Jil Sander: Fashion’s First Feminist
Jil Sander is fresh-faced and smiling as a brisk wind blows through the garden of the museum in Frankfurt am Main. No matter that the image of the German designer who defined female fashion over four decades is seen through a series of photographs. Nor that her home city is Hamburg, where she still has a studio, even after her stop-go presence at her brand came to a halt in 2013.
This intense, pretty, exceptionally driven woman, who has worked all her life – she founded her business at age 24 in 1968 – is a purist and perfectionist. This is confirmed by the personal vision that underlines “Present Tense”, the exhibition of her life and work at the Museum Angewandten Kunst, where curator Matthias Wagner K has worked with her to make something intensely powerful out of spare simplicity.
From the digital films to the specially made clothes, all in the same material, and the passionate romance of the garden to the airy modernism of her recreated Paris store, this exhibition is designed to get to the heart of the matter.
Jil Sander can best be described as fashion’s first feminist. Whatever merit might be given to Coco Chanel in the 1930s or Yves Saint Laurent’s launch of the female trouser suit in the 1960s, Jil has the strongest claim for empowering women through what they wear.
“I never thought of myself as a feminist, but maybe I was, since I was not happy with the way women presented themselves,” the designer says. “I think my work was more about the rapprochement of the sexes and a more androgynous look for men and women. I was looking for more supportive ways to dress myself as a working woman. And since my needs were collective needs in the era of women entering the business world, my work turned out to help them.”
Describing an era of sweeping change, Jil reflected on her past in its relationship to women’s lives. “I needed the strength and the energy, and also for me it was very important to give class, quality and personality to clothing,” the designer explained. “It was a time when women had to ask their husbands if they could work, or if they could get a driver’s license! We had to give a lot of strength to women and give them the power that men knew. It was the start of globalisation, we were travelling, and needed clothes to feel strong.
“I’m maybe not a feminist, but I was quite young when I started, nothing was easy and I always said you need a lot of strength to do what you want to do when you have a vision and want to build a company. So I always believed in strong women. I’m not a feminist, but I was looking for strong personality.”
The Frankfurt museum succeeds in telling a great deal in a minimalist way, to reflect Sander’s aesthetic. For example, there is a long line-up of inspirations: natural textures of leaves and branches, pieces of cloth in straw colours, and drawings provided from Jil’s descriptions. The basic construction reveals a secret, Matthias Wagner K reveals, with a display cabinet deliberately set at a sloping angle.
“This is an idea from her atelier,” the curator explains. “All her shelves, displays, and window sills were always angular, so nobody could put anything private on it. You couldn’t even put a mug there. She always changed the shelves to an angular level so she couldn’t clutter. It was all focused on the work.”
“The mood boards are almost like a diary,” he continued, “where she took patterns from magazines or collected different shades of colour, either in print or a fabric or a shape. She would pin them down and then come back to them at some point.”
The exhibition opens with a broad selection of catwalk films, where an innocent 16-year-old Kate Moss is in full focus while the camera zooms in on many outfits to focus on details. The sheer volume of the clothes hits the viewer through a wall of images of Jil Sander men and women, as well as small digital clips. The background music for the exhibition, produced by French sound artist Frédéric Sanchez, creates a mesmerising effect of moving “sound clouds” that reflect the spare simplicity of the displays. These include a trio of architectural wooden mannequins, rolls of white paper with faintly different shades and textures, and men’s tailored jackets that might, in fact, be women’s. But where were the rest of the clothes?
Turn a corner and there are just a few words from Jil written on the wall: “My aesthetic ideas develop out of what I sense from the Zeitgeist” or “What interests me is the new, the emerging”. Then a display of Jil Sander clothes from 1997-2014 is re-incarnated. There is virtually no Sander archive because, the curator says, of company changes and Jil’s interests being in the present, not the past. Although he has had enquiries about the exhibition from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and another in California, the number of surviving early pieces is as minimal as Jil’s designs.
Exceptions are a sprinkle of archival clothes: a black sweater with a white skirt patterned with circles; dark garments illuminated with gold spheres, like a glowing moon; a black and white dress with the texture of feathers; and a dress with horizontal fringes. There are also handbags and shoes, especially those made in collaboration with Puma, starting in 1996 when sneakers were still seen mainly as sportswear.
