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Fashion ghosts leap from the pages of Robert Fairer's Karl Lagerfeld Unseen

By Jackie Mallon

Nov 4, 2022


Robert Fairer

“Every moment with Karl was a master class in refinement,” reads a quote from André Leon Talley included in the new book of behind-the-scenes photography by Robert Fairer entitled “Karl Lagerfeld Unseen: The Chanel Years.”

330 color photographs provide a peek inside the rarefied Rue Cambon atelier founded by Coco Chanel in 1910. These moments of refinement include client fittings, models in the make-up chair or captured seconds before walking the runway, and images of the designer at work in his signature look of black tailoring, sunglasses and snow white ponytail. The photographs, of both haute couture and prêt-à-porter, were taken over the period 1994-2007 although Lagerfeld helmed the creative direction of Chanel from 1983 until his death in 2019.

Robert Fairer/Abrams
Like Leon Talley and Lagerfeld, another runway fixture of this era who is unfortunately no longer with us is Stella Tennant, the aristocratic model and Lagerfeld muse, whose tall angular form infused a sense of graceful anarchy into many of Chanel's most memorable looks and whose face fronted numerous ad campaigns. At their most unguarded and vibrant, a young Kate Moss or Naomi Campbell, along with beauty icons of the period such as Linda Evangelista, Lily Cole, Kirsten Owen, Shalom Harlow and Carla Bruni before she became first lady of France are captured in many never-before-published shots. Lagerfeld's first Chanel couture show of the 21st century yielded particularly timeless imagery: Staged in a swimming pool, the models wore teased bouffants, green lips, and dropped waist tulle dresses as if plucked from a fairy tale. Included is a striking shot of Devon Aoki staring into the distance, dressed head-to-toe in frosted pink and leaning against a green tiled wall.

Chanel photographer gives glimpse into Paris fashion house and Lagerfeld at work

“Ghosts leap from the pages, causing the most exquisite racket in my brain,” writes Sally Singer in the book’s preface. Indeed many of these looks are so firmly lodged in our consciousness that it is almost impossible not to float away on a wave of nostalgia. Amanda Harlech is quoted as saying that the backstage was often more important to the designer than the runway and Fairer’s photographs manage to convey something familiar but in a rather different narrative. The drama of the fleeting moment, the suggestion of adrenaline, the swirl of cigarette smoke and bubbling champagne, the lack of smartphones, document the glittering hustle and bustle of Paris shows, and maybe even society, within a period that cannot be recreated.

Robert Fairer/Abrams

The languid bouclé, houndstooth and tweeds for day, the effortless blend of embroidery, sequins, lace and ruffles for after dark, are all accounted for. The driving gloves, chain belts, camellias, black bows, and dangling double Cs in so many novel iterations. There are also motorcycle helmets, knuckledusters, ski goggles. A wedding gown for a couture bride created with 38 yards of silk, adorned with Lesage embroidery and requiring 11 fittings.

“My job is to propose a fantasy. Whoever wants it, whoever likes it, whoever wants to use it,” reads a quote from Lagerfeld, “It’s for anyone,” might ring a little hollow these days as Lagerfeld’s more questionable off-the-cuff comments given in interviews over the years, notably about women who fall outside his slender ideal, are now widely condemned. For his runways he cast predominantly white models. But there is no denying his continued influence and fascination. Immensely prolific, at the end of his life he was designing 8 Chanel collections a year, not to mention his work for Fendi, but it almost appears that he hasn't slowed down even in death. It was recently announced that a Hollywood movie is in the works featuring Jared Leto as the late designer, while the Met Museum’s Spring 2023 exhibition will celebrate Lagerfeld's work.

As Lagerfeld said, "Chanel left us with something better than fashion: Style. And style, as she preached it, doesn’t grow old.”

“Karl Lagerfeld Unseen; The Chanel Years” by Robert Fairer will be published by Abrams on November 22

Robert Fairer/Abrams
Robert Fairer