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Karl Lagerfeld: fashion’s shape-shifter shows no sign of slowing down

For Rein Wolfs, curator of Karl Lagerfeld exhibition ModeMethode, the designer’s work can all be summed up in a coat made in 1954. Boxy, with a boat neckline and wrist-length sleeves, it’s strikingly modern. Lagerfeld made the chartreuse design, aged 21, for the coat category of the International Woolmark prize. “It’s an eye-opener because you can’t believe someone so young could design something so revolutionary in the mid-50s,” says Wolfs. As you might expect from one of fashion’s biggest overachievers, Lagerfeld won the prize.

Karl Lagerfeld’s 1954 prize-winning coat. Photograph: David Ertl – Koeln/Chanel

Wolfs’ exhibition, at the wonderfully named Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany in Bonn, takes in the seven-decade career of Germany’s most famous fashion son. As well as his well-known work for Chanel, there are early designs for Fendi and lots of sketches and work for Chloé, where he designed until 1996. “Everyone in the world knows him mostly from Chanel,” says Wolfs. “But it’s also really exciting to see the romantic elements of Chloé and the amazing craftsmanship of Fendi pieces.”

A 1974 Chloé dress designed by Karl Lagerfeld. Photograph: © Chloé archive

The curator believes it’s this “one man, many hats” element of Lagerfeld that has allowed him to stay top of the fashion game for so long. While his own look – signature pompadour, dark glasses, white collar and black fingerless gloves – hasn’t changed for decades, his designs are constantly changingt. “He is the perfect example of a human being with multiple identities,” says Wolfs. “He has the ability to think on different levels, to keep the traditions but bring a revolutionary touch.”

He even had a hand (or paw?) in the internet’s cat obsession, with Choupette, his pampered kitty who has her own maid. Her cat bowl is included in the exhibition.

Karl Lagerfeld’s desk. Photograph: David Ertl – Koeln/Chanel

Even if the acquisition of said feline may be a sign that he’s softening, Lagerfeld’s energy levels clearly aren’t dipping. While Amanda Harlech, Lagerfeld’s longtime collaborator, co-curated the exhibition, Wolfs met the designer during the preparation and says “he came up with the idea for the title in about half an hour”. The designer is also famously forward-thinking. “He doesn’t like the idea of a retrospective,” says Wolfs. “He’s about the future rather than the past. If you take away the dates of the pieces in this exhibition they’re both timeless and futuristic – that goes from that 1954 coat to the neoprene wedding dress he made for a pregnant model last year.” Harlech dubbed this a “future-spective”. Sounds about right.

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