The designer’s explanation for recreating most of the clothes on display, all in the same Japanese material, is so that viewers should focus on the cut. But for the curator, the sparse-and-spare outfits, impeccably tailored, send out an important message, whether the clothes are from the high-end collections or the functional, low-cost +J designs for Japanese company Uniqlo.
“That’s where she got her talent from, her craftsmanship,” Wagner K says. “She is a textile engineer and not a designer. So, for her, structure and sculpture were interesting. The drawings were developed afterwards. She fitted on the mannequins and somebody came afterwards to do the drawings.”
The curator is eager to look beyond stereotypes and shows an unexpected burst of pattern and colour when Jil’s clothes meld with the wall coverings in an assemblage of vividly coloured Afghan embroideries by Italian conceptual artist Alighiero e Boetti, who died in 1994.
While there are images of clothes – or Jil – by famous photographers of her era throughout the show, the upper floor focuses mainly on her interests, her relationship with photographers, her passion for gardens and her ongoing fragrance line, launched at the start of the 1980s with the significant name of “Pure”.
A video of the garden at Sissinghurst Castle in England immediately suggests a different, romantic side of Sander – one linked to her friendship with the late Dickie Mommsen.
“I shared a passion for gardening with Dickie for more than 30 years, and the garden room in the exhibition is my way of including her,” Jil says. “We started this garden in the country. First you start small and then you think, ‘I am creative’, and then you have a vision. The film in the museum… I was not sure if I wanted to show it,” she continues, referring to the projections of gliding and swooping camera work, like a bird’s eye view. “It’s not like a BBC garden film – it’s more emotional, more spiritual,” she says. “It’s a life job and a garden is also a lot of responsibility. But my heart is in nature. So I love to do that wherever I am. My friend Dickie was also very delighted to be able to, so we would sit on the bench together and cut roses. As you know, she is gone and I have to go on, so I felt the film is a little salute to her and for our garden.”
Like plants pushing through the earth, the few words among the photographs in the museum catalogue come in clusters: “L for luxury, language, lightness” or “G for garden, gender, glasses”. Among them is a rallying cry for simplicity in the letter M.
“My roots are in the Bauhaus movement, which applied functional rationality to the design of practical everyday life,” the designer explains. “Streamlined beauty, clear structures, reduction to the essential and free movement. But functional rationality is only the backbone of my work. I always look for contemporary forms of sophistication and sensual simplicity. I want fashion to be liberating in a subtle way… If there is such a thing as my own signature, it lies in a sense of structure, in quiet beauty and serenity.”
The show ends in an airy room, its wall of windows opening on the river and Frankfurt’s skyline, mixing classic and modern buildings. The space was inspired by the Jil Sander flagship store on Avenue Montaigne in Paris in 1993, created with American architect Michael Gabellini.
She tells me a story about Dickie saying that the Sander building was so modern, all the other Paris brands would have to raise their game to compete.
What about Jil Sander today? The brand has had a lurching progress since the designer first fell out with Patrizio Bertelli of Prada (which bought a 75% stake in the label in 1999) and has seen a variety of passing creative directors, including Raf Simons. Lucie and Luke Meier, a married team, took over earlier this year and gave their interpretation of modern purity in a show held in a stark Milan building by the late Zaha Hadid.
“We have a relationship, and I want them to be successful,” Jill says. “I cross my fingers now that they have a new movement, and I am very emotional about it. It’s like a mother wanting their child to be...” Her voice trails away.
I ask one last question: What does Jil, the founding mother of female modernity, think about the position of women today? Have we moved forward?
“Yes,” Jil says, emphatically. “I mean, on the inside it has changed. But as you see now, there is the whole story in the United States of Weinstein and others. Women have to be strong. And we have to support women so that they are able to be in important, responsible jobs. I was always a believer in both, and with my company, I thought women and men needed to work together. I think a woman’s situation is much more open today. It has changed a lot. There is still a lot of need but we have to be optimistic and move forward.”
Although she does not say it, Jil Sander herself has moved forward from sharp severity to sweet serenity, making her an icon of feminism yesterday and today.
"Jil Sander. Present Tense" runs until the 6th of May 2018 at the Museum Angewandte Kunst in Frankfurt (www.museumangewandtekunst.de)
Fortuny: From Invention to Eternity
Hermès: A Window on Life
Looking at her work, reconstructed in an exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris, Leïla Menchari can see her life unfold. Here are the trellis arcades; the intense fretwork; and the mimosa, jasmine and eucalyptus of her childhood in Tunisia.
