Read: The Chiffon Trenches

There was the Gospel, now the Gossips. André Leon Talley’s second memoir is the fashion industry’s most anticipated read—bursting with tit-bits of fashion tattle alongside unrequited loves that, at the end, stir little pity for the man himself

 

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Warning: contains language and description that might be offensive to some

With a dust jacket photo of a face not exactly beaming with kindness, André Leon Talley’s second autobiography The Chiffon Trenches recounts the ways of an unkind fashion world to which he once belonged. By the time we received our copy (via Amazon, that came with a longer-than-usual delivery time of more than a month), we have, frankly, heard to death that Anna Wintour had left him with “scars” because “she is not capable of kindness”. If you hope for dirt to be dished on this woman—aka Nuclear (a force of energy not associated with the quality of being friendly and considerate) Wintour—there are some, but not nearly as much that her haters can then delightfully hope that her days at Vogue are numbered.

The Chiffon Trenches does not clearly explain why Mr Talley, once a fashion-week habitué and a front-row fixture, is so in need of affection—or sympathy—from Vogue, specifically the Devil Who Wears Prada, Anna Wintour. He didn’t require it in the beginning, not even at the time he learnt of his beloved grandmother’s death in 1989 (he was installed at the magazine only seven months earlier); he chose to be alone with his grief. As he wrote in his first autobiography A.L.T., “I told no one at Vogue. I just picked up my things and walked out the door…” When he learned of the death of his “spiritual mother” Diana Vreeland (having just returned home from “my first salon manicure at a Korean shop” (an odd, even flippant, detail to note while recalling the death of someone dear), there too was no one from Vogue to console him. Why (or how) it became for him a life of such emotional privation is still a riddle.

André Leon Talley is an uncommonly large man of fashion. In recent photos and him on stage, he is usually seated, which magnifies his largeness. Due to his size, he wears mostly muu-muu-like caftans that the media likes to describe as “trademark”, but it’s emblematic likely because of the little at retail that could fit his bulk. Mr Talley admits that he uses “the caftans to shadow the rise and fall of my adipose crisis.” Whether posing for press photos or delivering an address to Oxford students, or gracing a talk show, or hosting a segment (now no more) at the Met Gala, Mr Talley is nearly always on a chair or stool, and looks like a bell Quasimodo might have rung. Sometimes he forms a silhouette of a Renaissance cupola. This must not be taken as shaming; this is what has been seen. Which truly belies the fact that he was not, in the beginning, of a built that needed to be covered in such a startling yardage of cloth. Photographs of his early years, in fact, showed a trim, almost gawky man who stood out due to his impressive height of 1.98m—as tall as the late Kobe Bryant. Mr Talley even describes himself then as a “black American string bean”.

Stringy enough for Tina Brown to remember him—as she wrote in The Vanity Fair Diaries—“in a bespoke suit as thin as a number two lead pencil” at Andy Warhol’s memorial service. In his younger days, he must have cut a striking stature, if not a handsome figure. “I was tall, thin and adored by those who met me,” Mr Talley writes. Enough to tempt, earlier in his tenure at Interview, a looks-concerned Andy Warhol to molest him? In the pre-launch publicity of the book, the press could not resist mentioning how the pop artist had often and publicly placed his hands on Mr Talley’s crotch, to which the latter would merely “just swat him away”.

But what is perhaps more shocking (if anything still shocks) is Mr Warhol wanting to take a photo of his employee’s genitals. Mr Talley writes that his artist-boss said, “You could become famous, make your cock famous. All you have to do is let me take a Polaroid of you peeing on the canvas.” He politely rejected the request. But a guy pissing would oddly occur again in his life story. This time, with Loulou de la Falaise in a kinky, “but happening place in the Meatpacking District” of New York. As he describes it, “suddenly, a man stood on top of the bar and started urinating on revelers below him.” Additionally, he lets on—the world of fashion and pop music is so curious about and enamoured of black genitalia. “There is always the thought that as a black man, it can only be my genitals that people respond to.” Even Madonna, at their first meeting asked, after introducing herself, “do you want a blow job?”

The book is peppered with such gossipy, not usually salacious tales, but they are often akin to snippets

 

While he was not amenable to having his member touched or photographed, or fellated, Mr Talley was not opposed to looking at someone else’s. As he recounts one bedtime investigation, relish somewhat intact, “…I, curious about the legendary size of his penis, pulled back the white sheet and exposed the family jewels…” Mr Talley often writes about his “Southern manners”. Were they not applicable in a shared bed? The victim of this big reveal was Victor Hugo, the Venezuelan artist who was Andy Warhol’s assistant and model at the Factory, and Halston’s window display artist and purported lover. This took place one night in Calvin Klein’s house on Fire Island. Curiosity assuaged, Mr Talley went back to sleep, “Victor on one end, and me on the other”. Penises have their rightful place in his collective memory. Further down, he spied with no hesitation “long-hanging fruits” at the pool of Karl Lagerfeld’s villa in Biarritz.

Friends, friends, friends

The book is peppered with such gossipy, not usually salacious tales, but they are often akin to snippets. Even his relationship with Betty Catroux, “one of the permanent icons in the pantheon of Saint Laurent androgynous style”, is recounted casually, and is barely supported by explanations to tell why he considers her a friend. He also writes of “a great friendship with Miuccia Prada”, but does not really say why. It is the same with Bianca Jagger, Paloma Picasso, Loulou de la Falaise, São Schlumberger (Anna Wintour was not the only person he went to the couture shows with), Amanda Harlech, Lee Radziwill, Anne Bass, Annette de la Renta, Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis; so much so that, after a while, it seems like just exuberant name-dropping.

Mr Talley, who has an MA in French Studies, writes of long “effortless” conversations with Mr Lagerfeld, including two to three-hour-long phone calls at night, but, curiously, not once did he say if both of them spoke in English or French, or a mix of both. They wrote letters to each other too, copiously. But, again, it is not known if the frequent correspondences were penned in which of the two languages both could speak and read and write (Mr Lagerfeld was fluent in French, German, English, and Italian). With Mr Saint Laurent, however, he did say that they conversed in French.

He likes to repeatedly give the impression that he was part of and moving between the inner sanctums of French couturiers—that only he and Paloma Picasso were able to navigate freely between the two reigning camps at the time he was in Paris, working for WWD: Karl Lagerfeld’s and Yves Saint Laurent’s. Both men were known to be rivals in business, stature, and the love of one man, Jacques de Bascher. For the purpose of maintaining peace, Ms Picasso had to have the two designers create her wedding dress—one did the day, the other did the night. “That level of diplomacy,” Mr Talley notes, “is exactly what it took to straddle the ice-cold pillars of fashion”. In that respect, it would appear that he did enjoy somewhat exalted status on hallowed grounds.

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André Leon Talley likes being praised and complimented. In the book, the contents are sandwiched between what could be good-luck tokens. Just after the front cover, as well as before the back cover, are strategically placed, almost trompe-l’œil, digital scans of written praises from “the great Delphic oracle” Diana Vreeland and Ralph Lauren respectively. He praises himself too: “I was at the apex of my good-looking young self”, “I had style and attitude. I could shine with the best of them in sartorial splendor and élan”, “My dapper and dandy appearance was paramount…”. Or how instrumental he was in getting John Galliano’s career launched (credit, as most know, went to Anna Wintour) when he helped organised (and even aided in securing the funds for) the autumn/winter 1994 show, held at the uninhabited hôtel particulier home of São Schlumberger. Not a chapter progresses without some self-acknowledgment or praise from others of how good he was. This might have worked in a biography, but for a memoir, it sounds like a long reference letter to himself.

