The World’s Most Dangerous Profession

Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico. Click on image to see the costume inspired by this image. Photo courtesy of Miramare Foundation

Let’s face it folks:

Fashion and Costume & Design can be a very dangerous profession. When I think of all of the creative notables (and those in their periphery) who have come to an untimely end whether by their own hand or by another form of tragic demise, the list is staggering:

Alexander McQueen (suicide)

Isabella Blow (suicide)

Jay Sebring (Manson Family victim)

L’Wren Scott (suicide)

Kate Spade (suicide)

Wallis Franken (death by defenestration-look it up)

Gianni Versace (assassinated)

Ossie Clark (murdered)

Gianpaolo Castellani (trampled to death by an elephant during a safari)

Irene Lentz (suicide)

And then there’s this guy:

Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico (death by firing squad)

Why is there such a high death rate within this profession? More than likely because of the fact that clothing design is a hybrid between art and commerce, a hybrid that is not always a harmonious one.

Take a volatile creative personality and force them to answer to the suits in the boardroom and it can easily drive a sensitive person to a violent end. Of course each case has its own subconscious triggers but the results are the same.

And then there are those who die violent deaths; Being a high profile person unfortunately attracts those who wish to do them harm, as in the case of Gianni Versace or Ossie Clark. Then there is the subject of our Blog, The Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico. I was inspired to write this post after being commissioned by a Mardi Gras Krewe to design the costume for their King. The inspiration was drawn from an official portrait of the Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico. As I worked in the creation of the King costume, I was also inspired to do a little research on this misunderstood monarch. What does he have in common with the others on this list? Plenty, please read on:

Maximilian and Carlotta in happier days. Image courtesy Fundación Chapultepec

In the U.S. we have appropriated the Mexican holiday, Cinco de Mayo and turned into an excuse to guzzle Margaritas and eat Mexican food without a clue as to the history behind this celebration. So widespread is the ignorance around the holiday that someone once actually wished me a “Happy Cinco de Mayo” assuming that because I had a Spanish surname I would be celebrating the holiday. I can still see the embarrassment in their face when I patiently explained that it was a Mexican holiday and I was actually Cuban-American! Oh well..

But even those who may be slightly familiar with the history behind the holiday will say that it celebrates the expulsion of the French from Mexico and the execution of the evil, incompetent Emperor Maximilian. But peel back the onion layers of history and you will find that Max was a tragic figure, who was a pawn between several superpowers of the time. A person who was a bundle of contradictions, naive, idealistic, creative and in the end: heroic in the face of tragedy. Oh yes and he designed the costumes for the army of his adopted country. 

Our subject’s story begins in the Austro Hungarian Empire. He was the younger brother of the Emperor Franz Josef and like most second sons he wound up playing second banana in domestic geopolitics. But in spite of that, he had a successful career in the Austrian Navy and later became Governor of the Lombard/Venetian Kingdom. It was here that his creative streak began to emerge when he set out to build his new home in Trieste, named Miramare Castle. He was heavily involved in the design and landscaping of the property and the result is a beautiful fairy tail palace that still exist today:

Beautiful Miramare Castle in Trieste, Italy. Image courtesy of Museo Castelo Miramare

He was doing well for himself and for his wife Carlotta, when all of the sudden the fickle finger of fate intervened and sucked him into a political whirlwind that let to his tragic demise. Unbeknownst to him his older brother Franz Josef and Louis Napoleon III of France were hatching a plot to put a figurehead ruler in Mexico so that they could control the country’s silver mines and use the bullion to prop up France’s currency. However, there was a minor detail in that there was already a democratically elected president in place: Benito Juarez. He had confiscated these silver mines and other properties belonging to the oligarchical landowners of the country. Juarez had become an inconvenient person much like Allende in Chile had been to the CIA. So the two superpowers took it upon themselves to depose Juarez and install a useful idiot who would do their bidding in running the country. Sound familiar?

President Benito Juarez- Image courtesy of Museo de Arte Popular, México

According to historians, our friend Maximilian was duped by his older brother and the Emperor of France into believing that he had actually been democratically elected by the Mexicans and so accepted the offer to be their King. This might sound completely unbelievable today, but remember that news did not travel so fast back then. There was no 24 hour news cycle and sometimes it would take months for news to travel from one end of the world to the other.  So it’s totally plausible that the naive and idealistic Max would have believed this.