Here, too, the majestic stonework – carving mythical creatures into elbow rests for stone benches – suggests places of sun and shade. From grotto to sandy shore, the designer weaves an ethereal web of wonder, and all to create a backdrop for the Hermès Paris boutique.
“Leïla Menchari, the Queen of Enchantment” (Hermès À Tire-d’Aile – Les Mondes de Leïla Menchari), which runs until the 3rd December, is a tribute to the creative stage-maker of the famed French house, which galloped from making horse saddles to creating handbags. A fixture at Hermès since she joined as a junior in the art department in 1961, the designer became essential to the business under the late chairman, Jean-Louis Dumas, until she created her final fantasy in 2013.
It was Axel Dumas, who lived with what he calls the designer’s “flamboyant” window displays long before he took over Hermès from his uncle Jean-Louis, who decided to pay this public homage to the woman who became “part of the family” as she offered her magic from the corner window on the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré.
“When designing a scene, there must always be some mystery, because mystery is a springboard to dreams; an invitation to fill the gaps left by the imagination,” the executive said, escorting Leïla Menchari around the exhibition opening as though she were the mother of the family.
“For me, Hermès represents family: I felt I had been adopted, brought in from the cold,” said the designer, who, after an upbringing with a feisty, feminist mother in Tunisia, had felt alone in Paris while studying at the École des Beaux-Arts.
Calling a window display “a way of telling a story” and describing the big window as a theatre, she used her knowledge of set design to make “every display, however complex or minimalist”, a tableau.
An accompanying book by award-winning French writer Michèle Gazier, tells the Leila Menchari story in poetic detail.
Whatever surprises and memories are in store for visitors to the exhibition, they should know from the start that none of the incredible handbag creations that feature in the displays were ever sold. Instead, they acted as props in the life history that the Tunisian artist wove through her work for Hermès. Yet, at the same time, these flights of fantasy, shown as museum pieces, are peopled by handbags that had their roots in Leïla’s life – and then flowered in Paris.
Leïla remembers the reaction of “There’s nothing there!” when she showed Jean-Louis Dumas the now-iconic window of a solitary sandy beach; a reef sculpted from white marble in the shape of a wave, with just a pair of sunglasses and a swimsuit. But a tart orange-scented fragrance sprayed into the street lured in the clients.
The museum’s recreated window displays are rarely minimalist, and much is woven into those Maghreb references to palm trees and brimming bowls of spices. They are served up on wooden platters with a painted panther-skin handbag on top. Behind it are more bags, slippers and even a saddle in the animal pattern, set against a sun-gold floor.
The designer’s artistic mind never moves far from Tunisia, where a heavy, carved silver chair is replicated in the surface of a Kelly bag, or the famous, classic handbag rests on sunshine-yellow fur below purple crystals and a winged horse.
It is easy to grasp the delicacy of handwork that creates a link between a bag marked with the pattern of the trellis behind it, but other inspirations are almost too airy to accept, such as a spider’s web of threads from which tiny pastel-coloured purses appear to dangle.
And then there is the horse: the symbol of how it all began at Hermès, originally a supplier of saddles. But Leila’s “animal” is made as if from its own hide, from flat pieces of orange or black leather riveted together and shown with a silver sandal and bags in a similar texture.
Are these Hermès displays art? Or craft? I would say both – with a brush of exuberant and inventive magic.
Before Brexit: Dolce & Gabbana’s Bold Hurrah
They said it with flowers, with shellfish, and with Harrods Food Hall for a runway. And they celebrated Italian markets with a kitsch collection of fake food, fine handbags and everything D&G, from illuminated purses to skimpy underpants.
But is Dolce & Gabbana’s witty take on upscale glamour a last hurrah for London’s wealthy, international community – or a defiant hope that Brexit won’t put an end to the party?
“English people are extravagant – more than Italians,” said Stefano Gabbana and Domenico Dolce as they bowed to clients sparkling in party clothes, hugged Kylie Minogue, and thanked Helen David, Chief Merchant of the upscale London store.
