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ICONS: Karl Lagerfeld

Given the theme of next year’s Costume Institute, the next MET will feature Chanel, Fendi and Chloé. That’s because the MET 2023 exhibition will be dedicated directly to designer Karl Lagerfeld, who passed away in 2019 after dedicating more than 60 years of his life to fashion.

Yes, this is the same Karl Lagerfeld who, as a prolific designer for the aforementioned brands, focused his entire career resolutely and obsessively on the future. He once said that he believed in “the old German dictum that the past has no credibility”. He strongly disagreed with exhibitions focusing on design careers. At the opening of the Chanel exhibition in 2005, he said: “I don’t like retrospectives. I don’t want to see those old clothes”. The leaders of today’s fashion world don’t seem to agree, and, ignoring what the artist would have thought, next May – four years after his death – Mr Lagerfeld will get his own retrospective: the next major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute, originally scheduled for 2022 but postponed for a year because of the pandemic.

Lagerfeld’s role in fashion is unparalleled, not only because of his 65-year career and the diversity of his work, but also because the way he transformed the classic Chanel house has become a model for the entire fashion industry to follow.

When he was asked to take over Chanel, the house was in decline after the death of founder Coco Chanel in 1971. The iconic Chanel suit – the narrow-shouldered, boxy tweed jacket and matching knee-length skirt – had become a tired silhouette. Lagerfeld took creative control of the French luxury house in 1983 and oversaw the campaigns until his death. He refreshed the Chanel collection without alienating it from its heritage, reworking the classics during his years at the house, transforming them to make them relevant to young people, and in the process becoming an inescapable fashion icon in his own right. Chanel’s revenues are reported to exceed $4 billion a year. Under Lagerfeld, the brand’s runway shows have been extremely elaborate: for example, at the launch of his last collection, the Spring/Summer 2019 Paris show, Chanel built a French country house with grass, lakes and palm trees. But to take an earlier example, for the 2014 autumn/winter ready-to-wear show at Paris Fashion Week, the Grand Palais was transformed into a supermarket, with models parading down aisles filled with Chanel “food”, including spaghetti and fruit juice.

He was famously known for his outspoken personality and controversial remarks. For example, he called Adele “a bit too fat” and said Pippa Middleton should “just show her back”. In the 2007 documentary Lagerfeld Confidential, he also made no bones about the importance of his career. “When I took over Chanel, it was a sleeping beauty – but it was not even beautiful”, he said. “She was snoring.” Despite his love of being in the spotlight, Lagerfeld’s life was still shrouded in a sense of mystery, reflected in his penchant for dark sunglasses. “It’s not that I lie, it’s that I don’t owe the truth to anyone. I’m like a caricature of myself, and I like that. It’s kind of like a mask, only for me, the Venice Carnival lasts all year round”.