A recurrent phrase in the book is “I was smart”. He says, for example, “People gravitated toward me because I was smart”—people includes Karl Lagerfeld and smart the synonym of intellectual prowess, rather than just learned inferences. This reminder to the reader that intelligence is a requite for a dazzling life in fashion seems to suggest that he needs to be validated, even if it is mostly self-validation. That he started at Interview, jumped to WWD/W, and scaled Vogue weren’t enough to parlay his keen mind and vast knowledge into a standing worthy of the “fashion elite”, some of whom did not graduate from university as he did, such as Karl Lagerfeld and Anna Wintour.

He writes about his time at Interview; at WWD and W; and at Vogue, and even the one-year tenure at Ebony, but he did not once mention the (also one-year) employment at Numéro Russia, where he was hired as editor-at-large to launch the magazine in Moscow in 2013. Mr Telly left exactly a year after, reportedly because of Russia’s controversial position on homosexuality, after watching a Rachel Maddow report on the issue. Mr Telly has proclaimed his love for Russia, but made no mention about his time there. Yet, he spoke rather romantically of his first trip to Africa, when he was invited by Naomi Campbell to Lagos to participate in Arise, the Nigerian Fashion Week.

Intense insecurity

Mr Talley likes bringing up his childhood/teenage years in “segregated Durham”, a town North Carolina known for tobacco (although that was already well covered in A.L.T.), and contrasting that to his achievements in New York, and later Paris, and back to New York again. The insecurity and the stressing of that insecurity seem to be behind how he operates and how he dresses himself. “I depended on sartorial boldness to camouflage my exterior vortex of pain, insecurity, and doubt,” Mr Talley writes. That he, who earlier in his career was happy to accept cast-offs from Karl Lagerfeld and Halston, was able to don bespoke suits was a big deal and a visual validation. When caftans replaced suits, he too had them custom-made and would attribute them to the designers who made them. In fact, when describing what he wore, he fervently name-checks brands—even down to his gloves and the lining of his jackets—as an Instagrammer is inclined to by using tags and hashtags.

His insecurity was not only about his relationship with fashion folks. He was insecure about his work too. He likes to remind the reader of the importance of his editorial role and the significance of his output. Sometimes the need to repeat himself (or remind?) can be irritating. “Working for Vogue as the Paris editor was a serious job,” he writes. At the end of that paragraph, he adds, “Of course, the job came with great duties.” With each promotion at WWD, he does not speak of moving up the masthead, but “a massive jump”, which seems incongruent with the perceived humility associated with his early church-going years in the American south.

Courtier among couturiers

Two French designers professed to be influential in André Leon Talley’s life were Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent. Between the two, it appears he was closer to Mr Lagerfeld and dedicates considerable pages to the couturier. “His importance in my life and career is without parallel,” he stresses. By the time the designer debuted his collection for Chanel in 1983, Mr Talley had been an expatriate in Paris for four years prior, and both were fast friends. Mr Talley was then, back in the Big Apple, not working (he was just asked to leave the magazine Ebony), so Mr Lagerfeld flew him “from New York to Paris first-class” and paid for his stay at Saint James Albany, a hotel on Rue de Rivoli that overlooks the 456-year-old Tuileries Garden.

And there were gifts of money, too. He told Fashionista that when he turned 50, Mr Lagerfeld “gave” him $50,000 (this monetary detail is not mentioned in the book). Such generosity and the closeness between them, led to the rumour that they were lovers. Mr Talley flatly denied that they were, or that he had “been in and out of every designer’s bed in Paris”, as suggested by Michael Cody, one of his bosses at WWD, a charge that led to the editor resigning from the publication. If Mr Talley had been indulgent, it seems to be more sensual than sexual. He had already clarified this in A.L.T.: “I never slept with anyone to get ahead”.

In the end, he was dropped by Mr Lagerfeld like unwanted fabric on the atelier floor. Yet, he consoles himself by saying, after Mr Lagerfeld’s death, “I love him, and he loved me right back

 

His relationship with Yves Saint Laurent seemed to be conducted from a distance, while with Karl Lagerfeld, it was often right in the heart of the action. He recounts trips to Mr Lagerfeld’s various homes, but not Mr Saint Laurent’s private retreat-oasis in Marrakesh, the Jardin Majorelle. Mr Lagerfeld is no longer able to counter Mr Talley’s rather lengthy and detailed account of their time together, often spent amid considerable luxury. It appears that more paragraphs are devoted to Karl Lagerfeld than to Anna Wintour. Despite acknowledging that the Kaiser didn’t treat his close friends well, Mr Talley was totally captivated by the designer of Chanel, stressing repeatedly that he learned a lot from Mr Lagerfeld and referring to the designer and himself as “the Socrates of high fashion and his best student”. In the end, he was dropped by Mr Lagerfeld like unwanted fabric on the atelier floor. Yet, he consoles himself by saying, after Mr Lagerfeld’s death (they never made it up), “I love him, and he loved me right back.”

That could be the point of the book that readers may find hard to reconcile. Mr Talley has a weakness for “unconditional love” or what he perceives to be that, received from both designers, society ladies, and celebrities. And also those that others give to others—he says, for example, that Betty Catroux “loved Yves unconditionally”. Emotionally, Mr Talley did not seem to have suffered hardships of the heart since the attraction to two men that is mentioned in the book amounted to really nothing. So he seek emotional warmth—real or imagined—from those who seemed to be able to give it, such as Diane von Fürstenberg and Lee Radziwill, as well as from those not known to be emotionally radiating, such as Karl Lagerfeld and Anna Wintour.

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Mr Talley wrote that “Yves wanted to be Betty Catroux.” On that note, it is possible that Mr Talley wanted to be all those women he adored: From Jackie Kennedy of his youth to Diana Vreeland to Loulou de la Falaise to the other Bouvier sister, Lee Radziwill, even possibly Anna Wintour. Or, at least, he lived vicariously through them, which may explain why he was so eager to attend couture fittings not his own. Even when things were no longer rosy with Ms Wintour, he still attended her couture fittings to the very last. He writes, “I continue to advise her out of sincere loyalty, no matter if she remains silent.”

After all the drama, his feelings for the editor-in-chief of Vogue sounds familiar: “Not a day goes by when I do not think of Anna Wintour.” This is hard to digest after he slams her for how she treated him. And then goes on to say that he received “a moment of grace” when, to him, she “verified my important role, or one aspect of it, in her life as editor-in-chief of Vogue” in an interview for the documentary on him, The Gospel According to André. He then goes on to say she “has disappointed me in her humanity,” hoping “she will find a way to apologize before I die.” It is rather hard to bear, reading about someone punishing himself in such a manner. Reacting to his podcast with Vogue being cancelled with no prior warning, he says, “She decimated me with this silent treatment so many times. That is just the way she resolves any issue. And I soldiered on, through the elite chiffon trenches”. Soldiering on, in the face of being so clearly ignored, deserves no pity.

In his publicity rounds, Mr Talley calls his book an “epistle”. Readers here may identify much of it as redress or even complaint. In the context of modern digital communication and life, this could be fashion journalism’s equivalent of revenge porn. And like porn, it’s an enticing read. This isn’t the front row, this is a get-back. The “even-though-someone-smiled-at-me, they-could-be-plotting-against-me-behind-my-back” variety. Mr Talley told NPR that The Chiffon Trenches is “not a salacious tell-all. It’s not a dishy, gossipy, bitchy book.” Yet, you do get tell-a-lot, dishy, gossipy, and bitchy recounting.

