The next Met fashion exhibition has been themed. ‘Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty’ might just be Anna Wintour’s personal tribute to her “brilliant friend”
Chanel has been Anna Wintour’s go-to label for the Met Gala. From top left, in 2010, in 2017, in 2018, and in 2019. Photos: Getty Images
In the biography Karl Lagerfeld: A Life in Fashion, Anna Wintour stated that the ‘Kaiser’ “often said that when he died, he wanted to disappear”. She quickly added, “Well, that cannot happen”. With the next spring exhibition at the Anna Wintour Costume Center (AWCC, formerly the Costume Institute), the Vogue editor will keep to her word. Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty is the next theme of the Met’s annual show and opening-night fete. Although it sounds like the exhibition spin-off of the book, it would be, as it was in the past years, the work of Andrew Bolton, the head curator of the AWCC and its fashion exhibitions, and the life partner of the designer Thom Browne. Mr Bolton told the media at the press conference to announce next year’s theme, “I’m not sure Karl would approve of the exhibition”, echoing Ms Wintour’s own sentiment. In all likelihood, the monographic show was initiated pushed through by the woman whose name precedes the Costume Center.
It is no secret that Anna Wintour is Karl Lagerfeld’s ardent supporter in not only what the designer did for brands such as Chanel and Fendi, but also in her continual wearing to the Met Gala the Chanel haute couture gowns that Mr Lagerfeld designed, sometimes just for her. Both of them were thought to be close. In a tribute, titled ‘My Brilliant Friend’, published in Vogue in 2019, after Mr Lagerfeld’s death, Ms Wintour wrote: “We were often in touch” and “the hours I spent with him at the (dinner) table make me feel luckier than any stroke of fortune I’ve had at my editing desk”. Both did not see each other frequently, but they had “a standing dinner date in Paris on the first Sunday of every Fashion Week”. Despite the suggestion of deep friendship, Ms Wintour did not reveal why “it’s doubly painful to have lost him”, as she wrote, except that “he never fell out of love with his work or with the world, and his death marks the end of the era of craftspeople who could do it all”. What did their relationship really mean to her?
It is hard to know if she was that close to Mr Lagerfeld. In a sort of postscript to his book Karl: No Regrets, the author/artist Patrick Hourcade, who knew the designer well since 1976, drew up a list titled ‘Fellow Travelers’. Anna Wintour is not under the subhead ‘The Closest’ (another Anna is—Piagi); her name does not appear beneath ‘In the Realm of Fashion’ (a familiar one, Ines de la Fressange, does). She is there in the final lineup ‘A Few Journalists’; her famous moniker at the end of the page, after Andre Leon Talley. It is not clear how Ms Wintour met the Chanel designer. Mr Talley, who knew Mr Lagerfeld and had met him much earlier than the Vogue supremo, in 1975, suggested that it was he who facilitated the acquaintanceship between the designer and the editor, even claiming in his second autobiography The Chiffon Trenches that his “role at Vogue was no doubt secured by my relationship with Karl Lagerfeld.” He was emphatic about their bond: “His importance in my life and career is without parallel.” Ms Wintour was never that forthcoming or sentimental.
Mr Talley even revealed that the Chanel dresses that she wore for her wedding to Dr David Shaffer—a psychiatrist—in 1984 was not acquired through her special friendship with Mr Lagerfeld then or connections with the couture house, but “through Joan Juliet Buck (the former editor of Vogue Paris, as it was known then) to gain access to the dresses”. Anna Wintour has loved Chanel from her early years in journalism, especially when she finally joined Condé Nast. Mr Talley shared that “she purchased her Chanel at Bergdorf Goodman”. But she would soon have an arrangement with Chanel when she became chummier with Mr Lagerfeld. In the 2005 biography of the EIC, Front Row, author Jerry Openheimer wrote that Ms Wintour was (likely between the mid to late ’80s) “wearing nothing but elegant, very discreet Chanel as her Condé Nast work uniform.”
He then went on to describe what was dubbed ‘The Chanel Affair’ (also the title of the chapter), quoting Cristina Zilkha, the wife of Michael Zilkha, a business partner in the New York music company ZE Records that represented US New Wave groups such as Kid Creole & the Coconuts. Mrs Zilkha, who did not think Ms Wintour liked her, recounted: “Michael said to me, ‘You know, you’ve never had a Chanel suit, so I told Anna that when she sees Lagerfeld to get you something… because she gets fifty percent off.” When the parcel arrived, “it was half a suit of a really nasty pale yellow with a puce undertone—a Mr-Livingston-I-presume double-breasted safari jacket with thick, huge gold metal buttons, each of which had a huge CC. It was vulgarity one couldn’t believe and something Anna would not have been caught dead in”.
Anna Wintour and Karl Lagerfeld. Photo: Glamour
For herself, Ms Wintour was always immaculately fitted in the brand with the double Cs. At the Met Gala opening parties, Ms Wintour has almost always been in Chanel. There were, of course, regular attendees who wore the French brand, but none so routinely as Ms Wintour. In her Vogue tribute to Karl Lagerfeld, she readily admitted that his designs “expressed who I was and what I hoped to be”. Yet, in the recent video editorial Vogue’s 73 Questions, she commented that her style is “safe, verging on extremely boring”. Did she mean now, as opposed to then? How amaranthine the Chanel style is is reflected in her choosing of the brand. According to Amy Odell in Anna: The Biography, the editor “often wore Chanel couture” and when she attended the shows, it “was always opportunity for her to shop”. Ms Wintour admits to the frequency in which she picks Chanel : “I’ve worn Karl’s beautiful clothes during the most important, emotional moments of my life: at my wedding, at my children’s weddings, when I received a damehood from the queen, at Franca Sozzani’s memorial service”.
Karl Lagerfeld appeared to appreciate the friendship and was very generous to her (as he was to others he held in considerable esteem, until no more). Glamour reported that in 2015 after the British Fashion Award, when Ms Wintour presented Karl Lagerfeld the trophy for Outstanding Achievement, the honoree gave the presenter a gift—a tennis court built on his Biarritz compound, described as a “ploy to get her over as a houseguest”. A thrilled Miss Wintour said, “Karl was trying to give me somewhere I could feel at home, where I could be myself. This was the first and surely the last time anyone has constructed sporting turf in my honor.” The next fashion exhibition at the Met would be her opportunity to construct something in his honour, even when Andrew Bolton had asserted, “Karl never tired of telling me that fashion did not belong in a museum.” But the exhibition would not be devoted to just his work for Chanel since, in 2005, the Costume Institute had staged a Chanel exhibition that went by the brand’s mononym and featured Mr Lagerfeld’s work. It almost did not open, as he had initially withdrawn support for it.
Next year’s Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty would not be the first exhibition at the Met dedicated to a single designer. In 1983, the year Mr Lagerfeld joined Chanel, the Costume Institute opened the Yves Saint Laurent exhibition, organised by the late Diana Vreeland. It was touted as “the first retrospective of a living couturier’s work”. Before her loyalty to Chanel, Ms Wintour wore a lot of YSLs. In Front Row, a friend recalled her cupboard in the Upper East Side apartment where she was staying: “I opened her closet and it was extraordinary—there was one Saint Laurent suit from ready-to-wear after another that she’d bought from Paris, all perfectly hung with the shoes above them.” No one needs to open Anna Wintour’s closet today to be able to visualise the row of Chanel clothes in there. What would, perhaps, be more fascinating is to know how many of them would be on load or donated to the Costume Institute to make the Karl Lagerfeld exhibition her line of beauty, too.