Never in human history has a single fashion designer been as prolific as Karl Lagerfeld. Today, his name represents just as much an exhaustive body of work as an iconic character, one that rose to fame in the second half of the twentieth century to dominate the catwalks of Milan and Paris. His formidable talent has stretched far and wide, as he designed (and continues to, in most cases) multiple collections a year for Fendi, Chloé, Karl Lagerfeld, and, first and foremost, Chanel. Opening this week at the Bundeskunsthalle of Bonn, Germany, a selection of his most emblematic creations from all four houses has been brought together by Lady Amanda Harlech, his consultant and long-time muse, in the world’s most comprehensive exhibition of his work to date.
“It is not a retrospective, it’s a future-spective,” proclaimed Amanda, opening the show this morning dressed in a sweeping black lace–trained skirt and pearl-clasped Chanel blouse. “The idea was to show Karl’s complete oeuvre, something that has never been done before,” she adds, standing before a lightbox drawing desk that has been transported from Paris. Re-created as though Lagerfeld had just stood up from an intense sketching session, a box of Henri Roche pastels sits open amongst reams of paper on one corner, a Helmut Newton monograph dedicated Für Helmut Von Karl is propped among folios on another, and the desk itself is surrounded by Galignani bookshop bags overflowing with weighty tomes. “It begins at the desk,” continues Harlech. “In Paris, he has about five in one loft space, and they are all like this, some with more papers and books and fabrics on them, and each desk is used for a different project, a different collection. You’ve even got [Lagerfeld’s cat] Choupette’s bowl!”
Designed by Gerhard Steidl, the noted photo book publisher who is also responsible for Lagerfeld’s numerous photography exhibitions, the exhibition is mapped out maison after maison, following a somewhat masculine, Germanic streetscape theme (after Chanel’s spring 2015 show) where tarmac-like flooring meets racing stripes and the graffiti-strewn concrete walls of an industrial bunker. The overall atmosphere, however, is light and feminine, and the show’s first garment is perhaps the most personal: an off-the-shoulder coat in yellow wool that was painstakingly recreated to mirror one Lagerfeld designed for the 1954 Woolmark prize (he won, of course).
Further on, some of his most accomplished Fendi furs are lined up like an army of Roman ladies, facing forward and back-dropped by a Roman streetscape film. A far wall is dotted with sequined Baguette bags and shaggy, colored footwear, framing Fendi’s pop accessories in a stark metal grid. Frivolous fur aside, Lagerfeld’s Chloé era is perhaps the exhibition’s liveliest chapter, as mannequins 3-D-scanned from supermodel Saskia de Brauw’s likeness don a host of glamorous, feminine dresses from the seventies and eighties. Posed amid a dramatic display of giant paper fans, they come paired with Sam McKnight’s outrageous wigs—coifs modeled after Pat Cleveland, Grace Coddington, Liza Minnelli, and Jerry Hall, no less.
And this is all before the Chanel. Featuring more than 60 looks from Lagerfeld’s time at the house, Harlech’s overview of this seminal collaboration is dense and delightful, with sections like “Dress as Uniform,” “Archetypes,” and “Evolution of Tweed” stripping Lagerfeld’s work of chronological order and drawing fascinating comparisons between early and recent designs. Curtains of croquis sketches are hung from the ceiling, shiny buttons peer out from wall vitrines, and a final chamber poses a meticulous selection of precious haute couture gowns in a spectacular tableau vivant. They sit beneath a shivering ceiling display of white paper foliage that seemingly pours in columns out of books positioned across the floor. “They are Karl’s unrealized ideas,” explains exhibition consultant Chris Sutton, of Wanda Barcelona’s paper couture installation. “We have a curtain of blank sketchbooks at the end,” says Harlech. “They are just waiting for the next collection to be designed, led down the road by the beautiful (pregnant) wedding dress from the July 2014 couture show, so that, with a sense of the genius of Karl’s artistic sensibility, we are led out into the future.”