The book is a breeze to read, and with the fashion show-like pacing, easy to finish in a day or, maximum, two. It is not created to be a literary masterpiece—at best, a piece of Vanity Fair reporting in book length and form. André Leon Talley likes to repeat himself, as we mentioned, just as he likes to be thanked and appreciated, which becomes a little tiring after a while, tiring to read. He is a thankful person, which is undeniably a virtue, but there is no need to be effusive in gratitude (or to expect the same), which can be shown, not only said. A thank you offered once is as valuable as a sorry hoped for, if uttered.

Photos: Jim Sim

Chanel Challenged

Not in anyone’s wildest dreams could this be imagined of the house associated with tweeds and camellias, and refinement

 

Chanel Soho 2Chanel in Soho, New York, on Sunday night. Screen grab: Bedford+Bowery/Twitter  

Chanel, for many, is a temple of high fashion and the unattainable, and a brand with probably the most “house codes” that not only are the symbols of exclusivity and badges of honour, but also the tangibles with which the label can leverage to protect and grow its wealth. Regardless of what Chanel means to individuals, it is the epitome of supreme elegance, and its stores are where many women go through the shopping rites of passage that signify financial freedom and adulthood, leading to the clubby feeling that one has arrived. It is, therefore, shocking to see images and video footage of the Chanel Spring Street store in Soho, New York, smashed and looted.

According to press reports, “looters seized Soho” (a shopping district in Manhattan known for its expensive restaurants and luxury stores) on Sunday night, shortly after 11pm. At Chanel, some, having laid their hands on the merchandise, “distributed the goods to groups” to the soundtrack of raging sirens. It isn’t clear why the store’s security features were so easily compromised and why there was no police presence. In one news broadcast by News 12 Brooklyn, the mostly male perpetrators, hooded and masked, were seen entering and leaving the store as if it was a normal day’s activity, all in the presence of seemingly unconcerned onlookers. The reporter noted “looters breaking windows and running out with bags of stuff.”

Chanel SohoChanel in Soho yesterday morning. Photo: Today News Post

The next day, Soho is, according to a Tweet by New Yorker Kevin Rincon, “just block after block of graffiti, broken glass and boarded up shops”. The visual of Chanel ransacked—even when boarded up—is going to be hard to forget. While it’s not Rue Cambon (heaven forbid there should ever come such a day), a Chanel store so terribly wrecked is, as one marketing exec said to us, “like the classic flap bag hurled into an incinerator”. More than that, it boggles the mind because, as the actions were played out online for all the world to see, other than greed and entitlement, there is no comprehensible reason for the attackers to target usually apolitical fashion businesses.

It has been said recently that “there is never a right way to protest”. Is that ditto for the wrong way too? Does freedom in the American context, including freedom to live and freedom from police brutality, include the freedom to exercise free-for-all? Can it be said with certainty that when protesting one can take anything one pleases, even by breaking in, in the exact same way that the police in Minneapolis can take the lives of men? Does that mean that the homeless who protest can just walk into anyone’s home and stake it as his own? Isn’t violence in all its guises still violence?

Chanel SS 2015The protest-march-as-finale at Chanel spring/summer 2015. Photo: Getty Images

There is, in all this destruction, a cruel irony. Back in September of 2014, the late Karl Lagerfeld showed the Chanel spring/summer 2015 collection with a finale that mimicks a protest—in this case, to further feminism. The Chanel-clad paid-models-as-protestors, led by Cara Delevingne wielding a megaphone, chanted for freedom down the street-scene runway, complete with crowd-control barriers. Despite the authenticity, it isn’t clear how seriously the guests at the show took to the staged protest, but some were questioning Mr Lagerfeld seriousness since the designer was known to fan off concerns, such as that over size-zero models by suggesting that there were instigated by “fat mommies with bags of crisps”.

Chanel’s single-show urging for change and, as seen on the placards, freedom and rights, did not lead to further actionable plans. Looking back, we wonder if Mr Lagerfeld, regardless of the show’s tinge of frivolity (“Tweed is better than Tweet”!), was prophetic. Did he know that protests will be characteristic of the next decade’s social/political strife? That his model demonstrators would pave the way for others across the Atlantic in their quest for justice and equality? One thing’s different and vivid: at his show, the protestors had no need to loot a Chanel store.

Chanel: When Winter Is Not Cold

Chanel AW 2019

This has been applauded as Karl Lagerfeld’s last designs for Chanel, but the house announced that it is “a collection by Karl Lagerfeld and Virginie Viard”. This could be the first official acknowledgement of Ms Viard’s involvement in the design process, not merely to execute what Mr Lagerfeld had sketched. That Ms Viard ‘officially’ shares the honour could indicate that Mr Lagerfeld may have been too ill to finish the collection or that this is the time to get Chanel fans used to the name of the unknown designer taking the place of Mr Lagerfeld.

On the whole, the collection looks typically and joyfully Karl Lagerfeld. He had pushed the house codes to such an extent that even those who had bought Chanel suits before Mr Lagerfeld took over the reigns in 1983 won’t today immediately recognise them. And the old silhouette, too, had so dramatically changed that this really had become Karl Lagerfeld as Gabrielle Chanel than merely a re-imagining of what Coco had dreamed up. But upon closer look at the autumn winter 2019 collection, there is suspicion that Virginie Viard’s hand was at work.

Chanel AW 2019 G1

Sure, Mr Lagerfeld’s sense of glamour and tres coordinated chic are all there, including his jacket shapes—frequently boxy and, just as often, sportif— and their renown lightness, as well as his fondness for a certain way with lapels—cut away and graphic, triangular fold-downs. There are the relaxed pantsuits, pulled together with a certain slouch. There are also the pairing of skirts over pants (now the capri), sheer tops over white shirts, and dresses for getting dolled up. And the details: the double-breasted, the frayed tweed to form a short fringe, and yet more ways to trim the Chanel jacket. Nothing is casual, nothing is effortless, nothing is not calculated.

Yet, despite what social media has called a “very Karl” collection, there are other touches that seem inconsistent with the man who ruled Chanel for 36 years. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. We are surprised to find a jacket with contrast sleeves and a coat with contrast yoke; outers that wrap like a blanket or, one—a twofer with slanted shoulders and a rather cocoon effect; even a boilersuit with a low waist. Could these be the touches or ideas of Virginie Viard? We many never know. But it is likely that the Wertheimer family, owner of Chanel, want an unbroken succession and her expressly stated involvement now will lessen potential disruptions moving forward.

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Chanel AW 2019 G3

The setting may be alpine, but these are not ski wear. Hard, in fact, to imagine them on a ski lift. For sure, they’d be worn up in the mountain, to a winter lodge, but dressing up is more likely for the apres-ski parties known to dominate the winter resorts that the show set—typically not modest— is based on (Chalet Gardenia! Mr Lagerfeld must have had immense fun thinking of such names). These are clothes the one percent (or wives of) will wear to St Moritz. For the rest, there is always the red jumper with the double Cs just below the neck—logo placements undoubtedly Mr Lagerfeld’s forte.

No one can say for sure what path, snow covered or not, Chanel will henceforth take. Karl Lagerfeld is so synonymous with Chanel that it is hard to imagine the latter without the former. But, for certain, those tweeds will live on, so will the countless bags already sold and shall be. The until-now-unknown name Virginie Viard will be very much watched. She has very large shoes to fill, even if they are two-tone pumps.

Photos: Chanel

Fendi At Its Finest

Fendi W AW 2019

Did Karl Lagefeld know that this would be his last collection for Fendi?

For someone who only looks to the future, probably not (“what is important is what I will do, not what I have done in the past”, he tended to say). Yet there is a sense that he gave all he had for this Fendi collection with the view that there might not be another. This is arguably one of the best collections he had conceived for the Roman house, where he had served as its ready-to-wear design head for 54 years—“the longest collaboration in fashion”, he had declared. The tailoring is sharp, the quirkiness unmistakable. This is fashion for those who cares more about stylish clothes that house codes.

