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Fashion Trivia: The Drama Behind Chanel's Costume Institute Exhibit

The Met and Karl Lagerfeld have a long history.

Photos: Getty Images, Pixabay; Artwork: Brooke Frischer/Fashionista

Test your fashion-industry knowledge with our new-old weekly series, Fashion Trivia! There’s no prize (yet) for having the right answer, but you get theoretical bonus points for not using Google.

Q: Why did The Met cancel a Costume Institute exhibit on Chanel in 2000 (only to stage it five years later)?

Scroll down for the answer…

A: The Met’s Costume Institute was set to stage a Chanel retrospective in conjunction with an annual gala in December of 2000, but announced that May that it would be canceled. Per the museum, the death of Chief Curator Richard Martin the year prior made it impossible to organize the exhibit by the due date, but a Chanel exhibit wasn’t staged until five years later.

At the time, Cathy Horyn reported via The New York Times that Karl Lagerfeld, who always had a famous distaste for retrospectives, butted heads with the museum’s director, Philippe de Montebello, because he wanted the exhibit to incorporate the work of contemporary artists of other disciplines, saying, “I’m not interested in an exhibit that’s just old dresses.” Montebello told Horyn that he felt the museum’s curatorial integrity was being “eroded” by Lagerfeld’s input.

With Chanel also contributing financially, the long-delayed exhibit also spurred debate about whether companies should be allowed to sponsor and thus have influence over an exhibit covering its own history and work, a debate that bubbled up again when the Chanel retrospective was staged in May of 2005. This time around, Lagerfeld didn’t really get involved and reportedly didn’t even attend the show, telling press at the time, “I dislike retrospectives.”

Drama aside, this saga is also significant for another reason.

The cancellation of the 2000 Chanel exhibit shifted the timing of The Met’s fashion exhibits from fall to spring, and the 2005 Chanel opening marked the first time the annual gala took place on the first Monday of May. With the exception of the Covid-19 pandemic, that’s when it’s been held ever since.

On this coming Monday, the industry elite with gather to celebrate the opening of “Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty.” Acknowledging Lagerfeld’s feelings about these types of exhibits, Chief Curator Andrew Bolton told the Times recently, “I am sure he would hate it. He’d probably still refuse to come.”

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