Karl Largerfeld is a strange icon. He appears, complete with his metal-adorned knuckles, his slick black and white attire, his silvery hair combed neatly on top of his sunglasses-wearing-head, like a fashion-conscious, aristocratic angel from a bizarre monochrome future. On top of his celestial appearance, as the designer for the iconic House of Chanel, Largerfeld is often also heralded as being Godlike for his impeccable sense in fashion-design and his sensitive handling of the iconic silhouettes and classic pieces of the very Coco herself… This isn’t where God ends in Karl though. Another step further takes us right to the gates of heaven where Largerfeld actually appears as God, tucked between the cheeks and folds of white, fluffy clouds in the world according to rapper Jean-Roch (see 2012 music video, Saint-Tropez). He is the Wagner, the Saatchi of fashion. He is… apparently… God.
However, it is not so easy being God. Karl proves this; his disguise, every now and then, falls. He trips and stumbles just like any of us might do: for example in the case of the heavily-criticised casting of Brad Pitt in the recent Chanel No.5 commercial, Largergeld’s appearance in the afore-mentioned Jean-Roch video or, worse, his 2011 attempt at a short film, The Tale of a Fairy, a piece the fashion world is trying desperately to forget, to brush under the carpet and pretend never happened. His little, black, polished shoes now just tiptoe down the red carpet where his stride used to be.
However, this is not to deny the man’s talents. It just happens to be that there are some areas in the creative world (such as film-making and acting), where he simply just does not belong. Equally, this is not to say that Largerfeld should strictly stay within the confines of fashion design. His most recent exhibition in collaboration with Carine Roitfeld at the Saatchi gallery, The Little Black Jacket, shows that perhaps he does belong also in the world of photography. Bringing together over 100 of his muses, the exhibition celebrates Coco Chanel’s iconic jacket (first created in 1954), each model wearing the article in an idiosyncratically different manner: tied and twisted around the head like a turban, with added silver shoulder studs or slung casually over the shoulder. The photographs, all black and white, have been taken by Karl himself. Tilda Swinton in grayish blues, an undercut crowning her head, jacket knotted around her waist. Daphne Guinness with a lace diadem stretching over her eyebrows, a silver snake slithering up her finger: typically dramatic and theatrical, shirt cuffs bursting out of the jacket’s sleeves. And opposite, Largerfeld’s youngest model, Hudson Kroenig, his small jacket undone, tie pulled loose, big eyes peering upwards.
Each subject transforms the object of the exhibition. The jacket. On the back of violin virtuoso, Charlie Siem, hanging either side of Charlotte Gainsburg’s baby-bump. Beneath the iconic bob of Anna Wintour, wrapped around the enigmatic third Olsen sister, Elizabeth. Karl brings out, with the aid of Roitfeld’s styling, the personality of each model. And, everybody watching, be it in London, Tokyo or New York (etc), has most certainly forgotten about, or at least forgiven, his recent mistakes. Raised, once more, to Godly status, this exhibition, full of the glitter of fame, fortune, luxury and exclusivity, full of class and elegance, does not trip our protagonist up. He belongs in this world: as much a fashion photographer as designer. However, there is a slight imperfection. A troublesome glitch just when flawlessness seemed possible…
The final room of the show falls miserably below standard. Following the exquisitely elegant black-and white photographs, each flecked with tiny circular pixels, lit dimly, hung against grey like Rothkos is a single room with black walls. Against these walls, spot-lit, lean large, what-appear-to-be-Perspex sheets, printed with over-sized copies (in yellow, red and blue), of select images from the previous rooms. Kanye West in pop art like giant pixels, opposite (strangely) a similar Perspex board, unlit and obscured in the dark. What the acclaimed fashion house is known for: elegance, subtlety, class and attention-to-detail, in this room… have died miserably. The images lean unparallel to the wall, the lighting glares and the little black jacket disappears into the backdrop of an over-powering, over-sized baseball hat perched on Kanye’s head. It is a brutally disappointing end to an otherwise illuminating and inspiring show. In this final room, there is certainly no sign of the divine, no sign of God, only remnants of a just audible sound: the quiet gulping of the man in question swallowing his hubris and swallowing his overstated photographic genius.
The Little Black Jacket, Until 4 November, Saatchi Gallery, Duke of York’s HQ, King’s Road, London, SW3 4RY
1. Saskia De Brauw-The Little Black Jacket CHANEL’s classic revisited by Karl Lagerfeld and Carine Roitfeld, Steidl 2012.