Chanel

The Magical Realism of Karl Lagerfeld by Jahan Sharif

Karl Lagerfeld, self portrait.

Karl Lagerfeld, self portrait.

In 1967, after locking himself in a house for 18 months and accruing thousands of dollars of debt, the Colombian author, Gabriel García Márquez published what is, perhaps, the greatest opening line of a novel ever written:

“Muchos años después, frente al pelotón de fusilamiento, el coronel Aureliano Buendía había de recordar aquella tarde remota en que su padre lo llevó a conocer el hielo”.

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice”.

So starts his magnum opus, 100 Years of Solitude; a novel so overwhelming in its complexity, completeness, and ambition that it blasted the entire genre of magical realism out of Latin America, and directly into the popular discussion of literature around the world. The genre was cultivated mostly among Spanish-language authors in South America during the middle of the 20th century, as they struggled to capture in narrative form a level of human atrocity so extreme that it escaped the realm of conventional logic and reason. Márquez, a former journalist who came of age in a period of Colombian history known simply as La Violencia— during which almost 300,000 people were killed— himself described the terrors of his continent’s history as “outsized reality.”

La Violencia (1962), by Colombian artist Alejandro Obregón.

La Violencia (1962), by Colombian artist Alejandro Obregón.

Around the same time, five thousand miles and an ocean away, Karl Lagerfeld, another would-be emperor of culture, was busy inventing his version of the future as the creative director of Fendi. He had come to the Italian house from Paris after escaping the German countryside, which is where he was raised in order to avoid witnessing first-hand the savagery of the Holocaust. At that time, Fendi was known for its furs, but the family brought Lagerfeld in to transform it into a relevant fashion house. Vanessa Friedman said in The Times that “He refused to treat such luxury pelts as mink and sable too preciously. Instead he shaved them, dyed them, tufted them and otherwise created the concept of “Fun Fur,” which gave the brand its enduring double F logo.”

In 1983, his reinvention of Fendi landed him at Chanel-- of which he once said, “Chanel is an institution, and you have to treat an institution like a whore — and then you get something out of her.” With a lifetime contract, an unlimited budget, and a mandate to do whatever he thought was best, Chanel is where Lagerfeld would make his most enduring mark— unleashing the full ambition of his creativity onto the world, and inventing his own type of outsized reality.

I first learned of Chanel as a fashion house, and not merely as a scent, in 2007 while doing research for a school project. YouTube had been founded two years earlier, and internet video was just beginning to be widely adopted by major organizations. Chanel was one of the few brands that had a version of their fashion show available to stream on its website. I’d seen clips of fashion shows in the past-- Naomi strutting down Versace’s long runways in the 90s, or the annually televised Victoria Secret Fashion Show on CBS— this, however, was something different. Chanel’s show was theater, not simply theatrical. There was a set, sound design, and choreography. It was a production deliberately conceived and executed to advance the extended metaphor that was the collection itself. In many respects, Chanel’s show was almost performance art.

And then there were the clothes; somehow simultaneously classic, expensive, current, and yet a nod to what the future could look like-- casual and chic. Vogue’s Sarah Mower said it like this,

“Instead of the multitudinous flocks of options he has sent out in the last few seasons, this single-file presentational march condensed everything that can be thoroughly Chanel, yet completely du jour. While he was at it, Lagerfeld also dashed off sporty striped T-shirt dresses, tulle-covered denim, Edie Sedgwick, metallic-scuba, and puffy Empire organza moments...”

Lagerfeld’s ability to capture the essence of fantasy and aspiration, and then reflect them back as reality was at the core of his ability to define the intersection of the competing planes of the past, present, and future. Márquez did it too.

When the author passed, the editor of the New York Times’ Book Review, Michiko Kakutani, wrote an appraisal of the man she called the “Magus of magical realism.” In her piece, she wrote of Márquez words that could as easily have been for Lagerfeld:

“Garcia Márquez used his fecund imagination and exuberant sleight of hand to conjure the miraculous in his fiction...Such images were not simply tokens of his endlessly inventive mind, but testaments to his all-embracing artistic vision, which recognized the extraordinary in the mundane, the familiar in the fantastic.”

The Magus of magical realism, Gabriel García Márquez.

The Magus of magical realism, Gabriel García Márquez.

Like the city of Macondo, Márquez’s fantasy land of mirrors in “Solitude,” Chanel’s shows became more and more over the top. He launched a kind-of spaceship, built a full-sized replica of the base of the Eiffel tower, created a beach with sand and tides, installed a cruise ship, and imported a 265-ton melting iceberg from Sweden, to name a few examples.

While there was apparently no limit to the scope of Lagerfeld’s ambition, persistence, and knowledge (he once referred to his mind as Google), the one subject Lagerfeld refused to engage with was death. He said he would never stop working because to stop working for him was to die and “it’ll be all finished.” Contrastingly, Márquez did not think about death, because “...I was sure I was going to die very young, and in the street.”

This mutual refusal to reckon with their mortality, and their early experiences with human-perpetuated terror and the lies used to cover it up, seemed to engender in them an ability to separate fact from truth, and truth from reality. Sometimes, as Márquez said, it “was enough for the author to have written something for it to be true, with no proofs other than the power of his talent and the authority of his voice.”

Such is how these two men approached their crafts; using their talent and authority to create worlds of their own, where they ignored quotidian nuisances and made magic real. Occasionally, they invited us in. And for those brief, privileged moments, maybe we too would see the world as they did, and believe in the possibility of the otherwise unimaginable.

Karl Lagerfeld passed away last Tuesday, February 19th, in Paris.

Los Angeles, CA, USA
February 2019

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