And as if this inter-season collection stamped with fat, pink roses were not enough to celebrate winter holidays in sunny climes, Dolce & Gabbana have another collection yet to be unveiled.
In 10 days, London will host a second show in the rejuvenated Dolce & Gabbana store on Bond Street, which will contain the Alta Moda collection (their haute couture line). Stefano confirmed that they planned to bring this service to the UK, following its success in the last five years in Milan and a variety of atmospheric Southern Italian cities.
High fashion and sky-high prices introduced to London on the very day that the British government announces a rise in interest rates? That move seems almost as bold as sending out a white mink coat printed with pink roses in a country apparently destined to shrink its economy by leaving the European Union.
But this “Scene in a London Night”, as the duo described the “Party on!” dresses and elaborately decorated men’s tailoring, is part of a wider vision. Domenico and Stefano have also produced a book titled Millennials: The New Renaissance. Hence the “secret” show they held in Milan in September with the “kids of” clients as their models. And a deep belief that a new generation of ingenues will regenerate the excitement and enthusiasm for fashion.
Dresses were typically based on innocence – say a flower-patterned dress with what looked like a seed bed of different flowers as buttons down the torso; or one of Dolce’s ruched, body-clinging dresses with a leopard emerging from forest greenery.
Significantly, tailored menswear or more extravagant masculine clothes were also part of this Harrods collection.
So who are the potential British clients, walking the tiled Food Hall floor, drinking champagne in the Italian market, or hovering beside the D&G department in Harrods, stroking the rose-patterned fur coat and trying on the dresses?
Not all were millennials, for mothers and fathers came too. And few appeared to be of British origin, with a cacophony of voices and languages and a large number of shoppers from India as well as Middle and Far Eastern clients. They all represented the Central London super-rich, who may or may not pull out of the UK post-Brexit. Although if anyone could persuade them to stay, it would be this fashion duo, bringing light-hearted fun and serious Italian craftsmanship to the London store and its sparkling Christmas windows.
Dolce & Gabbana’s mid-season collection did not seem exceptional or inventive, but it underscored the power of major brands to blast potential clients with shows every couple of months. Or in the case of D&G, within 10 days of each other.
And who is complaining? From the live “oom-pah-pah” band brought from Rome to the newly unveiled Christmas tree; from the children gawping at the windows to the young people prancing down the makeshift runway, everyone was having a jolly good time.
Long may it last.
Couture Korea: From Far East to West Coast
I was surprised and proud to see my name on the wall of an exhibition in San Francisco. When I saw that the words were about Korean designer Jin Teok, I recalled instantly the layers of thin, white fabric, like wispy clouds, that the celebrated designer had shown me in her Seoul boutique – and what she had told me about her reverence of, and reference to, her country’s past. I also vividly remembered the trail, as fine as thread, that she had traced through her family’s origins and native culture over the last half-century.
“Jin Teok’s clothes are like a poem. They speak from her soul, sometimes as a whisper, occasionally with a shout, always with grace,” I wrote in 2015 when I was preparing for the second Condé Nast International Luxury Conference in South Korea.
Until I saw the newly opened “Couture Korea” at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco (until 4 February 2018) I had not realised the steadfast history – from the 13th to the 19th century – that had defined how the nation dressed. In Seoul, I was charmed by the sight of young women returning to the colourful Hanbok (mostly to take selfies, according to the curator, Hyonjeong Kim Han). But the Californian museum gave me an infinitely wider vision than my memories of K-Pop, G-Dragon, Gangnam Style and Seoul Fashion Week, where the shows seemed to fuse male and female clothing in a modern way.
My ideas about that gender-neutral dress sense were challenged when I saw the extraordinarily detailed his’n’hers clothing traditionally worn by boy and girl babies to this day. The baby boy’s colourful outfit, each piece symbolising luck and hope, had a tiger hat to protect him from evil spirits; while the baby girl’s bonnet was decorated with chrysanthemum-shaped knots, symbolising the sun and perfection.
Hyonjeong Kim Han has provided a lesson in Korean culture through this display of exquisitely delicate dress, although the curator reconstructed most of the historic clothes to reveal how the garments were made, as well as their sophistication, choice of materials and social purpose. The final rooms of the exhibition show the work of two designers using 21st-century fabrics and vision. For example, Im Seonoc’s fashion brand, PartspARTs, is made entirely from Neoprene, specially constructed to prevent waste; while Jung Misun has re-imagined the delicate traditional fabrics in sturdier materials such as jersey, wool and cotton.