So he packed his bags and took his wife Carlotta along with mercenaries from the French army and set his sights on Mexico. During the month long journey to his new country, he did not engage with his ministers to learn the policies of Mexico, but chose instead to focus his energies on designing the military uniforms of his new army. Really. He also focused his energy on learning about the indigenous culture of Mexico and its flora and fauna. Evidently Maximilian had cancelled a long planned trip to Brazil to study their botany but obviously he found this new adventure to be much more challenging.

Mexican Army Uniforms designed by Maximilian. Courtesy Fundación Chapultepec

One he was established in his new country, Maximilian proved to be much more liberal and egalitarian than he was made out to be by his European sponsors. For starters, he upheld many of the reforms that had been implemented by Juarez. He championed the cause of the Campesinos and refused to return the confiscated lands to the Church and forget about the silver mines! Maximilian had barely steeped off the boat and he was already making some powerful enemies.

Unfortunately such highbrow idealism also came with a smattering of ignorance and arrogance. Even though he upheld President Juarez’s reforms, he also invited him to be a part of his new Imperial Cabinet which only served as a major insult to Juarez since he was the democratically elected leader of a sovereign nation. This was something Juarez would deeply resent and no doubt encouraged him to order his execution later on. To add to the mess, Mexico’s neighbor to the north, the US was involved in their own Civil War; As the Union began to gain the upper hand, many Confederate soldiers and their families fled to Mexico seeking asylum. (The irony here is not lost.) Maximilian welcomed them and even allowed them to keep their slaves. This is a bit oxymoronic for the man wanted to abolish the system of peonage but gave refuge to slave owners from another country. 

So as you can see, Maximilian although well intentioned, fell far short of what would be required of a person in that unenviable position. He was making enemies from all angles and the powers that be were out to teach him a lesson. But in spite of the political intrigue and betrayal that surrounded him, Max still pursued his creative bug by redecorating what would become his Imperial residence: Chapultepec Castle. Just as he did with Miramare, he worked closely with the architects and designer to create a lovely Neo-classical  style palace of unsurpassed beauty. In fact it is the only castle in North America to have been inhabited by an actual sovereign.

Chapultepec Castle- Image courtesy Atlas Obscura

To recap, the powers that be were out to get our artistic Monarch and his sensual world would collapse around him like dominoes in a southeast asian theater of war. The French never really succeeded in pushing Benito Juarez out of Mexico, he was just biding his time on the American border. The Americans in turn, invoked the Monroe Doctrine and ordered the French troops out of Mexico. Louis Napoleon had by now grown tired of his disappointing Protege and was only too happy to oblige. Besides, he was too busy invading Egypt. To top it all off, Empress Carlotta suffered a major nervous breakdown and wound up being institutionalized. And you thought you have problems?

The ill-fated Carlotta of Mexico-Image courtesy of Kunsthalle Museum, Mannhiem, Germany

The French withdrawal from Mexico gave Juarez’s army the chance to take back what had been lost earlier, the turning point being the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, hence the holiday. Maximilian and his few remaining soldiers where eventually surrounded at the city of Santiago de Querétaro. After a short siege, the city fell and Maximilian surrendered to his victors where he was summarily courtmartialed and executed by firing squad on June 16, 1867. Witnesses said that he displayed the quality of “noblesse-oblige” to the end. As he marched towards his death, he tipped his his executioners and ask that they aim for his heart, not his face so that his mother would recognize him in death. His last words were: “I forgive everyone, and I ask everyone to forgive me. May my blood, which is about to be shed, be for the good of the country. Viva México!” Noblesse-Oblige indeed.

Execution of Maximilian by Édouard Manet-Courtesy MOMA, NY

Thus ends a very cautionary tale about the dangers of idealism, betrayal and how one person’s obsession with aesthetics made him unable to balance cultural pursuits with Realpolitik, causing him to wind up on the roster that was presented at the beginning of this post. 