Being a Karl Lagerfeld-designed collection, however, some things won’t be absent: the high, conspicuous Edwardian collars; straight but not overly emphatic shoulders; no-nonsense shirts, proper but not uninteresting skirts. Yet, there is not anything what might today be called ‘iconic’. They come together with other elements to form ensembles that are appealingly current—not cloyingly feminine, not unnecessarily street, no extremes. Despite the collection’s youthful vibe,you do not sense it is designed by an octogenarian trying to do young.

Fendi W AW 2019 G1

Between the two brands Mr Lagerfeld designed for those many decades, we have always preferred Fendi, the Roman label once run by five sisters (the cheekily wicked say six!) and is now part of the LVMH stable of luxury names. Mr Lagefeld joined Fendi—the other brand after Chanel that offered him a “lifelong” contract—in 1963. In luxury fashion, this is an anomaly: a freelancer working for one brand for over 50 years. During his time there, he not only revolutionise Fendi as furriers, he created their ready-to-wear from scratch.

In Fendi, it is possible that Mr Lagerfeld found the freedom to really express. From the beginning, he had no interest in leaving a legacy or creating what other brands call DNA. In the years designing for other brands, he was happy to create what he thought was au courant. While lightness was always associated with Karl Lagerfeld (even the Fendi furs, at some point, were light, including those designed to be worn in summer), there was not a discernible Karl Lagerfeld look. Aesthetically unshackled, he would create a Fendi not burdened by a past. Fendi could be whatever the trend of the moment is. Perhaps this “flexibility” endeared him to other brands. When Chanel had him on board in 1983, they were probably certain they would not be getting a variation of Fendi. But if Karl Lagerfeld didn’t have a distinct style and Fendi does not have the history that Chanel does, it would appear that Fendi has no look either.

Fendi W AW 2019 G2

Fendi W AW 2019 G3

While Fendi as a brand has succumbed to the street wear craze, it has remained largely true to its Italian elegance, offering stylish clothes with just the right touch of off. They are not Marni, of course, but in the hands of Karl Lagerfeld, they have kept to a femininity that is not frothy, but ethereal (compounded by incredible fabrics they are able to develop), all the while tempered by Mr Lagerfeld’s not exactly soft tailoring. There is none of the intellectual heft of Prada, nor the culturally-derived goofiness of Gucci, but compelling nonetheless.

For us, this collection leaves behind a good memory, a neat end to an era. We like the the surprise of the sash tied at the rear of shirts, coats, even dresses, like a forgotten belt; the mix of sheer or skin-visible with the solid (but not heavy); and, especially, a sense of the sublime without trying to be too clever about it. Fendi, as it appears, has a solid foundation.

Photos: Fendi

Passing Of A Giant

Obituary | Regardless of what we at SOTD think of Karl Lagerfeld, he really was the last of his kind

 

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Karl Lagerfeld standing on the set of Chanel’s spring/summer 2019 collection last October. Photo: Getty Images

Karl Lagerfeld has left the world and that of fashion. Born in 1933* in pre-war Hamburg, Germany, he died today in post-Web Paris, France—reportedly from the same disease that took the life of Steve Jobs: pancreatic cancer. He has said that he did not really need to be employed but, by most account, he worked at Chanel till his last breath. He was also proud of his perennial contracts with not only Chanel, but Fendi too. As he reiterated to Kendall Jenner in a Harper’s Bazaar joint interview in 2016, “Everybody… hopes I retire so they can get the jobs. But my contracts with Fendi and Chanel are lifelong.”

And he really worked all his life, and most times, at two jobs, or more. He once said, “I am kind of a fashion nymphomaniac who never gets an orgasm. I am never satisfied.” Despite the evident wealth and the numerous homes around the world (he collects them as he did books and furniture, and, some say, friends), Mr Lagerfeld is, by definition, a salary man. Although he most likely would shoot back at such a description, he did say, rather imperturbably, in a 2018 Netflix special on him, “I’m just working-class—working with class.” 

Some reports estimated his net worth to be USD250 million (up till last year). The accumulation of wealth and tony residences must have begun, even if unconsciously, when he arrived in Paris in 1950, aged 17 (according to him, but some accounts claim 14 and earlier arrival). But he wasn’t a struggling pre-employment drifter. He told Bazaar, “I got very nice pocket money, and it was perfect.” In 1954, he won the first prize in the coat category at the International Wool Secretariat fashion design competition (presently known as the International Woolmark Prize). That opened doors for him, but the ensuing years were not exactly what he had envisioned.

Winners of IWS design awards 1954

Winners of the International Wool Secretariat fashion design competition in 1954. From left: Karl Lagerfeld, Yves Saint Laurent, and (far right) Colette Bracchi. Photo: Keystone Eyedea Headpress

(Interestingly, there were two other winners that year: one Colette Bracchi that no one then remembered, nor now, and one Yves Saint Laurent that is so unforgettable the name is still a cash cow for current owner, the Kering Group. Mr Saint Laurent, in fact, won two prizes, a first and a third for dresses, then deemed more prestigious than honours for coats. Mr Saint Laurent’s double win and his subsequent employment at Christian Dior were rumoured to be the source of rivalry and some discord between the two male winners who were, at that time, believed to be friends.)

The prize money, reportedly generous, probably meant nothing to the 21-year-old Lagerfeld. When he entered the world of haute couture, no one knew who he was and where he came from exactly. But they knew he was rich and work was optional because, as was said, that’s what he told them. The budding designer did come from a well-to-do family. His father was said to be an “industrialist” whose business was condensed milk. Or, as was the chatter of the day, chocolate and even ball-bearings, shifting as the tale hawking got more vivid! But truth revealed that Lagerfeld senior worked for one American Milk Products Corporation that sold condensed milk, marketed in Germany as Glücksklee. Family wealth, however, did not make Mr Lagerfeld a professional sloth. In fact, he was, even then, known to be “prolific”—as he still was, up to his death. He was not only quick in sketching, he was also speedy in the execution of design. Traits that served him well in both haute couture and prêt-à-porter at Chanel.

A year after his win, Mr Lagerfeld joined one of the judges of the competition, Pierre Balmain (the others were Hubert de Givenchy and Jacques Fath), to assist him. He would, years later, say “I was not born to be an assistant.” In 1959, he left for Jean Patou, where he designed as Roland Karl ten couture collections during his time there. According to friendly accounts, he was not particularly pleased with his employment at both houses. There were no raves in the same manner as that, many years later, he received continuously at Chanel. It seemed he became rather disillusioned with haute couture. By the early ’60s, he decamped haute couture for ready-to-wear, initially not only a poor cousin to the highest form of fashion, but an impoverished one. Women of taste and means did not buy off-the-rack.

Karl Lagerfeld at Patou

Karl Lagerfeld with a model in one of his designs for the house of Patou. Photo: Regina Relang/source

Karl Lagerfeld’s tenure with brands on the other end of haute couture at first seemed the opposite of Yves Saint Laurent’s dramatic ascend at Christian Dior. For the work he did, which included those for the ballet shoe company Repetto and the supermarket chain Monoprix, Mr Lagerfeld was known as a styliste, not a couturier. This was during a time when being a styliste meant freelancing (mostly) for brands not one’s own and unshackled by the need to reinvent the wheel. But this did not deter him, and his friends at that time later recalled that he enjoyed his job, so much so that he would eventually take up more than one, at a time. Some people said that he knew, after leaving the big maisons, that the future of fashion is in ready-to-wear. Even though not quite a visionary (or a fortune teller, as he was inclined to say), he was not wrong.