“Couture Korea” is an inspirational title from the curator, for the long history of the Hanbok is entirely of handwork. Each historic article, noble or delicate, was made to order, mostly, of course, for the high end of society.
Alongside Jin Teok’s outfits, which she showed during Paris Fashion Week in the 1990s, is the Korean-inspired collection from Chanel Cruise in 2016.
According to Hyonjeong Kim Han, at the time Karl Lagerfeld felt that Korean art was still unknown to the international fashion community and hoped that his work would inspire future fashion generations. The Chanel collection included a silk organza dress inspired by mother of pearl, and another recreating traditional Korean fabric with a Korean alphabet pattern that Karl described as being “like Cubism”.
Lagerfeld also gave credit to one of his right-hand women, Kim Young-Seong, Fabric Director of Chanel, and her ability to find inspiration in ancient creations as well as today’s K-Pop world.
Between the rooms showing the extraordinary historical pieces and the space devoted to Jin Teok and Chanel, is a film that reveals the lightness of the garments in motion, capturing them wafting across the screen.
Hyonjeong Kim Han says that this exhibition is the first in the entire length and breadth of the United States to look at Asian clothing. Perhaps the flow of people from the Far East to the West Coast – and the overall focus of the museum – has made San Francisco an obvious destination for the subject. But the Asian Art Museum seems to be particularly dynamic, with an expansion plan imminent and a new pavilion to be built next year.
“Couture Korea” proves that in the often choked-up calendar of museum fashion exhibitions, there are still fascinating new subjects to explore that are fresh and full of feeling.
"Couture Korea" is at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco until 4th February 2018 (www.asianart.org)
Hervé Pierre: Dressing the First Lady
Only 12 little black dresses, or perhaps a lush ink-blue, comprise the first collection to carry Hervé Pierre’s name after a quarter of a century in fashion. And it is all thanks to Melania Trump.
Ever since America’s First Lady wore his dress to her husband’s inaugural ball – in pure white, draped off-the-shoulder with a cascading ruffle and narrow red knotted belt – the French-born designer has come out of the shadows and into the limelight.
“Without her, I believe I would still be hidden; I would be a ‘ghost writer’,” says Hervé, who spent 15 years behind the seams at Carolina Herrera, after a stint at Oscar de la Renta. Both designers dressed New York’s upper crust and Hervé can count three former First Ladies as his clients: Hillary Clinton at Oscar; and Laura Bush and Michelle Obama at Herrera.
About Melania – whom the designer refers to always as “the First Lady” – he is understandably cagey, saying only that he has made four dresses for her; that he also acts as stylist by suggesting other outfits; that, yes, he meets with her; and that she communicates a lot by text.
“My role is to dress the First Lady and advise her – I’m not a stylist; I am an advisor, and she is adamant about that,” Hervé says. “Who, as a free woman, is going to be told what to wear? It’s a conversation, a collaboration. Without intellectualising, my advice is respectful and it makes sense.”
With the discretion of a designer who has dealt with high-profile clients since he worked at Balmain in Paris at age 23 – moving from intern to creative director and sending giant boxes of intensely decorated dresses to Queen Sirikit of Thailand along the way – Hervé reveals only glimpses of this past fairytale year.
Those vignettes include sleeping over at the White House, where he found himself “feeling the ghosts”; glimpsing the “ballet” of white-gloved hands “changing chandeliers, painting everything”; and scurrying around discreetly to find somewhere to wash his hands without entering the First Lady’s immaculate bathroom.
Although Hervé, 52, seems predictably stunned about his current moment in the sun, he is now eager to take his experience of being the sewing hands behind the thrones and launch his own work in conjunction with New York’s mighty stores such as Bergdorf Goodman, Sak’s Fifth Avenue and online luxury retailer Moda Operandi.
The first “show” for these buyers on Monday, the 4th of December is appropriately discreet: mannequins wearing slim dresses constructed with couture skill and designed to slither across the body’s curves, covering the tops of arms and maybe with sleeves down to the wrist. Yet at the same time there are touches of modernity in the designs – say thin rolls of fabric like narrow ribs criss-crossing the bodice; or an evening “Spanish Infanta” gown made without a petticoat, light enough to flutter in a breeze.
