Karl Lagerfeld: a tribute

Karl Lagerfeld, German, 1933-2019


Chanel, French, was founded in 1910

Fendi, Italian, in 1925

Chloé, French, in 1952

Karl Lagerfeld in 1984



The Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum, NY has concluded its tribute to the German designer with an exhibition of 200 outfits and objects.


Born in Germany, Lagerfeld worked in Paris from 1953 onwards.   He died there in 2019.


His designs for a number of fashion houses gained him a longstanding contract with one of the earliest ready-to-wear brands, Chloé,  from 1974 to 1983 and 1992 to ’97. 




Chloé. “Enfance” ensemble, spring/summer 1977.

Dress of ivory silk crepe de chine with red chinoiserie figures and landscapes handpainted, embroidered with red seed beads; waste-maker of red silk crepe de chine




He moved on to lifetime contracts as creative designer with both Fendi (from 1965); and Chanel from 1983. He had a prodigious output – upwards of 10,000 creations in 65 years – and was still working in his 80s.





Chloé. “Light Bulb” dress, spring/summer 1996.

Black silk faille appliqued with white and pink Rhodoid lightbulb motifs and white, pink and opalescent polymer strips and embroidered with gold, blue and silver metallic thread; iridescent gold and silver plastic sequins; blue, pink and clear crystals; and white feathers





Lagerfeld revived the fate of the moribund Chanel. 

He modernized Chanel’s famous silhouette with tongue-in-cheek cheekiness, an imagination which drew from many sources;  and a great respect for technique and the possibilities of material.




Chanel. Haute couture, spring/summer 2003.

Jacket and dress of ivory beige wool tweed flecked with red and black silk thread and gold Lurex thread; with beige silk tulle embroidered by Lesage with ivory and beige tweed threads, unwoven synthetic strips and gold sequins





Chanel haute couture; coat-dress; spring/summer 2018.

Polychrome wool-silk boucle woven with polychrome painted silk tulle trimmed with polychrome wool, silk and silk and metal braid




In 1984, Lagerfeld created his own label.




Karl Lagerfeld. Ensemble.

Details TBD





 Karl Lagerfeld.  Dress, winter, 2010/11;.

Black and red plain weave




At Fendi he treated luxury pelts with the same insouciance.  He shaved them, dyed them, combined them and tufted them. He proclaimed them to be ‘Fun Furs’.  




Fur coat for Fendi, founded 1925.

Polychrome dyed mink, fox, Kidassia goat, 2011-2012.  Photo from the New York Times





Fendi, coat; autumn/winter 2018-19.

Polychrome silk chiffon and georgette faux fur, trimmed with yellow mink with mink fur







The Met chose to say nothing about the shadow aspects of the designer’s character.


It seems the bet that has been made is that, in the end, all that will remain of Karl Lagerfeld is his body of work. 


The prejudices to which he gave fashionable voice, of course, remain also.


Among these – all of them are obnoxious – was, strangely, his misogyny, his contempt for the plurality of women.  It was as though women existed for him only as showcases for his work, as an inanimate design element no different from any inanimate other, as clotheshorses, and as consumers.


Their real lives, real aspirations, vulnerabilities, and real bodies he insulted and caricatured.


This decision not to enter controversial waters is particularly disappointing because the Costume Institute of the Met has its own weight in the world of high fashion. 


It is also disappointing in light of the commitment made by the Met after the murder of Henry Floyd in Minnesota in the summer of 2020 to review and act on its own historic exclusion of the accomplishments, potential, and interests of the majority of the human race.





All the focus in this show was on Karl Lagerfeld’s work: his design skills;  his mastery of the traditions of couture and his liveliness with traditional materials.   


The many sources of his inspiration included romanticism and classicism, the decorative and the minimal.  He looked forward and backward.  He was always curious and also voracious.  Respectful of the material stuff with which he worked, he was also willing to test them for a different look and feel. 




Chloé. “Angkor” ensemble; spring/summer 1983.