In the early to mid-’60s, a small little brand was gaining popularity among women for its chic yet somewhat bohemian-looking clothes—anything added to chic was the antithesis of couture. Chloé was also unusual in that it was a label not named after a designer. In 1964, the year Andre Courrèges introduced the “space look” and, across the English Channel in London, Mary Quant scored big with the mini skirt, Karl Lagerfeld secured an appointment with Gaby Aghion, the charismatic and experienced Egyptian owner of Chloé. He was hoping she’d hire him. She did, but not full-time. The partnership turned out to be highly successful for both Ms Aghion and Mr Lagerfeld and a long one, although not lifelong.

Little known was his pre-Chloé work for Tiziani, a couture house based in Rome that was founded by a wealthy Texan, Evan Richards. It was reported that both men conceived the collection together and threw a lavish launch party in 1963, featuring Catherine the Great’s jewels borrowed from Harry Winston. Apparently, Elisabeth Taylor was a huge fan. Understandably so, and her patronage reflected the designer’s penchant for the glitzy. The early Tiziani sketches that Mr Lagerfeld did reportedly fetched up to USD3,500 a piece in an auction in 2014. He continued to design for Tiziani until 1969. This was only the beginning of his relationship with Italian brands.

Young Karl

The young Karl Lagerfeld, never known to be camera-shy, with his always-present sketch pad. Photo: Jean-Philippe Charbonnier/source

By 1965, Paris warmed to the idea of prêt-à-porter. Apart from the stylistes, a new clutch of designers, called créateurs, emerged—among them Dorothée Bis and Sonia Rykiel, the favourite of Mr Lagerfeld’s mother. His steadily successful turn with Chloé strengthened his resolve to stick with ready-to-wear. In fact, he made quite a success of his freelance work. He added to the growing roster designs for Charles Jourdan, Ballantyne, Mario Valentino, and Krizia. Mr Lagerfeld did not concerned himself with borders, geographical or professional (in 2004, he went even lower market by designing for H&M, which he later considered “embarrassing” as “H&M let so many people down” due to the low stock levels). A year after his collaboration with Chloé, he started on the first of his “lifelong” arrangements: with Fendi.

Karl Lagerfield has such an innate sense of the au courant that success followed almost every collaboration that he did. This was augmented in the ’70s after meeting two other Americans in Paris in 1969 that would very much awaken in him the flair for what would be needed to be cool. They were the illustrator Antonio Lopez (the subject of the James Crump documentary from last year, Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion and Disco) and his ex-boyfriend, the art director Juan Ramos. In Mr Lopez, the German designer found his soulmate, as he admired the former’s distinctive and striking drawings. The Puerto Rican-American duo showed Mr Lagerfeld what Paris fashion wasn’t: fun-filled, disco-soundtracked, and street-influenced.

To be sure, the Chloé designer had always been aware of what went on outside the confines of the design studios or his apartments. Gaby Aghion once said, “When he came back with me in the car, if he saw students, Karl would  take the students’ ideas and transform them into something beautiful. He had an undeniable art of transposing their vision into fashion.” He wasn’t a designer in the mold of Andre Courrèges or Pierre Cardin (or Thierry Mugler in the ’80s, or John Galliano in the ’90s, or Raf Simons in the ’00s); he was always a commercial designer. And was known for it. Francine Crescent, editor-in-chief of the French edition of Vogue at that time, said, “Karl always made collections that sold well; his collections were always impeccable and extremely commercial. Not in a bad way.” In later years, another Vogue editor-in-chief, the just-as-commercial Anna Wintour, concurred by wearing mostly Chanel for her professional attire and on the red carpet.

Karl Lagerfeld iconography

No known designer in his old age shares the same pop fervor Karl Lagerfeld enjoys. His cartoon self even appeared on smartphone covers. Photos: source

It was the keen sense for the saleable, tempered by his love for haute couture—that he turned away from, but not rejected—and the attendant crafts that endeared him well to brands. The Wertheimer family must have had watched Mr Lagerfeld in the wings as he made money for others before hiring him in 1983 to remake Chanel. He was, according to Alain Wertheimer, the brand’s CEO, given carte blanch from day one to design as he pleased for Chanel. Unlike Hedi Slimane at Dior Homme, Saint Laurent, and now Celine, Mr Lagerfeld did not impose his own aesthetical obsessions on Chanel. But just like Mr Slimane, he was immensely commercial, as much as he had always been. As Tyler McCall, deputy editor of Fashionista noted to the Daily Beast, “Those shows were sort of sneakily commercial. If you broke them down, there were still all these basics that a Chanel customer would really want.”

There is, as we know, usually two sides to a dress. Much as Karl Lagerfeld was a proponent of beauty and the enhancement of Chanel’s house codes, he, too, was susceptible to the banal and the excesses that appeal to the nouveau. “For every classic Chanel handbag or fanciful riff on the little black dress inciting lust in the hearts of style-savvy women,” wrote Robin Givhan for Newsweek in 2012, “there have been equally mortifying examples of pandering and buffoonery: a tweed jacket transformed into a circus costume, menswear that would make a drag queen flinch, handbags that reek of self-conscious status climbing.”

Status is the operative word. In the 1980s, Mr Lagerfeld’s re-imagined 2.55 bag, dubbed Chanel Classic (or 11.12), included a double C logo on the twist-lock clasp that was never there when Coco Chanel herself designed it. He later admitted that “what I do Coco would have hated.” Vulgar came to the minds of the purists at that time, but in line with the logomania of that era, the bag took off and spawned many others, flashier than the Classic. Those handbags found legions of queue-willing fans, in men too—Pharrell Williams and G Dragon, just to name two (they’d never, of course, need to get in line). In 2017, vintage bag website Baghunter claimed in their research that in the six years prior, the value of Chanel handbags have jumped a staggering 70 percent, making Chanel a better investment than condos. Status, clearly and quickly, allowed Chanel to make a reported USD4 billion a year.

 

Karl Lagerfeld 1984
Publicity photo of the launch of Karl Lagerfeld in 1984. Photo: Karl Lagerfeld

Designing for others (an average of 14 collections annually in the past years) seemed to suit Mr Lagerfeld—and his bank account—so well that, unlike Yves Saint Laurent, he deferred starting his own label until 1984. Launched with fanfare, but met with lukewarm reception, Karl Lagerfeld the label was, according to the designer, meant to play up “intellectual sexiness”. For sure, Mr Lagerfeld was an intellectual (served by a voracious appetite for books and reading), but it is arguable if his designs were intellectual, the way Martin Margiela’s was. His own line hitherto defied a strong DNA or codes similar to Chanel’s that future designers continuing his eponymous label could bank on. It was, at best, anything goes, a monochromatic expression of ego, more so in latter years when his flat profile became a recurrent logo, as did his cartoon caricature and, subsequently, his pet cat Choupette (both have come this far south-east as Thailand). Simultaneously, he was irreverent. Remember “Karl Who”?

That Karl Lagerfeld understood branding and iconography and used both well and extensively is stating the obvious. No designer, especially in his old age, has been able to market himself as successfully and completely as Mr Lagerfeld, with the cartoon of self infinitely useful on T-shirts and as figurines to be sold as dolls (e.g., the Martell-produced Karl Barbie doll, which was priced at USD200, sold out within an hour at launch in 2014). Which other octogenarian was thus worshipped? Or seemingly adored, even by shallow post-teens such as Kendall Jenner and Kaia Gerber?