Signature of Emperor Maximilian I-Courtesy Bettmann Archive

 

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She’s Like A Rainbow

The Enigma of Elizabeth I’s Rainbow Portrait.

Elizabeth I “Rainbow Portrait” ca 1600 Artist Unknown. Courtesy of Hatfield House, UK

She is one of the most ubiquitous Queens in our collective consciousness: Elizabeth Tudor has been portrayed in films, books, plays, television series and so on. Every actress worth her salt wants to play her. The whole concept of the modern day Renaissance Pleasure Faire revolves around her court. We are all familiar with her appearance from art history classes and museum visits. Our whole concept of who she was and what she represented has been inculcated into our heads by endless exposure from all intellectual angles. In her portraits we see her wearing beautiful gowns, gazing down on us with her enigmatic visage and none of these portraits is more mysterious than the quirky “Rainbow Portrait”.

Let’s start with a little bit of background here: I’m not going to get into details about her family history because all of that has been covered ad nauseam by Hollywood and historians alike. But what I want to focus on instead was her almost anal retentive  obsession with her image and how she wanted to be seen by her public. According to her biographers, Elizabeth was surrounded by a public relations apparatchik that would put a Hollywood publicist to shame. This resulted in many representations of her that are heavily embedded with symbolisms. Portraits of her could only be commissioned by approved artists and they would be given an “authorized” stencil of her face which would be used a template in order for the artist to reproduce her face. This accounts for the almost identical visage in almost every single painting. Official portraits of the Queen where usually commissioned to commemorate an official event such as her coronation or the defeat of the Spanish Armada. The provenance of the Rainbow Portraits remains as much of a mystery as the cryptic symbols embedded within it.

For an art piece that has been so over analyzed, there is very little known about its aforementioned provenance. The artist is unknown and it’s not sure how it came into the possession of its first owners, the Cecils, father and son who where ministers to the Queen. It’s believed it may have been commissioned by the son to commemorate her visit to Hatfield House, the Cecil family seat.  Another curious detail is that when this painting was believed to be created, she was already pushing 70, towards the end of her life. But she is represented as a young maiden with long, flowing auburn locks cascading down her shoulders. Again, the official face template being put to good use and for good effect. Nonetheless, it’s one of the last known portraits made of Queen Elizabeth before her death in 1603.

Let’s have a closer look, shall we?

Starting from the top and working our way down, she is wearing a crown toped off by a crescent moon believed to represent Diana, Virgin Goddess of the Hunt. Diana, also represented the warrior and steward of the land, two responsibilities that were shared by Elizabeth in her lifetime.

Detail: Crescent moon toping off her crown.

Moving our eyes down along her costume, we can appreciate that it is dripping with pearls, a symbol of purity and another subtle reference to her virginity as she was known to be “The Virgin Queen”.

Detail: Multitude of pearls on her stomacher and elsewhere.

To her right, next to her face, there is a bejeweled gauntlet attached to her gorget. This represents the loyalty of her male courtiers and their willingness to throw down their gauntlet in order to defend her honor. 

Detail: Jeweled gauntlet on her gorget.

Her back collar has been stiffened with starch and fashioned into the shape of wings resembling angel or fairy wings. “Glorianna” was one of her official titles and also the title character of an opera composed by her contemporary, Henry Purcell: “The Fairie Queene”. 

Detail: Glorianna Wings

Her left sleeve is embellished with a brocaded snake holding a ruby red heart in its mouth: The wisdom and temperance of the snake holds in check the compassion and emotion of her heart. Above the snake’s head is an Orb, representing the Monarchy. Balance is maintained between the two qualities that are so important to a successful Monarch.

Detail: Snake, Heart, Orb

In her right hand she holds a rainbow and above her in Latin the words: “Non Sine Sole Iris” which translates to “No Rainbow without the Sun”. Meaning that if one wants peace and prosperity, then compromises must be met. 

Detail: No Rainbow without the Sun.

Finally, and perhaps the most curious is the cloak with the multiple eyes and ears embroidered all over. What could this mean? “I am all knowing and all seeing?” For most of her reign she fought and won against all odds. 

