Lagerfeld's Ode to 'The Little Black Jacket'
by Laurie brookins
When asked why he didn’t include himself in his latest photographic exercise, Karl Lagerfeld is ready with a pragmatic answer, one that also speaks to the diplomacy with which Chanel’s famed designer surely must navigate his high-wattage universe. “As I am not in the book,” he says, “I’m able to say to those who ask why they weren’t asked to be in it, ‘I am not in it, either.’”
Practical thought combined with a splash of the poetic has been the balance found in Chanel’s DNA since that century-ago moment when Coco declared jersey to be both chic and functional. Such duality is also inherent in Lagerfeld’s latest project, for which he collaborated with friend and former French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld, with this pair of industry titans indulging in a sort of fashion-meets-sociology experiment: What happens when you take one of the most fabled elements of style, adapt it in often-unconventional ways to suit a wide array of some of the most sartorially interesting people on the planet, and then photograph the result? That’s the premise behind The Little Black Jacket: Chanel’s Classic Revisited (Steidl), a 232-page exploration of celebrity dressing, as told through the common thread of one celebrated garment.
Kanye West, Tilda Swinton, Daphne Guinness, and more than 100 other A-listers were photographed by Lagerfeld for the project, with Roitfeld as stylist. “In a way, Carine is a sort of modern-day Coco,” Lagerfeld says. “She sets a radically different style and tone. Carine’s personality is nothing like Coco Chanel’s, but her image and character can be seen on everything she touches. Like Mademoiselle Chanel, she has inspired other people.”
Following a late-March debut in Tokyo, 120 black-and-white photographs will be on view in New York this summer before embarking on a tour of seven other cities around the world. Open to the public, the exhibit offers a glimpse into the universality of one piece of clothing and how it can suit decidedly disparate personalities—as one ingredient to an ornate look on Guinness, for example, while starkly simple on designer Olivier Theyskens. “Every designer dreams of inventing the Chanel jacket,” Lagerfeld says of its influence. “It’s up there with jeans or the T-shirt; it is gender-neutral—that is to say, it can be womenswear or menswear.”
Chanel first introduced her boxy bouclé jacket, trimmed in braid with patch pockets and gold buttons adorned with lion heads, in 1954 (her famed post-World War II comeback collection), and over that time its mystique and influence have increased exponentially. “The jacket has changed [over the years]; we’ve developed it and updated its proportions,” says Lagerfeld. “The model chosen for the book is the most classic one, which is the closest to the original jacket Mademoiselle Chanel created.”
Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of the exhibit’s presence in New York will be in viewing those whose personal style is so closely aligned with the city: Sarah Jessica Parker, Yoko Ono, and Alexander Wang among them. “Yoko Ono—I am an old and great admirer of her and like her as a friend—and the very gifted and charming Alexander Wang are New York without a 100 percent New York background,” says Lagerfeld. “The city has a unique style, but for people it is a megapolis of styles, and that is what I like best about New York.”
Lagerfeld and Roitfeld began their black-jacket conversation in early 2011, and Lagerfeld says he enjoyed the almost leisurely aspect of the collaboration. “That was like a play with Carine: friends, people we admire, people we may know, people we may not know so much about, but should know about,” he says. “The problem was not who will be in the book, but who will not.”
Indeed, though Lagerfeld ultimately has good reason for not including a self-portrait in The Little Black Jacket, one can’t help but wonder how he might have interpreted the garment for himself. After all, for 29 years Lagerfeld has excelled at imbuing Coco Chanel’s iconic jacket with new layers of modernity; yet how might he style it for his own wearing? “That kind of question can only be answered with a sketch,” he says, and soon an answer arrives via an e-mail. There stands Lagerfeld, he of the snow-white ponytail and trademark leather fingerless gloves, the jacket severely cut to his slim frame, his stiff shirt collar peeking above. What springs to mind is not only how Lagerfeld has envisioned the garment to suit his personality, but also that the sketch would seem just as modern were you to view it five or 50 years from now. And that’s precisely the point, Lagerfeld contends. “The eternal can only last if it stays up-to-date at the same time,” he says. “For this reason, the jacket is eternal.”
The Little Black Jacket images are on view June 8 through 15 from NOON to 7 PM, 18 Wooster Street; The Little Black Jacket arrives in bookstores August 15.
photography by Olivier SAILANT (parker)
Cover shoot: May/June 2014 issue of Gotham magazine.