The label, concealed on a satin lining, reads “Atelier Nicolas Caito for Hervé Pierre”, referring to the owner of the tiny New York studio where a handful of white-coated pattern-cutters and seamstresses are at work at the end of the room. Nicolas and Hervé’s friendship started when they were both working in France and they are now partners in the company. They hope that this small collection of elegant dresses – six short and six long, sack shaped or slinky, with sleeves or none – will be a building block for business.
Since the First Lady has become “more exposed”, the stores have been asking Hervé for “what you did at Herrera in your own vocabulary”.
Fortuitously, he became an American citizen last year. “I’m a Yankee Doodle,” he announces. “I have lived in America for 22 years and I now have my American passport. And I don’t think I could have served the First Lady if I had not done that.”
The designer has long discussed with stores a way to simplify the showmanship of a Carolina Herrera collection and explained that it was Oscar de la Renta who taught him the importance of practical planning.
“Oscar was very good at fashion reality,” Hervé says. “He told me to calm down and learn the business – I was not even 30 when I got to New York – and that is what I did.”
Fifteen years at Carolina Herrera followed, but with a brutal ending. Although the designer is discreet about his departure, his friends say that the Spanish fragrance company Puig, which owns the Herrera brand, made no effort to encourage him to take over as designer and simply fired him. One source says that Hervé was then asked to create another under-the-radar couture collection for Givenchy in Paris, but he declined.
So here is a designer in search of a business that he can call his own. The charm of Hervé Pierre is that he sees the fashion world sunny-side-up. Or maybe his cheerful appearance dates back to an upbringing in his parents’ hotel in Sancerre, a wine-producing area in the Loire Valley in central France. Raised by his mother never to be “undressed” in public, Hervé is known on New York’s Madison Avenue as the man with a smart jacket, waistcoat and maybe a flower in the lapel. And his parents were proud of his achievements long before he started to dress the First Lady.
“I remember when I did the dress for Renée Zellweger when she won the Oscar for ‘Cold Mountain’, she was wearing this dress with a huge white bow at the back,” Hervé says. “I thought immediately of my grandmother and my parents seeing that I had an actress walking the red carpet in my design.”
And what about Melania Trump, the First Lady, wearing their son’s creation, which is now on display at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C.?
“I got chills,” Hervé says. “Even if I am not an artist, I will have one piece in a museum in this country. In 100 years people will still look at it. It’s different for just a dress. But what I made for the inauguration really will be forever.”
Remembering Azzedine Alaïa
When Naomi Campbell walked on to the catwalk in July to start the first couture show in six years by Azzedine Alaïa – the man she calls “Papa” – no one had any inkling this would be his last presentation. Rather, I was transported back to another era.
It was the Eighties and out of the height of that orgy of opulence strode the very first supermodels: Naomi, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford, Stephanie Seymour, Claudia Schiffer and their colleagues were like an army taking on the fashion world.
Alaïa collected these independent beauties with a new spirit, encouraging them to wear his clothes with pride.
And what clothes! The body-hugging dresses gave Alaïa the nickname, “the King of Cling”. Knitted dresses transformed lithe bodies into writhing serpents; the black leggings and body suits that were the Alaïa signature formed the base for curvy coats or fitted jackets made from crocodile.
For the Autumn/Winter 2017 couture season, Azzedine was back, displaying with verve a new passion for pattern, from Naomi’s black and white fluffy shearling coat to red outfits embroidered with folklore designs.
New ideas flowed in, from high-rise turbans twisted in plastic to furry coats with rose embellishments, extending to boots. Surfaces were indefinable, with swirling weaves on cloth and the animalistic effect captured by leopard-patterned boots. This was a true winter collection, with knitted dresses tailored to the body in a fit-and-flare effect.
It is a myth to claim that Alaïa, born in Tunis and a student of sculpture at its School of Fine Arts, had ever moved off-stage. Or that he lost interest in inventing new shapes and showing his clothes. Or even that he was really a ready-to wear designer whose body-skimming dresses were produced by an Italian factory.
“I have been doing couture since the inception of my career – much longer than ready-to-wear,” Alaïa said as he showed me the workrooms on the third floor of his building in the Marais district of Paris. They were filled with tables bearing scissors, paper patterns and pins. That is where the tiny figure of Alaïa, whose embrace in the long arms of Grace Jones is part of fashion folklore, worked on his creations all alone in the middle of the night.
