“Dear Karl…”: How Thom Browne’s Tribute to Karl Lagerfeld Highlighted the Contemporary Relevance of the Fashion Archive
How Thom Browne's tribute to Karl Lagerfeld at the Met Gala spotlights the importance of preserving and celebrating the fashion archive.
By Ranji Mangcu
Despite being a contentious figure in the industry, Karl Lagerfeld’s legacy as a pioneer in the fashion industry is widely agreed upon. Leading three major couture houses to commercial and cultural success, the designer’s decidedly forward-thinking outlook was his greatest strength when it came to maintaining the contemporary relevance of Chanel, Fendi, and Chloe’s age-old house codes.
At the helm of Chanel for over 40 years until his passing in 2019, adaptability was the key to Lagerfeld’s genius. He plunged the label from cultural and financial stagnancy, back into the cultural zeitgeist in a template that still resounds today.
Developing a close working relationship with the Coco Chanel’s design spirit through the archive, he held fast to Chanel’s classic visual vocabulary, reasserting the classic pearls, camellia flowers, and its classic tweed and Boucle suiting as key moments in the fashion canon.
It was evident at this year’s Met Gala, and in the Vogue tribute that preceded it, that Lagerfeld’s enduring renewal of Chanel paved the way for many leading the charge in fashion today.
New York-based designer Thom Browne was doubtlessly no exception. Both being exemplary of genius in fashion, there is a clear constellation between them; one that explains why so many of this year’s guests gravitated towards Browne in their tributes to Lagerfeld, from famed director Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge; The Great Gatsby; Elvis) to newcomer actor Bella Ramsey, who captured audiences’ hearts starring as Ellie in the 2023 TV series, The Last of Us.
In addition to Luhrmann and Ramsey, the Thom Browne cohort at the 2023 Met Gala included Janelle Monae, Trevor Noah, Olivia Rodrigo, Jenna Ortega, Alexander Skarsgard, Pusha T, basketball player Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Teyana Taylor, and Formula 1 driver Daniel Ricciardo.
Browne kept to a clear system in his references to Lagerfeld’s Chanel archive, creating uniformity amongst the unit. The designer maintained a black-and-white colour scheme and capitalized on his distinct ability to experiment with the modern suited silhouette. Channelling those key Chanel signatures that Lagerfeld revived in the 1980s, was a swirling gold chain detail on Choi and Ortega’s ensembles. Tying back to his own design signature, red, white, and blue details showed up in tiny touches – a red collar-pin on Pusha T’s blazer, and a sneaky striped detail on the woollen waistcoat of Alexander Skarsgard’s three-piece suit.
Jenna Ortega – who has most recently made waves in Tim Burton’s Netflix Addams Family adaptation, Wednesday – channelled both Wednesday and Lagerfeld in a quirky black and white ensemble. The actor wore a choppy, asymmetrical dress, with a boned lace-up corset. Tying the look back to Thom Browne’s signature of whimsical menswear, she wore a cropped blazer with gold-chain detailing and a pair of platformed bishop shoes, accessorising a collared shirt with a black ribbon bowtie.
Prior to the event, Browne was one of ten designers tapped by Vogue in a celebration of Lagerfeld’s legacy on the May 2023 cover of Vogue Magazine. He took the opportunity to express his admiration for the legendary German designer’s prowess and artistry. He notes Lagerfeld’s avant-garde approaches to shape and proportion and seized the opportunity to reference Chanel.
Photographed by Annie Leibovitz on the stairs of Paris’s Grand Palais, Shalom Harlow is dressed in a stately Chanel-coded Bouclé coatdress with a cascading asymmetrical skirt, embellished with white camellias. Later donned by model Sora Choi at the Met Gala, the coat is worn over a white button-down shirt and a black tie embellished with a silver pin. An imposing black-and-white tweed cape frames the model, littered with cream-coloured camellias as Chanel’s signature gold-chain detailing swirls across it. A red, white, and blue detail near the hem ties back to Browne’s collegiate signature style.
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It goes without saying that the suit is a quintessential, fixed entity in menswear. The two designers demonstrate that it is also endlessly open to interpretation. Designing in two different eras, their contributions to the canon of fashion have a clear common thread between them – applying unorthodox codes to suiting tradition, effectively turning a garment synonymous with conformity on its head with tasteful eccentricity.
In the canon of 20th and 21st century fashion, Lagerfeld’s legacy has paved the way for generations of fashion designers, including Browne himself. A poignant love letter to a legend, Thom Browne’s “Dear Karl…”, was one of the strongest tributes to grace the Met Gala carpet.
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The archive is continuously alive in fashion. As quickly as the world moves in the age of information and rapid trend cycles, it never pales or loses its relevance. Thom Browne’s intelligent use of Lagerfeld’s archive in a tribute to Lagerfeld himself was the most fitting way to pay homage to a designer who honoured the archive.