Black silk crepe, embroidered with violin motif in gold bugle and seed beads with gold crystals. Gauntlets of black silk crepe with gold bugle and seed beads with gold crystals 


This said, it has been pointed out (by Vanessa Freedman of the New York Times,  for one,) that Karl Lagerfeld did not, unlike Coco Chanel herself with her boucle suit,  “give the world a new silhouette, or an expression of identity, the way Christian Dior did, with the New Look or Saint-Laurent with the Le Smoking, the tuxedo suit for women.”   


In other words, Lagerfeld was not a revolutionary.


His impact lay elsewhere: on the business of high fashion: the mechanisms of its marketing, and the reach of its influence even if only a tiny number of people can afford to buy haute couture.





His drawings and photographs of the object or person which were his sources were on view with many of these creations.









This exhibition did not make mention (the catalogue may) of the priority Karl Lagerfeld gave to the protection and transmission of those crafts which are the substance and glory of couture.


Following a tradition begun by Coco Chanel, Lagerfeld  began to organize the acquisition of at least 10 ateliers and factories of the expert crafts of couture.  



These ateliers include the world-famous Lesage: embroiderers and tweed-makers;

and Lemarié: maker of feathers and flowers (plumassier et parurier floral).

There is a goldsmith.

A specialist of boot-making; of shoes and gloves and hats;

button-makers and makers of costume jewellery.

There is an expert pleater also; and tanner.  And Barrie Knitwear, a Scottish cashmere specialist. 


Chanel.  Ensemble haute couture; autumn/winter 2017-17.

Bolero of black silk crepe embroidered with black and white beads and paillettes; dress of black and white silk crepe embroidered with black and white plastic beads and paillettes




A training program has been put in place to ensure that these crafts do not die out.


The work of these specialized ateliers is essential for haute couture because haute couture is entirely made by hand.  Each outfit takes upwards of 800 hours to make.  


Chanel also owns 12 (?) technical production centers whose work may include machines.  Their production (‘demi-couture’) is geared to Chanel’s boutiques.




Chanel. Dress haute couture; spring/summer 1984.

White silk organza embroidered with blue, white and clear seed beads and crystals




In 2002, Lagerfeld began to display the work of these centers in annual off-calendar shows called Chanel Métiers d’Art which he staged all around the world.   Chanel is the only fashion house to do this. 


A continuous loop ran of four employees of Chanel’s Atelier Haute Couture discussing the designer’s methods and their interaction with him.  Their mutual respect and affection were apparent. 


It is to the employees of this atelier (les premières d’atelier  – all women), that Lagerfeld handed his haute couture designs.  It was up to them to work with the specialist ateliers to translate these designs into reality.




Sketch of Chanel wedding dress, Fall-Winter 2005/06; Haute Couture; Courtesy Patrimoine de CHANEL



Chanel.  Wedding dress, autumn/winter 2005/06 haute couture. 

White silk tulle, organza, and chiffon embroidered with white silk camelias and white ostrich feathers by Lemarie, and white sequins.

The camellia is Chanel’s signature flower. Made entirely by hand by Maison Lemarie 




In the winter of 2016, Lagerfeld  took the entire staff of the ateliers along with all the tools of their trade to the Grand Palais in Paris and asked them to carry on working in the midst of  his winter/fall collection.




Karl Lagerfeld with his seamstresses at Chanel couture fall 2016.

Finale of the fall/winter 2016 show



He walked the creator’s walk with them at show’s end.







The Met’s exhibition was at two levels and was crowded.  The experience of such skilled extravagance, however, put everyone in a good mood.




Karl Lagerfeld might have approved this.  He said:

“People buy dresses to be happy, not to hear about somebody who suffered over a piece of taffeta.” 






We were very happy to see this even if we were not buying. 







Chanel. Dress, autumn/winter 1986-87.

Black wool-silk crepe embroidered with snake motif in blue and clear crystals, pearls and gold metal thread





Fendi; dress;  spring/summer 2013.

