeld sketching and in fact, the act of drawing is a sort of glue that holds the conceptual elements together. It is this “line” that defines Largerfeld’s work, but also divides it along opposing themes like romantic line/military line or floral line/geometric line. In the first gallery are a series of videos highlighting Lagerfeld’s work with the premières d’atelier that executed his ideas, but the sound has been disabled so it is necessary to stop and read the captions. Nevertheless the lack of sound, the videos, music, and the sound of sketching that carries over from the entrance distract from the beauty of the objects on display, many of them early examples of Lagerfeld’s work at Chloe. It is difficult to appreciate the point of this gallery with so many competing stimuli.
The exhibition continues with a series of nine themes, each dedicated to a dichotomy like those described above. In the center is a pedestal that according to the exhibition curator, Andrew Bolton, symbolizes a convergence of the two opposing sides. For example, in the room dedicated to romantic line/military line, a Chanel gown from autumn/winter 2009-2010 with a sharply tailored top and tulle skirt sits high above visitors offering the opportunity to contemplate how and when these worlds collide. The biggest issue with this design, however, is that many of these garments are two to three meters off the ground so it is difficult to appreciate the fine detail and craftsmanship that was at the heart of Lagerfeld’s work.
In fact, where the exhibition shines is in its selection of some of the most intricately crafted designs from Lagerfeld’s oeuvre. Lagerfeld was quoted saying if his design could not be realized by the premières it was up to him to come up with a solution in “three seconds”. It’s this ingenuity that comes across in the seemingly countless objects on display. In the floral line gallery in particular, the numerous three dimensional embroideries are breathtaking, highlighting both the creativity of the designer and the skill of the women who brought his ideas to life. Another example are the fur mosaics from his autumn/winter 2000-2001 collection for Fendi.
The Met makes sure to address the issues surrounding the use of fur in fashion while maintaining the artistic integrity displayed by this incredible collection.
In the end, what makes The Met’s exhibitions unmissable is that they are typically a bellwether of both fashion museology and the world of fashion, more broadly. In a recent interview with Tim Blanks for the Business of Fashion podcast, curator Andrew Bolton commented on this idea, adding that in truth, with both McQueen and this exhibition, it is always his hope that another institution will further expand on the subject rather than seeing it as the final word. Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty certainly did not need any expanding in terms of the number of objects, rather scaling down may have allowed for some deep dives into Lagerfeld’s processes, from sketching to creation. Perhaps this scale is the biggest difference between these two retrospectives, for while McQueen’s life was tragically cut short, Lagerfeld was a fashion mainstay for more than sixty-five years. The exhibition, at its heart, is a celebration of this prodigious career.