The Met Gala Honors Karl Lagerfeld’s Outsize Legacy

The late couturier was credited with helping shape the modern wardrobe across his 65-year career at labels like Chanel and Fendi. Though he disliked reflecting on the past, this year’s Met Gala and Costume Institute exhibition honors his creativity and imagination.

Jeremy Pope’s Balmain cape emblazoned with Lagerfeld’s face. Photography by Neilson Barnard/MG23/Getty Images

Karl Lagerfeld famously hated retrospectives. “I don’t want to see all those old dresses,” he once quipped. Chances are the notoriously hard-to-please couturier would have winced upon learning that the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute’s annual benefit, otherwise known as the Met Gala or the “Oscars of the East Coast,” would commemorate his legacy with a blowout party and retrospective showcasing 150 of his most impactful garments across an unparalleled 65-year career. So that’s why Andrew Bolton, the Costume Institute’s head curator, conceived “Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty” as an essay. 

To be clear, many old dresses will be on view when the show opens to the public on May 5. Even more were flaunted last night at the Met Gala, whose airtight guest list of A-listers across fashion, film, tech, sports, and politics was instructed to dress “in honor of Karl.” That meant a sea of vintage Chanel, where his early-‘80s transformation of the once-stodgy house many considered “dead” into one of the fashion industry’s most powerful is the stuff of legend. Ditto for Fendi, where he served as creative director from 1965 until his death in 2019. It also meant archival Chloé, Balmain, and Patou, where he cut his teeth early on, as well as nods to his newer eponymous label.

(FROM LEFT) Jared Leto as Choupette; photography by Mike Coppola. Janelle Monáe; photography by Theo Wargo.

This is the painstaking planning of Met Gala mastermind and longtime Lagerfeld confidante Anna Wintour. The Vogue editor-in-chief has worn Chanel to the gala almost every year since 2005, and she was in good company last night. Gisele Bündchen and Nicole Kidman wore vintage Chanel gowns from previous shoots. Cara Delevingne and Ke Huy Quan donned Lagerfeld’s signature fingerless moto gloves; Jeremy Pope paid tribute by means of a lengthy Balmain cape emblazoned with Lagerfeld’s face. Jared Leto, Doja Cat, and Lil Nas X all showed up as Choupette, the designer’s beloved feline companion. 

Back to the exhibition. Lagerfeld sketched voraciously, so each look is paired with archival drawings from the five heritage houses Lagerfeld helped shape. (Perhaps also to divert glances away from the “old dresses.”) Despite the abundance of source material, this was no small feat. Lagerfeld was furiously prolific, meaning Bolton needed to whittle between 5,000 and 10,000 garments down to a lean 150. “He would revisit the same themes again and again and again, and the same silhouettes again and again and again,” Bolton says, calling out Chloé’s romanticism, Chanel’s historicism, and Fendi’s minimalism. “What I wanted to show was his vocabulary, and the perceptions and contradictions within him.”

“Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photography by Charles Sykes/AP

The looks that made the cut preside within a serpentine scenography devised by Tadao Ando, the Japanese architect who designed a home for Lagerfeld that was never built. He leaned on the guiding principle of the S line, representing Lagerfeld’s romanticism, and the straight line, nodding to his modernist work. “In Roman mythology, the straight line entwined by an S line is the symbol of Mercury, the god of commerce and communication,” Bolton says. “Arguably, the modern god of commerce and communication was Karl.” 

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