In modern fashion, Karl Lagerfeld’s work, being, and lore have culturally far-reaching effects. Even after his death, it is likely that brand Lagerfeld will go on. “I don’t want to be real in other people’s lives,” he once said, “I want to be an apparition.” Some entities do linger. Open not the closet door.

*A note on dates: Like Diana Vreeland, Karl Lagerfeld was fluid with his personal history. He himself often gave conflicting dates on his birth and such. On his website, it is stated that his year of birth was 1938. What is provided here is based on information available in the public domain

Update (19 February 2019, 10pm): According to WWD, Chanel’s studio director Virginie Viard, who has taken the catwalk bow alongside Mr Lagerfeld before and his place, will take over as the Creative Director

What A Beach!

It could be an allusion to Biarritz—the seaside town where Coco Chanel opened her first couture house in 1915. If so, the recreation of sand and sea in the Grand Palais was not only clever, but evocative. However, would it not have been better to really stage the show in the Basque coast instead? Or would that have been a tad too Jacquemus? Well, if Karl Lagerfeld can’t go the the beach, bring the beach to him

 

Chanel SS 2019 P1

Here, in Southeast Asia, many of us are riveted to our news sources for updates on the tsunami that hit the Indonesian island of Sulawesi four days ago. The Chanel show with the girls walking on the make-belief beach in their Chanel finery seemed, in contrast, a little impervious to the misfortunes of others, half-way round the world. Of course, Chanel could not have planned this splashy production by taking into account what they could not have possibly predicted. Still, the disparity between the fantasy evoked in a fashion capitol and the tragedy of an unheard-of coastal town was palpable, leaving us to see that fate and fashion are truly different worlds.

Chanel’s beach-centred collection for next spring/summer could have been La Pausa Part II, La Pausa (also Coco Chanel’s villa in the south of France) being the fake ship that was part of the set for the cruise 2019 collection, shown in May. The thing is, it’s no longer easy to differentiate between the Chanel seasons, not even between the couture and the pret-a-porter, so we remember the characteristic but indistinguishable clothes by the set against which they were shown: the supermarket collection or the airport collection! Provincial perhaps, but not ineffective.

Chanel SS 2019 G1.jpgChanel SS 2019 G2

In fact, the Chanel clothes have been so dependent on the extravagant sets to mean something that one suspects that design matters less than theatrics since the label banks mainly on its house codes to interest their customers and commercial sass to keep them buying. As we watched the girls go by, bare-footed, and over-layered on the seashore with no sea shells, we wondered if Karl Lagerfeld, prolific as he is, has spent too much time dreaming of context than clothes. Which, we found ourselves asking, came first: set or dress?

Maybe it’s dress. Then to make it thematically strong, give it scene-setting context, a beach complete with lifeguards, a diorama that only a powerful fashion house can afford to erect. This is even better than 4K broadcast. You have the lapping sea before you and real sand. All the antiquities in the Louvre can’t top this. Coco herself, in her wildest dreams—and she had some of those, we’re sure—would not have imagine that more than a decade after her Biarritz debut, the sea that she enjoyed would be brought to Paris, in the Grand Palais. Is the water salty and the sand warm, we wondered.

Chanel SS 2019 G1Chanel SS 2019 G4

Few women, of course, enjoy the beach with so much clothes on. All dressed up to go to see the sea? You could call it sea folly if not for the fact that Seafolly is an actual beach wear brand—from Australia. But it would be hard to describe bouclé suits on the sand as anything else. We’re not sure if Coco Chanel ever thought of being suited in bouclé, even summer bouclé, when strolling on the water’s edge, but Mr Lagerfeld has made it, well, a walk on the beach, with the usual boxy shapes in colours as light as see breeze. After 35 years at Chanel, Mr Lagerfeld has perfected the bouclé suit and has offered so many variations for so many occasions that perhaps now is the time for those that can be worn to make sandcastles and pick crabs.

This is his flair: making the unlikeliest of things distinctly possible, not to mention a knack for imbuing otherwise commercial clothes with a vibe that is fashionable. Or, the way the younger set likes it, such as the white shirt Kaia Gerber wore—rather unremarkable if not for the black Chanel branding on the pocket flaps. Or, could this have been a spillover from the Karl X Kaia collab? For a label that sells quite a lot of shoes, it is perhaps against promotional wisdom to let the models go bare-footed, carrying the footwear in their hands, augmenting, instead, the dreams of many women: long walks on the beach, with the soft, warm sand underfoot; a moment of bliss, possibly romance; a retreat from urban bustle, as a piña colada awaits somewhere in the distance. The Thais have a word for women of such inclination and with such love, but it would be too impolite to print it here. Let’s just say she could be the Chanel woman.

Photos: (top) Getty images, (runway) Chanel

Collaboration Junkie: Karl Goes East

Karl Lagerfeld has been spreading his name through the industry-wide practice of collaboration. Partnerships aside, is he the millennial Pierre Cardin?

 

KL4J Pic 1.jpgWindow of a Jaspal store in Bangkok

BANGKOK, Thailand — He was the earliest to meet mass-market fashion, not half-way, but down there, at reach-all-corners level. In 2004, Karl Lagerfeld paired with H&M to initiate what would become the Swedish label’s calling card for fashion cred and unheard of sell-through of 100% in less than four hours. Although he had later said that he would not work with H&M again, criticising the fast fashion brand for “snobbery created by anti-snobbery”, as reported in Stern, Mr Lagerfeld, without doubt, kick-started the compulsion among designers to let everyone have a piece of the fashion cake.

The result of the debut pairing with Mr Lagerfeld was so startlingly successful that H&M started the annual designer collaboration that would include heavyweights such as Maison Martin Margiela, inconsequentials such as Isabel Marant, and forgettables such as Anna Dello Russo. Mr Lagerfeld did it when collaborations were not yet image boosters to designer brands, nor crucial to their marketing plan and, indeed, business model and he is still doing it, contrary to the convention that retirement should really have been on the cards for octogenarians.

The Karl Lagerfeld name was recently linked to a brand in Thailand, possibly Southeast Asia’s most vibrant, fashion-centric city. Last month, Mr Lagerfeld (he turns 85 in September)—and also his faithful pet cat Choupette (aged seven)—collaborated with Bangkok-based high-street label Jaspal for a collection that appears to target the very young, which means it banks on the cute, as well as the show-off predilection of social-media types. It isn’t clear if Mr Lagerfeld has ever visited Bangkok or are acquainted with the cool cats of the city, but such proximity details are possibly inconsequential as the collaborative output has convinced Bangkok fashionistas to call the collab with gusto, “Parisian chic”. Does that include Karl Lagerfeld driving a tuk tuk, as seen in the animated video promo?

KL4J Pic 2Karl Lagerfeld for Jaspal at the Jaspal flagship store, Siam Center

The enthusiastic response is understandable. It is the flutter of pride. No brand in Asia has collaborated with Mr Lagerfeld except Japan’s Shu Uemura (and that wasn’t a dalliance with clothing). And the thrill was not restricted to Bangkok. A few days after its 4th May launch, some styles were spotted on Carousell. Jaspal, at 46, is one of Bangkok’s oldest fashion brands. Founded by a Sikh immigrant from India, Jaspal Singh, in 1947, the company was first in the textile trade (primarily home linen) before establishing Jaspal in 1972 as a fashion line sold in its own store. By the late ’80s and early ’90s, Jaspal was the go-to brand for European-style men’s and women’s wear in the aesthetic of Giorgio Armani or the like that staked their success on Italian tailoring. So convincing was Jaspal’s cut and styling that talk of the trade at that time was that the Singhs—it was by then a large family business—had bought European originals to learn from the latter. And when the learning was done, sold the samples in the stores.

