According to the "Couturier Superstar" exhibition that just opened here at the Museum of Fashion and Textiles, it's the white-haired wonder recognized the world over, with or without his fan. "Karl Lagerfeld is the icon of the designer star," says Olivier Saillard, curator of the show, which runs through Sept. 29. "Everything is crystallized in Lagerfeld: his look, his celebrity and his artistic work as a photographer."
The chronological display underlines how far fashion designers have come. The elaborate 18th-century gowns and dainty sketches that open the show are worlds apart from the closing high tech video installation of Lagerfeld, in which the designer chats about his persona with electronic musician Miss Kittin.
To show the transformation of the designer from subservient peon to ultimate celebrity, Saillard has brought together myriad documents, garments and art works. They range from gowns designed in the 1870s by Charles Frederick Worth -- the first designer to found his own house -- to press clippings documenting Gabrielle Chanel's juicy social life. "She became her own best model and muse," Saillard says. "Her image was as recognizable as her clothes." But Saillard points out that modern, almost cultish, designer worship began with Yves Saint Laurent -- who used a naked portrait of himself to advertise his fragrance, after all.
Since Saint Laurent, flaunting a media-genic personality has become as important as design, says Saillard. The exhibition demonstrates Jean Paul Gaultier's personal appeal with a video of the designer shot by Jean Baptiste Mondino in the late Eighties, while Dutch duo Viktor & Rolf created an installation for the show that includes a photo of press clippings that have been made into origami and a video showing the pair acting in their own runway shows.
According to Saillard, designers have always wanted to be considered artists. "But society considered them mere dressmakers, which saddled them with an inferiority complex," he says. "To compensate for it, they made themselves into stars."