“While I enjoyed and still do enjoy doing ready-to-wear, my roots are in couture – all my clothes are first made by myself, all patterns are traced by me and then developed by my couture ateliers,” he said, explaining that 30 people are dedicated to the hand craft.
I remember when Azzedine, with his naughty, plump-cheeked smile, took me up to the atelier. A gathering of seamstresses was working on a single bridal dress, whose lace train stretched from end to end of the room.
In July, when we crowded into the baking hot iron-and-glass showroom for the Autumn/Winter presentation (Azzedine produced his collections to his own timetable), I thought of how many times I had sat around Azzedine’s kitchen table while his partner Christophe von Weyhe kept control of the long-haired dog. The conversation was always in many languages: Carla Sozzani would translate for photographer Arthur Elgort while international stylist Carlyne Cerf, her voice rising from a growl to a screech, would convey the latest gossip to Azzedine. He would be smiling, or just occasionally look thin-lipped and solemn.
As Naomi started the show, wearing a turban covered in plastic, the crowd roared with approval. In front of me were the former First Lady of France, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy; documentary producer and former model Farida Khelfa, whose family were originally from North Africa, like Azzedine; and Nicolas Ghesquière, Creative Director of Louis Vuitton.
If the audience leapt with joy at the bright colours for coats and dresses, we also sighed with delight at the black dresses, woven in lace and knit to play peek-a-boo with the body, or boldly mixing leopard patterns that might be glimpsed through black pleats. Long or short, there was a gleam to the materials, with a V-neck velvet top and glimmering long skirt on Naomi for the finale.
Everything fashion loved was there, including shoes, gaining a powerful place for Alaïa in collaboration with Ferragamo, while the company as a whole has been supported by the Richemont luxury group since 2007. This couture show was the 10th anniversary of the collaboration.
After prolonged clapping and cheers, Azzedine, as ever, did not come out, believing that the praise should go to his atelier, not just to himself. Backstage, the designer sat, a small figure in his eternal uniform of black cotton Chinese pyjamas, smiling shyly at this sweet moment of success.
Dear Azzedine, your friends – and the entire fashion world – will miss you so.
Chanel in Hamburg: Karl Lagerfeld Revisits His Roots
In Hamburg the wind is whipping across the water; in the streets bare branches sway and even the Christmas trees bend in the stiff breeze.But Karl Lagerfeld feels right at home as he brings Chanel to Germany, his country of birth.
“I come from the North, near the Danish border, so I was lucky — I escaped everything,” the designer says about his childhood. “My father bought the estate because he knew that war would come.”
Lagerfeld left Hamburg for Paris when he was 17 — although his age is always a subject of debate. He moved to France in 1952, starting at Pierre Balmain with a career rooted in couture that has flourished into this week’s exceptional Chanel show, held in the newly built Hamburg Philharmonic building, the “Elbphilharmonie”.
The swooping geometry of the building’s architecture is drawn — as is every single one of his fashion designs — by Lagerfeld’s own hand, to create the “Paris-Hamburg” invitation for today’s show.
But true to his philosophy of never looking back, the designer has not devised a collection based on nostalgia, for he has interwoven the skills of embroiderers, knitters, milliners, jewellers and shoe-makers that the Paris fashion house has nurtured through the new millennium as “Métiers d’Art”.
Karl’s focus is on the sea and its far horizon as mighty vessels come into Hamburg’s port, which is now, he says, “one of the biggest harbours in Europe, which has changed the mood and the view completely.”
“I’m not a person who has nostalgia — just ideas — and the inspiration is container shipping and the geometric look of the containers,” Lagerfeld continues, interspersing his flow of conversation with instructions to his team to place a clip “there, at the base of the collar, behind the bow”; to shorten a pair of trousers by half a millimetre; or to alter stitching to smooth a minuscule crease.
His aim, as always, is to create a modern ambiance for classic designs and to create a wardrobe of super-high quality, from a hand-knit dress to a sailor’s cap veiled in silk chiffon.
Beside him is Amanda Harlech, his inspirational supporter, whose book of misty black-and-white photographs of the boats and harbour area have a mysterious beauty.
