When we think of Karl Lagerfeld, the first thing which comes to mind is probably his persona – the black and white dandy-uniform, his ponytail and sunglasses. Chanel comes as a close second. And then, we probably think of his reinterpretations of the classic Chanel suit. One fact is often overlooked: Lagerfeld was the creative director of four brands – Chanel, Chloé, Fendi and his eponymous label. In an interview, Andrew Bolton, head curator of the exhibition “Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty” at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, called the designer a “chameleon” who spoke a different design language at each label.
Another often overlooked fact was Lagerfeld’s multi-faceted lifestyle and his many interests. He was not only a designer – he was an art collector, a photographer, a publisher, literature-lover and an illustrator. All these areas served as sources of inspiration for his designs and they stand for much more than a heavily commercialized Chanel brand strategy. His close links to art are particularly obvious in his designs for Chloé and Fendi – speaking a more romantic and more modernist language, respectively.
Despite his famous claim that he was not interested in the past, Lagerfeld had a passion for many different periods in history, ranging from the Romantic Period, to Rococo, Classicism and Art Nouveau. Elements of all of them are reflected in many of his designs.
Lagerfeld & Classicism
The so-called “Crétoise” (Cretan) dress for Chloé from the Spring Summer 1984 collection, which is also part of the exhibition, is one of the many examples for Lagerfeld’s classicist design elements. This ivory crepe dress was inspired by Greek red-figure vases and has two illusionary elements: firstly, an illusionary chiton (a tunic which was fastened on the shoulder) and secondly, a himation, a mantle or wrap which was worn over the chiton.
The references of ancient Greece were also incorporated in the Fendi costumes for the dancers of the 1990 world cup final game: they wore headpieces and white silk jersey dresses with brooch-like pins (like the Greek fibulae) and a distinctive overfold (like the apoptygma).
Also in 1993, Lagerfeld designed a bathing costume for Fendi with a Greek-like drape in front.
Romantic Heroines and Military Heroes
The Romantic Period (from the late 18th until the mid-19th century) was a constant source of inspiration for the designer. He combined romantic elements with garments from other time periods, cultures and geographies. Already in the 1970s, Lagerfeld experimented with a dress similar to the Austrian/Bavarian dirndl with a belt referencing the Japanese obi (see Chloé Spring Summer 1977, “Enfance”-dress).
Another source of inspiration was the fashion of the Second French Empire (1852-1870), such as the robe en chemise, a dress worn by French aristocratic women, and especially loved by Marie-Antoinette, the Queen consort. In 1983, Lagerfeld created a particularly interesting example for Chloé: a dress with tiered flounces, directly referencing the crinolines (the dome-shaped skirts of the 19th century). However, Lagerfeld’s version revised the crinoline’s silhouette – by using the one of Georges Lepape’s illustrations in the “Gazette du Bon Ton” at the beginning of the 20th century.
At first sight, his romantic tendencies seem to be in stark contrast to the severity and rationalism of his military-like designs. Nevertheless, for Lagerfeld, romantic heroine dresses coexisted with military uniforms – sentimentality versus severity. He incorporated details like braided tabs which simulated the closures on French 18th and 19th century uniforms. Three strips with central buttons above the breast pockets stand for details by the light cavalry at that time. Furthermore, World War I uniforms served as inspiration: for a white leather coat for the Fendi Autumn Winter 2006/7 collection, for example.
Lagerfeld and the Fendi sisters entered a competition to redesign women’s police uniforms of Rome. The designer saw the policewomen as “guardian angels of the city” (see Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty, exhibition catalogue, Metropolitan Museum New York) and their designs involved a cream wool jacket with four pockets, a navy-blue wrap skirt and a navy-blue wool overcoat with a removable capelet.
Direct References to the Arts
The designer’s work for Chloé and Fendi reflects the artistic and cultural zeitgeist. Lagerfeld himself never regarded himself as an artist; for him, fashion was applied art; but he did turn to art for inspiration and information. An early example is a Chloé silk charmeuse dress from 1967/68 with references to artist Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations in “The Yellow Book”, a British publication. Lagerfeld had the designs hand-painted by Nicole Lefort.
One of the most beautiful examples for his connection of art and fashion was probably Fendi’s “Legends and Fairy Tales”-collection for Autumn Winter 2016/17. Lagerfeld was inspired by Danish artist Kay Nielsen’s illustrations for the book “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” which was published in 1914.
The dress “The Lassie and the Prince” is an almost direct reference of Nielsen’s drawing “The Lassie and the Godmother”. The images were created by British illustrator Kate Baylay and directly hand-painted or printed on silk organza and they display Art Nouveau filtered through Nielsen’s Nordic modernism.
For the same collection, Lagerfeld worked with Charlotte Gastaut to create illustrations form further designs such as “The Young Bride in the Forest” – a dress and cape (the former was hand-painted in Lyon). The cape was hand-cut, hand-dyed and hand-sewn mink.
Nicole Lefort had already collaborated with Lagerfeld in the 1970s: she hand-painted patterns for the Chloé Spring Summer 1971 collection, for example, which were inspired by Sonia Delaunay’s “Rhythm and Colour Paintings”. According to Delaunay, this type of art rejects the representation of figures and uses the contrast of colours instead. Lagerfeld was inspired by this female artist more than once. The “Inlaid Polychromes Coat” for Fendi’s Autumn Winter 2000-2001 collection was made of a complex patterns of circles, rectangles and squares.
