Fashion’s Greatest Stages

The revered and prolific fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld died this past February, leaving a legacy through his work: his fashion, certainly—and also the creative and dramatic shows in which he put those fashions on display.

He made rocket ships complete with “blast-off”; he transformed Le Grand Palais into a Provençal villa, a giant Parisian brasserie, an autumn wood with real leaves blanketing the ground, an ersatz grotto with hundred-foot-high waterfalls cascading over the side of a cliff into a pool below, a tropical paradise with actual waves lapping against actual sand. Among the fashion cognoscenti, Lagerfeld and Chanel were equally renowned for their shows—and their ability to fully transport their guests to a fantasy world—as for their designs.

The “rocket” at Chanel’s Ready-to-Wear Fall/Winter 2017 show, after which the photographer produced an image blending Chanel’s prop rocket with actual footage from real NASA rocket launches. (Photos courtesy of Simon Proctor/Rizzoli)

English photographer Simon Procter received unprecedented access to Lagerfeld’s shows for Chanel, and has now collected 75 of his best images in a new book, Lagerfeld: The Chanel Shows (Rizzoli, Sept. 2019). In the works for many years before Lagerfeld’s passing, the book includes never-before-seen candid photos of Lagerfeld and of models preparing backstage, as well as panoramic shots of Lagerfeld’s notoriously theatrical shows, some with multiple exposures meticulously stitched together to incredible effect.

“I had prepared a presentation of the book but Karl just waved it aside, saying, ‘I don’t need to see, I know all of the works, they are wonderful, your work is wonderful, the book will be wonderful,’” Procter recalls of an early meeting with Karl.

In the preface, along with the story of how he began shooting the shows, Proctor also reveals his personal impressions of Lagerfeld during their many meetings. “The two things I remember most were that he always personally greeted everyone in the room. The other, that he was very, very funny. Many times whoever was standing next to him could be seen giggling uncontrollably over something he had whispered to them.”

Backstage at Chanel’s Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2010 show, held at the Pavillon Cambon Capucines in Paris.

Procter also provides his personal recollections of each show he photographed, from Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2004 to the Fall/Winter 2019 Ready-to-Wear show that transformed the Grand Palais into the snow-capped chalets of an Alpine ski resort—the final show designed by Lagerfeld, following his death by two weeks. “There was a minute of silence that ended suddenly with his voice filling the vast space—an excerpt from an old interview of him discussing his ideas and hopes for Chanel. His words were full of optimism and intimacy. Then music soared and the show began. At the end, some were crying, others were cheering, and all were up in a standing ovation,” Procter remembers.

To the very end, each Chanel show served to evoke a sense of wonder at this great man’s theatrical genius.

“Karl Lagerfeld worked very hard for a long time,” Proctor writes, “and rarely dwelled on the past; he made people laugh and was polite to the point of graciousness. I think we can all learn something from that.”

Chanel transformed Le Grand Palais in Paris into a Mediterranean villa for the Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2019 show.