Karl Lagerfeld, the visionary designer of Chanel, and I are friends. OK — acquaintances. Fine — I saw him in his gleaming grey Rolls turn down Park as he was popping a breath mint or pill a few weeks ago. It was definitely him, or an aged Billy Idol.
Lagerfeld's avant-garde personality has stood the test of time in the fashion world, and his militant determination to design for Chanel brings up parallels with Coco Chanel's determination to create the brand. Forward-thinking, self-aggrandizing, and involving the most talented artists and architect of the day, Lagerfeld has created an environment that made even me, with my aversion to overt labeling, want to stamp myself all over with double Cs. This mobile unit – the Chanel Contemporary Art Container – has come from Hong Kong and will be off to Europe after New York, to celebrate the classic Chanel handbag. Artists contributed eighteen pieces inspired by the bag.
Structure first: Zara Hadid has designed the traveling capsule, which is rather like the traditional white spaceship, but as if it were placed over heat so that it gets melty and starts to bow and bend with soft curves. It's versatile, functional, and interesting in a way that still allows one to consider it background. A light achievement, and I do love the sinuous curves.
The tour: those black and white-suited attendants graciously set up your headphones for the 35-minute audio tour, of sorts. Coco herself directs your experience, taking you room by room and step by step through the installations. Voiced by husky-voiced French actress and vocalist Jeanne Moreau, her narrative is less a tour guide and more a personality-driven commentary that clarifies how the art relates to Chanel. Sometimes it is difficult to know. She is clever and naughty, and reminded me of the portrayal of her in that recent Lifetime movie. I wish all museums had such atmospheric tours — she really made you pause and see each work.
As for the art, I loved all of it. The artists and styles varied widely, though none was exactly an unknown. There were more Asian artists than I normally see. Favorites include Erlich's "Le Trottoir" installation, a cyclically-changing, contemplative Parisian cityscape reflected in a puddle on black asphalt, so that one views the two-foot floor-level viewing space from standing height. "Fifty Years After our Common Era, or Handbags' Revolt" by the Blue Noses features cardboard boxes containing projected films of naked women of all sizes chasing after, bodyboarding on, and beating each other over the heads with Chanel handbags.
Perhaps Coco and Lagerfeld have much in common. Both fashion of themselves an iconic presence and exude ruthless self-determination. Highly successful, they never give up or let go. I also extrapolate that a shared controlling trait is on view here. Lagerfeld's staff had the uniforms of a severely chic SWAT team and provided exquisite customer care. No images were allowed inside, cell phones had to be turned off, and all bags were checked at the door. On the Chanel mobile art website you can watch live video footage of the site. Coco's voice dominates your every movement, and remember that the 2.55 handbag she designed for herself is not only iconic, it has several secret compartments.
I could say much about the confluence of art, fashion, culture, globalization, and commercialization that this exhibition epitomizes so well. However, I refrain. I enjoyed it: some things are meant only to be consumed with gusto.
Getting in: (free) tickets are all booked. If you show up early in the morning, you can wait on standby for tickets. It's worth it! Ignore any snark on my part: this is one of the best art orchestrations I've seen. I showed up a 8:30 the morning I went. A ticket wasn't available until 9:30, which didn't work for my schedule. I was leaving, disappointed, but I ran into a friend on the way out, and he hooked me up with an earlier ticket. And no, it wasn't Karl.