My May 2005 NY Times Op-Ed page commentary—Fashion Victim—now has a CultureGrrl sequel, thanks to the Met’s announcement of its upcoming Costume Institute show—“Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty” (May 5–July 16). In my Op-Ed piece, I had decried the excessive influence of Lagerfeld over the Metropolitan Museum’s Chanel show, which was co-curated by Andrew Bolton (now the Curator-in-Charge of the Met’s Costume Institute), and Harold Koda, then the Institute’s Curator-in-Charge.
Lagerfeld (1933-2019) was Coco Chanel‘s successor as head of her eponymous fashion house, and “although Met officials said they had complete control over the show’s organization, the fingerprints of Mr. Lagerfeld [were] everywhere” on the museum’s “Chanel” show (as I wrote in 2005).
The Chanel exhibition’s designer, Olivier Saillard, was recommended for the job by Lagerfeld, who was accorded signature rights on the cover of the catalogue (bottom right), which was authored by Bolton and Koda (with contributions by others):
As it happened, the Met’s then director did put up some resistance to Lagerfeld’s influence on “Chanel,” as I recounted in my Op-Ed piece:
The museum originally planned to put on “Chanel” five years ago. But then the director, Philippe de Montebello, had a falling out with Mr. Lagerfeld and cut it from the schedule. News reports at the time indicated that the designer had tried to usurp curatorial prerogatives [emphasis added] and wanted contemporary artworks included to bring the display of what he termed “old dresses” into the present.
Apparently tempers have now cooled, and the curators have repeatedly praised the designer for enthusiastically agreeing to all their ideas. This isn’t surprising: how strenuously could Mr. Lagerfeld have objected to an exhibition that “updates” Coco’s historic designs by showcasing his own recent work?
What I wrote about “Chanel” in 2005 applies equally to “Lagerfeld” in 2023. From my earlier report:
Substantially financed by the fashion house, “Chanel” is tainted by the same sort of self-interested sponsorship that brought notoriety to “Armani” at the Guggenheim Museum in 2000 and “Sensation,” the 1999 Brooklyn Museum showcase for Charles Saatchi‘s collection. We expect better from the Met, an institution always admired as a guardian of professional standards.
And here’s what the Met’s press release for the posthumous Lagerfeld show, featuring some 150 garments (many accompanied by Karl’s deft sketches), reveals about where the exhibition’s financial support is coming from:
—The exhibition and the Benefit for The Costume Institute are made possible by CHANEL.
—Major support is provided by FENDI [where Lagerfeld had been creative director].
—Additional funding is provided by KARL LAGERFELD [the brand] and Condé Nast.
It’s high time for the Met to tighten its professional standards for the Costume Institute, eliminating most of the self-interested sponsorship (with the possible exception of financial support for the catalogue, consistent with the support by dealers for catalogues of shows by their artists). Just as the Met seeks financial support for artists’ shows from funders who are not the commercial dealers representing those artists, it should seek comparably independent supporters for fashion exhibitions: Karl Lagerfeld the museum exhibition should not be bankrolled by KARL LAGERFELD the fashion firm.
Seeking an update on the Met’s current stance regarding self-interested support for Costume Institute exhibitions, I asked the museum’s press spokesperson the following:
Is it still accurate (as Vanessa Friedman wrote here in the NY Times) that the Costume Institute “is the only one of the Met’s curatorial departments that has to fund itself” (i.e., through the gala and directly targeted donations)?
Is there any thought of changing that, to bring it in line with the rest of the Met’s departments, and to address the ethical issues inherent in accepting self-interested donations from fashion firms?
Here’s the answer that I received, which didn’t tackle the twice-sent second part of my query:
The costume institute doesn’t raise all its own funding, although of course much of its annual budget comes from the Met Gala.
It’s worth mentioning (in the unlikely event that you didn’t already know this) that the Costume Institute’s activities are heavily influenced by fashion powerhouse Anna Wintour, a Met trustee, for whom the Met’s Costume Center was named. She is the Met Gala’s longtime co-chair, the artistic director of Condé Nast and the editor-in-chief of Vogue.
A friend of the late Lagerfeld, Wintour undoubtedly had a say in designating the dress code for the gala—“In honor of Karl.” Does that portend a profusion of black, fingerless gloves on the hands of the celebrants?
Let’s hope not…
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