Exposing the Designer Behind the Curtain


There is a scene late in “Becoming Karl Lagerfeld,” the six-part streaming series on Hulu about the early Paris career of the famed German designer, that features a youngish Karl talking to his mother, who has just had a stroke and whom he has installed in an elaborate château in the French countryside. He is in despair. Without her, Mr. Lagerfeld says, there will be no one who knows the real him.

“Who cares?” she effectively replies, suggesting that the created self is so much more interesting.

For decades, this was essentially dogma in fashion. Great designers were often synonymous with fantasists and mythmakers, not only when it came to their clothes but to their life as well. Their homes were extraordinary stage sets; their self-presentation an invention; their speech populated with exaggerated edicts and ultimatums.

Their fans consumed these caricatures the way they consumed their clothes, the image feeding the popular narrative of the creative genius. Few were better at it than Mr. Lagerfeld, who with his powdered ponytail, dark glasses and fingerless motocross gloves was a cartoon unto himself, but he was far from the only one.

Dior with his white coats fit the bill; so did Chanel with her ropes of pearls and cigarette holders. John Galliano with his costumery did too, as did Tom Ford with his porn-lord shades and undone shirts.

And so it was for years. Recently, however, a different trend has emerged. It’s one that takes the form of three streaming series dedicated to revealing the designers behind the clothes; to stripping off the masks of the monstres sacrés and exposing them in all their human fallibility.

First up was “Cristóbal Balenciaga,” a look at the career arc of the Spanish master and the trauma he suffered as a closeted gay man and with the advent of ready-to-wear. (That 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 dependence on tarot cards, and Coco Chanel and the terrible moral choices those 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 apparently enormous inferiority complex and the two men’s rivalry for the love of Jacques de Bascher. It is simply the latest entrant in a new genre that could be called “Designers, they’re just like us!”

But do we want them to be?

Film has been dancing around fashion for decades, ever since Kay Thompson declared “Think pink!” in “Funny Face” in 1957, drawn to the subject because of the razzle-dazzle it seems to promise. With a few notable exceptions, the result is often over the top or absurd, in part because it’s hard to dramatize an industry already busy dramatizing itself. That’s why documentaries like “Dior and I” or “Valentino: The Last Emperor” seem more effective. These new biopics are trying to find a middle ground.

But turning what has become an abstract, broadly palatable brand into an actual person raises, once again, the complicated question of how to think of the relationship between the artist and their art. Whether or not you wear Chanel or Dior, they have become part of the shared cultural vernacular, their style so omnipresent it acts as a general reference point. But if their creators, who reshaped wardrobes across the world and with them the tools of identity, are themselves identified in all their frailty and occasional ugliness, does that make their legacy more appealing, or less?

“Becoming Karl,” which covers Mr. Lagerfeld’s career at Chloé and Fendi and ends with his job offer from Chanel, the brand that truly made him famous, manages the unlikely feat of turning Mr. Lagerfeld, who was both an extraordinarily talented designer and a pretty terrible person — racist, sizeist, demanding, cruel as well as brilliant and erudite — into a sympathetic character. There is Karl self-medicating with chocolate, strapping himself into a corset and dancing alone in his room rather than braving the possibility of rejection. There is pain under the pantomime of fabulosity.

By limiting its purview to the time before Mr. Lagerfeld’s fame and power allowed him to pontificate with impunity, and by passing the blame to his terrible mother and a Parisian world that looked down on him as German (Pierre Bergé, the partner of Yves Saint Laurent, is the villain here), the series offers an alternative narrative. Just as “The New Look” paints Dior as something of a trembling flower, a victim of a terrible father, and Chanel as a product of her experience as a single woman fighting for her own survival. If she got a friend addicted to drugs and tried to use Nazi laws to reclaim her business … well, needs must.

Designing clothes is not an inherently dramatic act, which may be why the show runners decided to focus on the people. Yet these characters — Dior, Chanel, Lagerfeld, Balenciaga — changed not just how we dress, but how we think about fashion. Chanel liberated women from the corset and created the jacket-as-cardigan and the little black dress (among other enduring tropes). Dior invented the New Look and galvanized a generation of shoppers. Balenciaga gave us the sack dress, the egg coat, the baby doll and the belief in fashion as a religion. Lagerfeld took all that and made it part of pop culture.

They created legacies powerful enough to resonate across the decades and signatures clear enough for their names to continue in the hands of others, which is why they loom so large in the popular imagination. It’s why they matter in the first place. Why, in fact, these series could even exist.

And yet the subjects of the series always understood that the essence of their success was a mirage: that what they were selling was the magical promise of transformation through stuff; through wool, silk and chiffon; through the glorious illusion of chic associated with their names. Not, in the end, their reality.



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