Lagerfeld claimed he was neither sentimental, nor interested in the past, nor even nostalgic. But if we look at a Chloé Autumn Winter 1994 dress, a reference to his own past may be clear. The print was inspired by “paysage aux arbres”-painting by Maurice Denis (1893) and could even be interpreted as Lagerfeld reliving his childhood in the countryside in Bad Bramstedt, Germany.
On the one hand, Lagerfeld was a very conservative personality with even more conservative views, on the other, he was always very much interested in the zeitgeist and modern trends. In the 1960s and 1970s, he referenced Cubism, especially at Chloé. The Harlequin was a popular motif in Cubist art and also Lagerfeld used it in his designs (see “Harlequin with a Guitar” by Juan Gris 1917). It is possible that this figure reminded him of his jet-set friends who loved to party and be high on drugs.
The Art of Craftsmanship vs. the Machine
Lagerfeld believed strongly that artisanal effects were not diminished by the fact that they were produced by machine – he aimed at embracing “handmade” and “machine-made” and did not regard them as contradictory or even adverse. He challenged the dichotomy that handmade stands for exclusivity, spontaneity, and individuality and anything made by machine is inferior or homogeneous.
“I use both because they are available. I mix the very best of the human with the very best of the machine.”
“There are things the human can’t do, there are things the machine can’t do.”Karl Lagerfeld, in: Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty, exhibition catalogue, Metropolitan Museum New York
Examples can be found especially in his haute couture collections, such as his tribute to artisanry and craftsmanship for Fendi 2015 Autumn Winter “Haute Fourrure” collection: a gradient dress made of hand-dyed mink and organza flowers. According to Bazaar, Lagerfeld managed to combine the “delicacy of the Paris ateliers with the wizardry of Fendi’s furriers” (see Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty, exhibition catalogue, Metropolitan Museum of Art New York). Another example is a dress with a “relief”-pattern reminding of willow trees from the same collection (see above).
Two years later, Lagerfeld used new techniques for a wedding gown to inlay shaved mink and he added fur and feathers and also shaved mink flowers to the skirt to create a trompe l’oeil lace effect. The cape was made of 9,000 miniature disks put together (also from shaved mink) and it required 1,200 hours to complete the hand-sewing.
These artisanal designs can be juxtaposed by “mechanical” ones such as a black dress from the Fendi Spring Summer 2009 collection. It had an exaggerated jabot (a pleated frill attached to the front of a woman’s blouse or dress) which was laser-cut to also achieve a lace-effect.
The Art of Deception
As mentioned in my previous article, Lagerfeld was friends with Andy Warhol and there is room for the assumption that, just like the American artist, Lagerfeld experimented with “artful commerce”. He did not think his works belonged into a museum, he wanted fashion to be worn. At the same time, his self-representation turned himself into a caricature and there was public outcry about many of his provoking comments. Considering that Lagerfeld carefully worked on his public persona, this may be interpreted either as savvy marketing or artful commerce in the Warholian sense.
Moreover, Lagerfeld was a big fan of trompe-l’oeil (the deception of the eye). In 1983, he created the “Shower Dress” for Chloé – a sheath dress with an embroidered shower head and in 1996, he designed the so-called “Light Bulb Dress” for the Chloé Spring Summer collection of the same year. With these designs, he turned the “everyday” into something extraordinary and special. Similarly, the violin “Angkor” dress for Chloé in 1983 (based on Man Ray’s “Violon d’Ingrès”) and the guitar dress from the same year use the sheath dress as a canvas to transform the wearer into an instrument; or the other way around: to turn fictive instruments into real ones. His “Cintre” dress for Chloé references a clothes hanger – maybe a tit-for-tat response by the designer for being criticised for his thin beauty ideal.
I want to be a good clothes hanger.Karl Lagerfeld, in: Karl und wie er die Welt sah, S. 95.
Probably Lagerfeld’s greatest deception or greatest work of art was his own self-representation. His public persona was carefully constructed, his words carefully chosen. We will never know if it was marketing and we will also probably never know his real values. But similar to his design languages, Lagerfeld had many different facets as a person and as a designer. Diving deeper into the designs of Fendi and Chloé is proof of his versatility – he indeed was a design-“chameleon” with a strong passion for to art, history and innovation.
If you want to hear more about Karl Lagerfeld and the exhibition “A Line of Beauty”, I discuss these in detail in my Fashion Talk with Madame Faction. You can watch our Youtube-Video here:
Video Exhibition Tour, Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty, Metropolitan Museum of Art New York
Information provided on the website the Metropolitan Museum of Art New York relating to the exhibition “Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty”
Documentary “Karl Lagerfeld – eine Legende”, Arte, 2019
Documentary “Karl Confidential”, Arte, 2019
William Middleton, Paradise Now – The Extraordinary Life of Karl Lagerfeld, New York, 2023
Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty, Exhibition Catalogue, Metropolitan Museum of Art New York, 2023
Jean-Christophe Napias/et al., Karl und wie er die Welt sah, London, 2020
Vogue Runway, Online Database for fashion shows
This article is based on the personal, views, experiences and research of Elisabeth Steiger, no fees were received by the organisations and people mentioned above. The attitude of Karl Lagerfeld and the design houses for which he worked towards animal welfare do not reflect the author’s opinion.