Polychrome printed silk pliqué





Chanel, haute couture, ensemble, autumn/winter 2003-04.

Jacket of black embroidered silk with Alexander Rodchenko motif with black, white and ivory sequins, white seed beads, and white silk thread and trimmed with black and white mink fur. Skirt of black silk velvet





Chanel haute couture, autumn/winter 2003-04.

Jacket of black brushed wool and Lurex twill; trouser boots of cream leather; belt of black leather, embroidered with blue, black and clear glass and plastic beads and sequins. Camellia brooch of white silk organza





Chanel. Ensemble haute couture, spring/summer 2009.

Bolero and dress of white silk organza and polyester tulle embroidered with white sequins and seed beads and trimmed with white crystals, white silk yarn, white tulle, and white ribbon










 Chanel, spring/summer 2010.

Dress pink silk chiffon and charmeuse, hand-embroidered with 1300 silk satin flowers, pearls and pink frosted crystals





Fendi. Dress, spring/summer 2009.

Light brown silk tulle appliqued with hand-painted white, cream, and pink strips of silk and cotton plain weave and twill roses





Chanel haute couture; dress, spring/summer 2019.

White cotton synthetic lace handpainted pale pink with pink grosgrain ribbons





Chanel.  Suit, autumn/winter, 2008-09.

Jacket and skirt of clear polyurethane, appliqued with black polyurethane; shirt of white cotton poplin





Chanel.  Detail of an Ensemble, autumn/winter 2016/7.

Dress of ivory silk tulle and cotton lace; necklaces of simulated pearls and black glass beads; bracelets of simulated pearls and clear glass cabochon; brooches of black silk satin and white silk tulle and lambskin






Chanel haute couture; autumn/winter 2010-11.

Bolero of white silk organza embroidered with pale blue, green and gold sequins, gold crystals, gold metal beads and polychrome plastic flowers; dress of white silk organza embroidered with pale blue, green and gold sequins





Fendi.  Ensemble, spring/summer 2014-15.

Jacket of black silk plain weave appliqued with black and white cut and embossed lambskin; dress of black laser-cut cotton-elastane-polyamide plain weave





Fendi; coat; pre-spring 2014.

Black plain weave appliqued with black and white cut leather








Fendi, coat, autumn/winter 2000-2001.

Polychrome inlaid dyed and shaved mink fur





Chloé.  Dress; autumn/winter, 1971-72.

White silk crepe-de-chine hand painted in pink with Albert Gleizes-inspired motif, with collar of white silk satin





Chloé.  Dress; autumn/winter, 1971-72.

White silk georgette with design of pink, green and hand-painted black abstract motifs





Chloé. “Crétoise” ensemble, spring/summer 1984.

Dress of ivory silk crepe de chine embroidered with black, clear, and silver bugle beads and silver and white paillettes in a trompe l’oeil drapery motif; laurel crown of silver and silk-and-metal thread and leaves of press-embossed laminated silk crepe





Chanel.  Ensemble, haute couture, autumn/winter 1996-97.

Dress and gloves of gold silk chiffon appliqued with gold, silk and metal lace and embroidered with gold sequins, gold silk-and-metal cord, gold silk cord, gold bugle beads and gold silk leaves






Karl Lagerfelt, dress, spring/summer 1998.

Black silk taffeta and organza with black silk grosgrain trim





Fendi.  Dress, 1990.

White and silk jersey





Chanel.  Dress, haute couture, spring/summer 2006.

White silk tulle, organza and chiffon, embroidered with white sequins, white ostrich feathers and strips of blue and white silk chiffon




Chanel. Ensemble, Metiers d’art, 2014-15.

Dress and bolero of ivory silk organza embroidered with ivory silk thread and trimmed with black silk velvet and ivory silk chiffon; bow of black silk velvet; belt of black silk velvet embroidered with clear and gray crystals





Fendi.  Dress, haute fourrure, autumn/winter, 2016-17.