Karl says that his decision to come to Hamburg is not to do with his past nor any suggestion that Coco Chanel had a connection to the city, as has been the case in previous locations chosen for the shows. Instead, the concept was inspired by the wave-shaped roof of the new concert hall — still under dispute in the city for its high cost.
“I think it’s the most interesting new building in Europe in terms of design — Herzog & de Meuron, they are geniuses,” says Lagerfeld of the Swiss architectural duo behind the Elbphilharmonie.
Always looking forward is the essence of the Lagerfeld attitude, yet he suggests a faint aftershock from the recent deaths of his two great fashion sparring partners — Azzedine Alaïa and Pierre Bergé, Yves Saint Laurent's life and business partner.
“Do you know, in the past three months my two arch-rivals have passed away,” he muses. “Azzedine hated me, even though we never knew each other — I saw him three times only, in Milan. He always disliked me and criticised me for not actually making the clothes myself — although he could not draw like me. Pierre Bergé is another story. Once we were friends — 40 years ago. But when he died, my flower shop called and asked if I was sending something. I just said, ‘No.’ Then she said: ‘We could have just sent a cactus!’”
The love of Karl’s life suddenly appears: Choupette, the fluffy white Birman cat who has accompanied him (along with her personal maid) on this trip to Hamburg. The models, seamstresses, hair stylists, make-up artists and music-makers all stand still, as though royalty has entered the room.
Choupette looks the part. And, like the thousands of books on every kind of subject that Karl keeps in his homes, the cat is here as a very best friend.
Karl Lagerfeld: An Eye on Photography
The flourish of a signature in black pen and ink, the letters tipping slightly to the right, reads “Karl Lagerfeld 2017”. And those spidery letters seem to pop up everywhere in the huge space at the Grand Palais in Paris, devoted to the annual exhibition, Paris Photo (until 12th November).
“Today, photography is part of my life – it completes the circle between my artistic and professional restlessness,” Karl said, to explain the backstory to these signatures marking his interest or approval. They create a winding path through the thousands of artworks on display from a global selection of galleries.
To my inexpert eye, the Lagerfeld choices seem to be as restless as he describes himself. Here is a relatively predictable image for Lagerfeld to choose as one of the most powerful fashion designers of the 20th and 21st centuries: Elsa Schiaparelli floating among flowers, photographed in 1934 by Ilse Bing (Gallery Karsten Grieve, Paris).
Its awkward romance is perhaps a good fit in a photographic mind’s eye, with Karl’s choice of a forest, resembling something from the fable of Sleeping Beauty, created in pigment print by Sandra Kantanen for London’s Purdyhicks Gallery.
What about that period car leaning like a drunken driver on the steep streets of San Francisco in 1960? I have never seen Karl at the wheel nor noticed any interest in cars.
But perhaps the moody, filmic story-telling of the image by Ed van der Elsken (from Annet Gelink Gallery) fits with another storybook photo by the same photographer: a picture of a Paris street, metro station included, with a mechanic at the tipping point of a ladder as he works on a street clock (Howard Greenberg Gallery).
I have often sensed a dream-like vision of the past in Karl’s photography, which never appears in his deliberately forward-looking fashion designs. But in these scattered choices of images there seem to be other elements, such as a sense of dark poetry or something that is so hard to achieve: pure beauty. The choice of Paolo Roversi’s 1988 vision of feminine innocence, double images of a body covered and naked, is one such example of pure beauty (at Pace MacGill Gallery).
Is there a leaning towards fashion in Karl’s choices? I cannot judge without another visit to the exhibition, put together by hundreds of different galleries and displaying so many visual creatives. Or maybe all will be revealed when I see the forthcoming book of Lagerfeld’s choices, Paris Photo by Karl Lagerfeld, to be published by Steidl.
The idea of interjecting Karl’s eye at Paris Photo is an original way for the public to contemplate the artworks exhibited by the many gallerists and curators while at the same time discovering Karl’s aesthetic universe.
And as we are discussing the creative eye, one of his selection is a relatively recent image by Irving Penn from 2001, dubbed “Mascara Wars”. Printed on Fuji Crystal Archive paper, it shows a “dragon lady” version of spiky lashes (from Pace/MacGill Gallery). This skewered vision of beauty shows a forest of lashes surrounding a glassy, blood-shot eyeball. Nature, with a difference that Lagerfeld must relish.