Under the behemoth-like shadow of the Ancient Egyptian Temple of Dendur, Karl Lagerfeld – an entirely different kind of colossus – emerges, immaculate in his dramatic signature look.
Synonymous with the man himself, the black perma-shades, white, powdered pony and fingerless gloves are sartorial shorthand for fashion’s gothic grandfather, whose acerbic, take-no-prisoners wit and wisdom could only ever be surpassed by his preternatural talent.
It was to be the last time. Flanked by his heiress apparent, Virginie Viard (Karl once exclaimed, “She is my right arm and my left arm,”) and his godson Hudson Kroenig, the world’s most iconic ponytail gave a distinguished final bow on the catwalk of Chanel’s Métiers d’Art 2018/19 Paris – New York show.
His loyal court – a monochrome Chanel army assembled on a freezing, early December night in NYC – were there to pay tribute not only to one of the greatest fashion houses in history, but also to one of the most legendary visionaries. After all, with 35 years at the helm of the brand, Karl arguably was Chanel – as intimately woven into its tweed as Coco herself.
No one could have guessed that – appearance-wise – this was to be the German designer’s swan song, and why would they? At 85 years old, he was as hands-on and compos mentis as ever, reportedly still administering rapid-fire instructions for February’s Autumn/Winter 2019 Fendi show until the 11th hour – another heritage house over which he inexplicably found the time to preside.
Most would buckle at one, but counting his eponymous line as well, Karl Lagerfeld was creating nearly 20 collections a year. “If you’re not a good bullfighter, don’t enter the arena,” he once shrugged at the assumption that this workload could ever be a burden. When asked if he would ever stop working, his response was, “No. I would die on the spot. Chanel died in the middle of a collection when she was nearly in her 90s.” Fateful, then, that Coco’s footsteps were followed in death as well as in life.
What was truly fitting, however, that it was on Chanel’s Métiers d’Art runway that Karl said Auf Wiedersehen to the fashion world for good. For as much as he was part of the Fendi family – a tenure of 54 years will do that, making him the longest-standing Creative Director ever of a fashion house – it was Chanel with which he was truly interchangeable, and Métiers d’Art that was closest to his heart.
Inventing the entire concept back in 2002, Karl’s annual collection – shown every December, outside the official fashion-show schedule – was designed as a way to exalt, preserve, and, ultimately, pay touching homage to the world-class artisans who make Chanel what it is.
To this day, it is the only fashion house in the world that dedicates an entire ready-to-wear collection to celebrating the virtuosity of these skills. In fact, the brand is so determined that this exceptional savoir-faire is safeguarded, that even though it technically owns the work of all 27 Métiers d’Art (acquired by Chanel under the name Paraffection), they are each strongly encouraged to collaborate with other fashion houses. Sharing is caring, after all. And it’s this kind of innovative thinking that will ensure they not only survive, but thrive, able to showcase their talents worldwide. Karl once put it this way; “Improvise. Become more creative. Not because you have to, but because you want to. Evolution is the secret for the next step.”
From the goldsmith Goossens who chiselled baroque costume jewellery for Gabrielle Chanel herself, to shoemaker Massaro who developed the two-tone shoe back in 1957, each Métier has its own area of expertise. “It is made in a very artisanal way in the best sense of the word, because in artisanal, there is art,” Karl explained of the generations-old knowledge and craft he would draw on for these collections. “The art of doing it well. An applied art. And it really is astounding. [It] should be seen close up, almost touched… to really appreciate the beauty of this work.”
This was his baby; an enduring love letter to what he insisted should never become a lost art, addressed to the master craftspeople who have dedicated their entire lives to creating the perfect pleat, or button, or flower. In essence, the very foundations on which the house of Chanel is built.
And boy, what a rapturous love letter it was. Ever the showman, Karl made sure that his adoration of all 27 maisons always manifested as a truly grandiose fashion moment; every bit as memorable as the collection itself. Over the years, the Métiers d’Art (road)show has taken place everywhere from Tokyo to Mumbai, with no-expense-spared sets and locations that included a starlit pontoon moored in Shanghai’s Huangpu River and a 19th-century rodeo conjured to life in Dallas’ Fair Park.
As fate would have it, however, Karl’s final rodeo was to be held within the enormous, glass-topped Sackler Wing of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and set around a 15BC monolith dedicated to Osiris – the Egyptian god of afterlife and rebirth. An astonishing coincidence? Possibly, but it’s so much more romantic to imagine the chances that somehow, somewhere, Karl is chuckling to himself at the uncanny alignment that he knowingly set up. He always did have a flair for the dramatic.
If all that wasn’t quite symbolic enough, he chose to weave the central motif of a scarab beetle throughout the entire collection – the Ancient Egyptian symbol of eternal life. Made by the House of Goossens using a mould originally created by its founder Robert Goossens – “Gabrielle Chanel’s great accomplice” as the house refers to him – the scarab punctuates almost every piece, featured on necklaces, buttons, belt buckles, earrings and minaudières.
This cyclic symbol of the sun – reborn every day – was said to unify the past, present and future in a civilisation who believed strongly in immortality, regarding death as nothing more than a temporary interruption.
It’s so painfully significant that you can’t help but wonder if Karl knew exactly what he was doing; a twinkle in his eye behind those dark glasses. But unwittingly or not, this entire symbol-filled collection really was the wax seal on Karl’s indelible legacy. It was one final mischievous flourish, as beautiful as it was emblematic. And above all else, it was one final testament to what the world has known since the name Karl Lagerfeld was first uttered: that he will, indeed, live forever.
Photos: Courtesy of Chanel