Pink silk organza, brocaded with white, gray, and orange flowers, and pink botanical motifs and appliqued with polychrome silk organza, pink and clear crystals and bugle beads, pink and white sequins, and white and orange shaved mink fur





Fendi.  Dress; autumn/winter 2014-15.

Black viscose silk velvet, printed with celestial motifs; black viscose crepe, green and white viscose-silk satin, and black viscose mesh





Chanel.  Dress, haute couture, spring/summer 1996.

Black silk tulle embroidered with gold metal and gold silk-and-metal thread, gold sequins and gold seed beads







Fendi, “The Young Bride in the Forest” ensemble, autumn/winter 2016-17, haute fourrure.

Cape and dress of  black silk tulle and polychrome voided silk velvet jacquard appliqued with polychrome inlaid dyed and shaved mink fur with figurative and woodland motifs





Fendi; haute fourrure; coat; “The Pond in the Forest”, autumn/winter 2016-17.

Polychrome inlaid dyed and shaved mink fur with woodland and botanical Kay Nielsen-inspired motifs and appliqued flowers of polychrome dyed and shaved mink fur





Fendi. Dress haute furrure. “Three Princesses in the Blue Mountain”, autumn/winter 2016.

Gray silk gauze printed with a polychrome figurative motif of a scene by Kay Nielsen from ‘East of the Sun and West of the Moon’; and appliqued with leaves of green shaved mink fur, and flowers of white, black and pink shaved mink fur





Fendi, haute fourrure; dress, autumn/winter 2016-17.

Hand-painted silk gazar with Kay Nielsen-inspired figurative motifs of appliqued polychromed flowers of shaved mink





Fendi. Dress; haute fourrure, 2017-18.

Inlaid white shaved mink fur, white silk tulle, embroidered with white silk thread and appliqued with white shaved mink fur, and white cotton lace appliqued with flowers of white shaved mink fur





Karl Lagerfeld.  Dress, autumn/winter 1985-86.

Blue silk crepe and light pink silk crepe embroidered with candlestick motif in gold silk-and-metal thread, gold polymer strip, brown crystals, and gold and clear bugle and seed beads; and edged with dark pink silk crepe



Chanel. Ensemble haute couture; spring/summer 2010.

White silk satin; tie of black silk satin embroidered with clear crystals, silver bugle beads and paillettes.  Bracelets of clear and gold-faceted crystals





Fendi.  Detail of a dress; haute fourrure.

White silk organza trimmed with polychrome shaved  mink, edged with white silk thread, white silk tulle embroidered with polychrome feathers, and white and pink cotton lace, and appliqued with white leather and polychrome flowers of shaved mink





Fendi. Dress, haute fourrure; autumn/winter 2016/17.

White, pink and black tulle-backed mohair crochet trimmed with dyed mink fur and appliqued with white silk organza flowers and clear crystals





Sketch of Chanel dress, Spring-Summer 2019 Haute Couture; Courtesy Patrimoine de Chanel, Paris


Chanel.  Dress, haute couture; spring/summer 2019.

White silk net embroidered with light green, gold and black sequins; polychrome hand-painted foam, ceramic and enameled flowers; and gold bugle beads.

Vincennes manufactory, founded 1740.




French (probably Vincennes), mid-18th century, soft-paste porcelain.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

These were made at Vincennes by female artisans who modelled 500 different types of naturalistic blooms by hand.  They were used as knobs on tea and coffee services, as decorative elements on clocks and wall lights; and as everlasting blooms on brass stems.

Karl Lagerfeld used these as decorative elements on dresses as above. 





Chanel. Dress, spring/summer 1997; haute couture edition 2023.

Cream silk organza and white silk tulle overlaid with cream horsehair in camellia lace motif, embroidered with clear crystals







3 thoughts on “Karl Lagerfeld: a tribute

  1. Thanks for checking on this, David!

    The actual experience of the show was not exhausting. It was exhilirating because of the quality of the workmanship and the sheer gorgeousness of the fabric.

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