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Becoming Karl Lagerfeld: the latest biopic aimed at humanizing a big name in fashion

Becoming Karl Lagerfeld: the latest biopic aimed at humanizing a big name in fashion
Becoming Karl Lagerfeld: the latest biopic aimed at humanizing a big name in fashion


There's a scene at the end of Becoming Karl Lagerfeld, the six-part streaming series on Hulu about the famed German designer's early Parisian career, that features a young Karl talking to his mother, who has just have a stroke and that he installed. in an elaborate chateau in the French countryside. He is desesperate. Without it, Mr. Lagerfeld says, no one will really know him.

Who cares? she responds effectively, suggesting that the created self is far more interesting.

For decades, this has essentially been dogma in fashion. Great designers were often synonymous with fantasies and myth-makers, not only when it came to their clothes but also their lives. Their houses were extraordinary settings; their self-presentation is an invention; their speech was populated with exaggerated edicts and ultimatums.

Their fans consumed these caricatures as they consumed their clothes, the image fueling the popular narrative of creative genius. Few were better than Mr. Lagerfeld, who with his powdered ponytail, dark glasses and motocross mitts was a cartoon in his own right, but he was far from the only one.

Dior with his white coats does the trick; Chanel too with her pearl necklaces and cigarette holders. John Galliano with his suits did it too, as did Tom Ford with his porn lord sunglasses and undone shirts.

And it was like that for years. But recently a different trend has emerged. This takes the form of three streaming series dedicated to revealing the creators behind the clothes; to strip away the masks of sacred monsters and expose them in all their human fallibility.

The first was Cristbal Balenciaga, a look at the Spanish master's career and the trauma he suffered as a closeted homosexual and with the advent of ready-to-wear. (This series, which aired in several countries earlier this year, is not yet available in the United States.) Then came The New Look, which focused on Christian Dior, his daddy issues and his addiction to cards tarot cards, and Coco Chanel and the terrible moral choices these designers made to keep their businesses going during World War II.

Becoming Karl, which depicts the rivalry between Mr. Lagerfeld and his peer, Yves Saint Laurent, focuses on Mr. Lagerfeld's seemingly enormous inferiority complex and the two men's rivalry for the love of Jacques de Bascher . They're quite simply the latest addition to a new genre that we could call Designers, they're just like us!

But do we want them to be?

Cinema has been making the fashion rounds for decades, ever since Kay Thompson said Think Pink! in Funny Face in 1957, drawn to the subject because of the brilliance it seemed to promise. With a few notable exceptions, the result is often exaggerated or absurd, in part because it is difficult to dramatize an industry already busy dramatizing itself. This is why documentaries like Dior and Me or Valentino: The Last Emperor seem more effective. These new biopics attempt to find a happy medium.

But transforming what has become an abstract and widely acceptable brand into a real person raises, once again, the complex question of how to think about the relationship between the artist and their art. Whether or not you wear Chanel or Dior, they have become part of the common cultural vernacular, their style so ubiquitous that it serves as a general reference point. But if their creators, who reshaped the world's wardrobes and with them the tools of identity, are themselves identified in all their fragility and sometimes their ugliness, does that make their legacy more attractive, or less ?

Becoming Karl, which covers Mr. Lagerfeld's career at Chlo and Fendi and ends with his job offer at Chanel, the brand that truly made him famous, achieves the improbable feat of transforming Mr. Lagerfeld, who was both an extraordinarily talented designer and a pretty terrible racist, sizeist, demanding, cruel but also brilliant and erudite person who became a sympathetic character. There's Karl who self-medicates with chocolate, straps himself into a corset and dances alone in his room rather than brave the possibility of rejection. There is pain beneath the pantomime of fabulousness.

By limiting his scope to the time when Mr. Lagerfeld's fame and power allowed him to pontificate with impunity, and by blaming his terrible mother and a Parisian world that considered him a German ( Pierre Berg, Yves Saint-Pierre's partner). Laurent, is the bad guy here), the series offers an alternative story. Just as The New Look depicts Dior as a sort of trembling flower, victim of a terrible father, and Chanel as the product of her experience as a single woman fighting for her own survival. If she had a friend who was a drug addict and tried to use Nazi laws to get his business back, he needs it.

Designing clothes isn't a dramatic act in itself, which is perhaps why the show's organizers decided to focus on the people. However, these characters Dior, Chanel, Lagerfeld, Balenciaga have changed not only the way we dress, but also the way we think about fashion. Chanel freed women from the corset and created the cardigan jacket and the little black dress (among other enduring tropes). Dior invented the New Look and galvanized an entire generation of consumers. Balenciaga gave us the sack dress, the egg coat, the doll and the belief in fashion as religion. Lagerfeld took all of this and made it part of pop culture.

They created a legacy powerful enough to resonate across the decades and signatures clear enough for their names to live on in the hands of others. This is why they occupy such a place in the popular imagination. This is why they are important in the first place. Why, in fact, these series could even exist.

And yet the show's subjects always understood that the essence of their success was a mirage: that what they were selling was the magical promise of transformation through tricks; through wool, silk and muslin; through the glorious illusion of chic associated with their names. This is ultimately not their reality.




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