Jaspal’s accomplishment, even now, is rather unusual for Bangkok. In the city of fashion labels largely conceived and run by native Thais such as the just-as-popular Greyhound, Jaspal’s Punjabi name could have disadvantaged the brand as a by-product of Phahurat Textile Market—in the west of downtown Bangkok that is known for its Indian (or kaek, as the locals perhaps somewhat derogatorily call them) fabric traders and sellers. Rather than succumb to ethnic stereotypes, the Singh family has, together with their other trend-driven, price-sharp labels, including the up-market Jaspal Home, grown a business that, to fans, could be Thailand’s very own burgeoning Inditex.

This could point to how well Jaspal has cultivated their image. They have always played up their profile even when in latter years the quality and designs of their clothes don’t break any ground, the same on which dominant imported competitors such as Topshop and H&M compete. If image is everything, Jaspal has it pat. For about ten years, they have hired some of the world’s biggest names in modelling to headline their advertising campaigns: to name a few, Claudia Schiffer, Gisele Bundchen, Jessica Stam, and, more recently, Kylie Jenner (for the sister brand CPS). These names were happily used in the copy, which impressed much of the impressionable local shoppers: Jaspal has such clout.

KL4J Pic 3

A Karl Lagerfeld for Jaspal lightbox in Saladaeng BTS station, Bangkok

Most people thought Jaspal has deep pockets when it comes to advertising and branding budget. However, no one thought that that figure would be quite the largesse to tempt Karl Lagerfeld, who is known to abhor talking about money and considers the discussion of it vulgar, into collaborating with a brand that, in the wake of edgier domestic labels, is considered middle-of-the-road. What was unimaginable has become a full-window, pride-of-the-city reality. Jaspal baited the Kaiser.

Close to 85, and with a sizeable legacy that’s as grand as his book collection (not counting those he sells in his Paris bookshop 7L), Mr Lagerfeld should not have to be too concerned with getting his personal brand into public consciousness. It’s hard to imagine those who are into fashion not taking cognisance of his name. By now, Mr Lagerfeld should have already enjoyed a blockbuster retrospective in New York’s Metropolitan Museum, considering his long design career. Yves Saint Laurent, Mr Lagerfeld’s contemporary and arguably rival, and the first living designer to be honoured by the Met was only 47 when Diana Vreeland, assisted by André Leon Talley (now the subject of the documentary The Gospel according to André), staged the eponymous show in 1983. Last year, more than three decades later, the honour went to Comme des Garçon’s intensely private Rei Kawakubo. But Chanel’s designer, at the helm for 35 years and not afraid of being placed in the spotlight, is still allowing his name and silhouette icon/logo to be used as other labels’ branding playmate.

Despite the vast output, Mr Lagerfeld has yet to arouse the intellectual interest of museum curators. It isn’t because his work has not been varied enough, or noted enough, or successful enough. From his early designs for Chloe to his collaboration with H&M, from Fendi furs to Hogan shoes, from Diet Coke to Faber-Castell coloured pencils, from Orrefors glassware to Tokidoki toys, from costume design to fashion show concept, from photographs to films, from couture to pet care, Mr Lagerfeld seems to have dabbled in them all, with the only exceptions of Tesla cars and NASA spacecrafts. Prolific as he is, is it possible that too varied can sometimes be a tad too vacuous? What is Mr Lagerfeld projecting: man or machine, Jack or Watson?

KL & C

Choupette and her master Karl Lagerfeld

The unceasing collaborations may not be entirely Mr Lagerfeld’s doing. Although the man himself has said, following the announcement in 2011 that he would be creating a capsule for Macy’s (America’s own Metro Department Store?), “I love occasional co-branding”, much of the less haute pairings could be the work of an overzealous business development head. The Karl Lagerfeld brand was, in fact, sold to Tommy Hilfiger in 2005. A year later, the UK private equity investment group Apax acquired Tommy Hilfiger, and had set the path to building Karl Lagerfeld as a global brand, reportedly at the “accessible luxury” level. To better compete with Tory Burch?

Mr Lagerfeld’s ongoing reach across product categories reminds us of Pierre Cardin’s expansionist business of the ’70s and ’80s through licensing that regrettably included the stuff fashion cognoscenti turn their noses at: luggage and cookware. To make matters worse, Mr Cardin’s beloved Maxims restaurant, too, took the same beaten path. The only thing he didn’t do was involve a pet. By the time he desired to sell his company in 2004 at age 82, the “father of all modern branding and licensing” has come to a position not often seen in fashion: what marketers call the “devaluation of a name”. These days, if Pierre Cardin is cool, it’s only because it’s kitsch.

To be fair, Karl Lagerfeld has not raced to the end point where his collaborations have trumped his couture. The association with the masses and the fervent dip into the ‘pop’ obsessions of humdrum lives bear out the belief of many, such as Vogue editors, who have declared Mr Lagerfeld the “unparalleled interpreter of the mood of the moment”. But perhaps it was the man himself who said it best. In his 2005 book The Karl Lagerfeld Diet, the designer explained why he took out the ‘t’ in his original German surname Lagerfeldt: it sounded “more commercial”. Perhaps therein lies the viable ‘genius’ of King Karl.

Photos: Korn Tairoop

The Kaiser Does Vans

In aiming to be hip, Vans has aligned itself with an octogenarian. Cool

Vans X KL teeBy Mao Shan Wang

The one thing that caught my attention and that I find intriguing in this latest Vans collaboration is one woman’s T-shirt. It has the up-to-the-torso photograph—although pixilated, still discernible—of the brand’s collaborator: Karl Lagerfeld.

This is not a symbol of the divine. It isn’t Jeremy Scott’s Jesus pants. Yet, the image calls out to me like some tua pek kong. This isn’t the traditional celebrity that we know; this is a force of fashion: narcissistic, omnipresent, inexplicable. Yet, it is Kaiser Karl reduced to a T-shirt, hilariously called the “Boyfriend Tee”! What would he look like in tumble dry mode?

Don’t get me wrong. I believe Mr Lagerfeld deserves to be worshipped as much as Elvis Presley and Mickey Mouse. Except that one would expect the customers of Vans—girls in high school or in junior high, according to Dabney Lee, Vans senior director of global merchandising—to be worship-wearing the visage of Justin Bieber or Harry Styles or, if they like them a wee bit older, Nick Jonas. Or, if fashion icons are imperative, then the cartoon delineation of Karl Lagerfeld, now available in his own Karl Lagerfeld line.

Vans X KL sneaksThe main draw, I suspect, of the Vans X Karl Lagerfeld collaboration is the shoes. These are classic Vans, six of them, such as the Classic Slip-On, given a KL makeover. It is perhaps interesting to note that Mr Lagerfeld may not have had a hand in designing any of these kicks. According to the Vans senior footwear designer, “Working in close partnership, our teams designed the collection to reflect the unique histories of our respective brands.” And she went on to say something about “a tribute to Karl Lagerfeld’s fashion DNA.”

Now, to me, this is the tricky part: Karl Lagerfeld’s own design DNA includes bouclé and quilting? Has Chanel been scratched out of the picture? What appears to be most true to his DNA is the all-caps KARL (with the man’s profile worked into the K) that peeks from between the flaps of the new Old Skool Laceless Platform. That’s DNA, legible and unadulterated.

But, who am I to say? I know the man not.

Vans X Karl Lagerfeld collection is available at Vans, ION Orchard from today. Photos: Vans

When Clothes are Blah, The Show Has To Be A Blast

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The 35m rocket stood in the middle of the Grand Palais like the Obelisk of Luxor at the centre of Place de la Concorde. Guests arriving to witness Chanel’s fall ready-to-wear presentation must have been wowed by the spacecraft as pilgrims in 1400 BCE visiting the Luxor Temple were when approaching the entrance’s twin obelisks (before they were split, with one arriving in Paris in 1833).

