Saturday, May 28, 2011


My cousins and I are enamored of haute couture, though we are nothing like the scarecrows who have lost their straw, the narrow-as-an-arrow models.  For us, who are rather more like the ladies who sit quietly at tables hand-sewing beads and sequins, there’s considerable fascination in these women (and men) young enough to be our grandchildren, but not much identification.  We are women who grew up sewing.

I once read about a singer or actress -- can’t remember which -- on tour in South America with a companion, possibly a sister.  The performer had one beautifully made black dress.  As they traveled by train from one performance to the next, the companion -- who was equipped with a tin of sequins, would rip out the sequins she had sewn into a pattern on the dress, and sew on a new one.  Sometimes a beaded bodice, sometimes sprays of flowers over the shoulders, sometimes strict lines down the skirt.  It is the elaboration in the face of restrictions that is rewarding.

Our ancestors, only one generation back, were homesteaders and did something very similar.  Instead of buying a new dress, they bought a collar or a new set of buttons.  My Aunt Elsie was particularly clever at coping with growth or a shortage of material by adding insets or a fancy cuff.  My cousin Jeannie created a fabulous wedding dress for her niece by adding to a legacy dress a lace overskirt, embroidering it with beads which took her months.  I’m not so up-close clever as the others, because my original training was largely as a theatre costumer and because my temperament is much more impatient than theirs and because I have almost no manual dexterity.  But I have more attitude.

We are all gay-friendly, but not gay, and my cousins’ husbands are standard heterosexual husbands, rather conservative.  But then, they’re not into haute couture like “we gals” are.  (I’m the only non-mom.)  We ransack Netflix for movies about designers.  I love fashion mags (when they aren’t fashion for pre-teens) and Jeannie clerked at Mother Goose in Portland, which sells fine art artisan clothing.  None of us is safe in a fabric shop.  I still have drawers of fabric uncut and boxes of clever buttons.  I can draft patterns but would rather not.

Anyway, this is about “Lagerfeld Confidential,” a portrait of the man who (after working with Balmain) redeemed the House of Chanel.  (Also, later, Fendi and ChloĆ©.  I used to wear ChloĆ© perfume.  It was the only thing that fit.)  The movie is wonderful, a prize-winner.  It begins with Lagerfeld’s book-piled bedroom, which also would fit me.  One of those creamy paneled French rooms with high windows and curvy marble mantels with a giant gilt-framed mirror over it.  On the mantel was an array of iPod versions.   I expect by now they are replaced or joined by iPads.  Everything fabric was white.  There were puzzling (to me) sort of dome-things that I think might be speakers.  Fashion seems to demand music.

It turns out that Lagerfeld has a secondary skill beyond fashion design, which is photography.  His Nikon is equipped with a little unit on top that sends the images to a computer as the photos are taken.  Instant feedback.  But it makes his camera so heavy that an assistant has to act as a sort of tripod/prop.  For outdoor shoots, someone must carry the laptop where the images are scrutinized.  When one adds the people who maintain the models (ordinarily the photos are of models and destined for advertising), there is quite a crowd.  One of those people is a producer who must solve little problems like curious police arriving to see what is happening, possibly blocking traffic or without proper permits. 

But Lagerfeld’s real image work is himself.  As a young man, he was sensual and lithe in that full-lipped, curly-haired way that Caravaggio liked.  Then the good life blew him up like a balloon, which met the onset of middle age.  He went on what he called a “3-D Diet,” wrote a best-selling book about it, and reinvented his whole look, which is now so severe and yet ornamented that it verges on S/M: leather with metal embellishment, hands either heavy with silver rings or in gloves with cut-outs (occasionally red), hair always the same length and in a ponytail -- since it is white now he uses powder dry shampoo to keep it always white.  His hair is naturally curly, which he dislikes.  He wears a good deal of makeup, esp when on TV or on stage.  He wears boots like a storm-trooper or a biker, I suspect because he’s a little short.  He’s also a little bow-legged and I wonder whether he suffered from rickets as a child.

This tough guy flies with a flat pillow over his stomach, which was made for him by his nanny when he was so young it had a choo-choo train appliqued on it (now removed) and now it’s so battered that he made a soft case for it.  He cannot fly without it.  The shots on the inside of the business-class jet, esp. the ones in the cockpit, are among the most spectacular in the film.

The core of his personality seems to be his mother, who was a little like Aad’s “scorpionic” mother and a little like Chanel herself.  That is, she was very strong and insisted on self-reliance but never removed her attention and judgment.  There are shots of the child Lagerfeld playing in the surf, a beautiful small sprite, but what his mother responded to was achievement and toughness.  When he complained to her that men had tried to molest him, her response was, “Well, look at you!  You’re inviting it!  Take control of the situation!”  (Not the modern liberal response that demands that the whole world be made safe for them to do as they please.)  When he told her at the onset of adolescence that he had realized he was gay, she said, “Well, that’s okay.  Everyone is something.  Nothing wrong with it.”  He was soon experimenting.

Born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1933 (he says 1938), he lived through some very dangerous and tough times and has now assumed a protective image that he has nearly become.  But it takes energy.  He needs a lot of solitary time.  If I don’t stop watching videos about him, I won’t get this post finished!  So if he intrigues you, here are two interesting examples that will tell you a lot more.  (I despise Viceland, but made an exception.)  This is a “world,” a construct.  Androgenous, seductive, expensive, druggy, against vulnerability.  Not really about clothes.

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