Karl Lagerfeld has been Chanel’s ringmaster since the brand’s fashion shows became more than just a catwalk event. He’s been dreaming up so many of these massive mind-boggling sets so that the audience would be awe-struck that it’s become hazy as the smoke from the Chanel-branded rocket when we recall the number of them. But remember we do: the carousel of fall 2008, the iceberg of fall 2010, the giant globe of fall 2013, the supermarket (or was it a hypermart?) of fall 2014, the boulevard of spring 2015, the brasserie of fall 2015, the casino of fall 2015 (couture), and the airport terminal of spring 2016 (which is the second air travel-related theme after the hangar of resort 2008).

And now, this rocket. “This is what you call one giant leap for mankind,” declared the online edition of Harper’s Bazaar. Really? Is Neil Armstrong turning in his grave? And for vogue.com, “the rocket ship was, of course, the pièce de résistance”. Then, what about the clothes?

Chanel makes garments that please, but they are not exceptional enough for the media to rave about or awful enough for detractors to hate. Bouclé or no bouclé, Mr Lagerfeld offers mostly variations of a theme. It’s what keeps Chanel alive. Even if Chanel omits shows from their image-making thrusts, women will still buy the handbags, camellia brooches, and earrings with the double Cs.

Despite the presence of the rocket, there was nothing space-age or galactic about the collection. If there’s not anything you can say about the clothes without sounding yet again like a deferential fan, then perhaps something can be said about the experience attending a Chanel show. They are smart. And an experience isn’t a mesmerising one if there was only a static ship. That’s why the lift-off during the finale, although, anti-climactically, the Chanel rocket did not shoot through the roof for the stars. But it was dramatic enough. The resultant oohs and ahhs washed over any potentially anaemic reaction to the clothes. For the attendees, this was probably the only rocket launch they’ll ever attend. And that’s good enough.

It’s been said that these big productions with their equally massive sets that could put any West End show to shame may boost a luxury brand’s top-of-the-pack standing. If so, what should we make of Balenciaga showing in a set-free basement? Balenciaga on a budget?

Photo: Chanel

Little Black Box

karlbox

Art, as in life, is about the haves and the have-nots. There are artists who get to work with the best tools and there are those who manage with what they have. The same can be said of fashion designers who have the skill to draw and love doing it. Some use whatever pencils and pens they can find in the likes of Popular, while others such as Karl Lagerfeld employ the tools that are the equivalent of the materials used by Chanel’s métiers d’art partners—special illustration instruments from the house of Faber-Castell.

The pencils and such that Mr Lagerfeld employ must be of such commercial appeal that Faber-Castell has launched an illustrator’s kit—called unsurprisingly Karlbox, with the tag “Colours in Black”—that contains water-colour and coloured pencils, pastels, brush and fine-liner pens, graphite pencils, crayons, and attendant accessories (an astounding 350 pieces in all). This is a limited-edition kit, with 2,500 sets available worldwide. According to the sales staff at the Fabel-Castell store, there are “about 40 in Singapore.” How many wealthy Karl-loving artists do we have?

karlbox-open

The handsome housing alone will probably be a big draw, forgive the easy pun. Launched early this month, the Karlbox is no ordinary artist’s tool box. The box itself is probably worth a good portion of the cool four-figure price asked of the kit. Made of beech and lacquered in black (“inevitably”, according to Faber-Castell with no explanation) the doors are affixed with 36 pyramidal studs or “diamond point headed pins” that when closed shape up into a square formation. It is, to us, evocative of cabinets with pyramid-block facing, rather than “a Chinese wedding cabinet” that Vogue sees. This is serious stuff, produced by a 255-year-old art supply manufacturer, not the kitschy Jean Paul Gaultier coloured pencils sold as memento for the travelling exhibition From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk.

Inside the Karlbox, it’s a dollhouse for pencils and kindred instruments. There are seven tiers and six drawers, all organized by colours. What’s fascinating is the close-ups of the Karlbox in its promotional video—shot like a fashion film, but looks more like a cosmetic commercial for eye pencil colours. This is clearly pitched at fashion illustrators rather than artists. If Andy Warhol were still among us, maybe he’ll be enticed by designer pencils.

Karl Lagerfeld X Faber-Castell’s Karlbox, SGD4,588, is available at Faber-Castell, Ion Orchard, and Tangs. Photos: Faber-Castell

 

Big Bang: Lagerfeld Shoots G Dragon

G Dragon Vogue Korea

By Mao Shan Wang

A guy on a cover of Vogue (any issue in the world) is so uncommon that when one appears, he beckons. Vogue Korea celebrates its 20th Anniversary with not one but three covers of G Dragon for its August issue, all shot by Karl Lagerfeld. The most arresting is this with Kwon Ji-Yong’s back, exposed like a Tang courtesan’s.

To be honest, I didn’t know at first that he is Big Bang’s lead singer. I couldn’t tell since he is not facing me, not beaming a smile. At a quick look, his side profile with the slicked-down hair (in black instead of his usual dyed brights) reminded me of the late Tina Chow. There’s something gamine about his face here, just like that of Ms Chow’s. And the pose with the partially bared shoulder and back is rather similar to how Andy Warhol and Antonio Lopez photographed her.

When Karl Lagerfeld shot this picture, perhaps he too saw in the viewfinder what I now see on the Vogue Korea cover. Mr Lagerfeld knew Ms Chow, and he must have remembered how striking she looked. It’s highly possible that he was feeling nostalgic. And it, too, is possible he was channelling Degas. But this isn’t the 1800s, and G Dragon was not caught After a Bath, so he was clothed in a Chanel cardigan, worn front-to-rear, unbutton to almost the small of the back.

The exposure reveals three of GD’s not-outrageous tattoos. On the nape, the archangel Michael spreading his wings, inked by Anil Gupta, a New York-based Indian tattooist dubbed “the most expensive tattoo artists in the world”. It was rumoured that GD forked USD1,000 an hour to get this piece of skin art. Admittedly, it looks better than Justin Beiber’s pair of mere wings. At a glance, it looks like GD has worn a crochet necklace, like the cardigan, the wrong way round.

Further down, just below the right side of his shoulder, is the partially blocked line of “too fast to live too young to die”. Whether this refers to the book on Sid Vicious or the Malcolm McLaren store that came after Let It Rock, before Sex, it isn’t certain. Further south on the spine, there’s the word ‘GET’, which, according to GD watchers, is part of a trio of words—including ‘TO’ on the left arm, above the elbow, and ‘HER’ on the right side. Whether it’s to form ‘TO GET HER’ or ‘TOGETHER’, I, like you, are none the wiser.

Then there is the curious glove. Seeing it, I thought of Philippe Pottier’s photos for 1950s Christian Dior, as well as the illustrations of Pierre Mourgue, both often showing Dior models with gloves. GD is considered the epitome of modern K-Pop style, yet here, he has on a vestige of elegance that has little following after the New Look faded. There seems to be a deliberate playing down of GD’s own sensational hip-hop togs. Perhaps, an old-world accessory for hands, used not to protect against the cold, can amplify the wearer’s glamour, never mind that the regular front-row seats in Paris Fashion Week already do.

With Big Bang hot on the Forbes list of the highest-paid celebrities (at no. 54), GD probably does not need to strengthen his allure by playing androgyne on the cover of the Vogue of his homeland. But to sit for Karl Lagerfeld is consistent with the unceasing coming together of hip-hop and fashion. G Dragon is clearly in fine form.

Photo: Vogue Korea/Karl Lagerfeld