Detail: I see all and hear all

For Elizabeth, it was not how she was seen, but how she wished to be seen. And how she wished to be seen was as a ruler who consolidated authority, transcended time and defied the ravages of aging. As one historian explained, the imagery of “The Rainbow Portrait” represents the three pillars of her reign:

“Divinity, Virginity, Power”.

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Auf Wiedersehen Kaiser Karl

                    Karl Lagerfeld photographed by Helmut Newton. Paris 1979

 

Karl Lagerfeld 

09/10/1933 – 02/19/2019

The news of Karl Lagerfeld’s passing came on the heels of another project that occupied most of my time so I had promised my readers to give him a good send off in due time. Well, here it is and I hope it does him justice. Enjoy!

This is Karl Lagerfeld:

Early design for the House of Chanel (Coco meets Mae West?)

 

And this is Karl Lagerfeld:

“Lait au Bain” photograph by Karl Lagerfeld”

 

And this is Karl Lagerfeld:

Design for Tommy Hilfiger

 

And This Too, is Karl Lagerfeld:

Portrait of Harvey Weinstein by Karl Lagerfeld

And so was This:

Costume Design for cult film “Maitresse”, 1975

But He Will Ultimately Be Remembered For This:

From his final collection for Chanel

In the spring of 1982, I was in my final semester at the Fashion Institute of Technology, when it was announced in Women’s Wear Daily that Karl Lagerfeld had been appointed to take over as Design Director at the venerable House of Chanel. It echoed like a thunderclap throughout Seventh Avenue. The breaking news was also announced at the beginning of my Fashion Illustration class which was taught by another legend in the Industry: the late Harvey Boyd. 

Professor Boyd was quite an intense individual who never shied from sharing his opinion. After sharing the news, he began questioning us about what the implications would be, when this edgy designer commandeered this Fashion Warhorse. Keep in mind that first, Karl was not French (the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture was very xenophobic) and second many of the established Fashion Houses were still being run by their namesakes, ie: the House of Givenchy was still being run by Hubert and Saint Laurent by Yves, just to give an example. So it was a risky move to bring in an outsider who was already well established elsewhere.

Young Dilettante

So we young dilettantes bandied about speculating what his first collection would look like until finally Professor Boyd announced: “I want the class to create a series of illustrations of what Lagerfeld’s first collection for Chanel. The inspiration will be Chanel meets May West” with the caveat: “And if anyone shows me a picture of an hourglass figure in a tweed suit, they will be expelled from my class!” A tall order if there ever was one.

I’ll never know where he got the inspiration for this, maybe he had a back channel to old Karl and the design crew at Chanel (after all Professor Boyd was pretty well connected). Or perhaps this was something that he pulled out of his hat. But know this: I think he touched on the basic concept of Lagerfeld’s vision. It was his mutability. His ability to adapt and merge completely unrelated ideas to suit his client’s needs while making it totally his own.

Grand Theft Auto!

There are a lot of detractors who say that “There is no Lagerfeld Style”, well of course not! Lagerfeld spent most of his career freelancing for other fashion houses while occasionally stepping out with his own namesake collection. During the course of his profession he designed for the Houses of Fendi, Chloe, Tommy Hilfiger, Patou on and on. So much so that WWD labeled him “Fashion’s Busiest Freelancer”. But it was with the House of Chanel that he really took off. His innovations and presentations breathed new life into the dormant Couture Studio. His designs were so groundbreaking that WWD christened him with a new title: “Kaiser Karl’. And it stuck. Just like Howard Stern fancied himself the “King of All Media”, Kaiser Karl deserved this well earned nickname. He was not just a Fashion Designer, he was also a photographer, a painter, a writer, a video game character (Grand Theft Auto), a film director and a book publisher (yes, really). He truly was a Renaissance Man on the scale of David Bowie.

The “Death in Venice” Cruise Collection 2010 click on link below to watch

With great fame and accomplishments came great critics and detractors. He was accused of being a misogynist, of hating women, because of his remarks about singer Adele’s weight. Or his feud with Ines de la Fressange because she was chosen by the French government to be the new  “Marianne”. But I call out to those critics to answer this: It was Karl who hired supermodels like Stella Tennant and Jasmine Le Bon to work his runway shows when both women were well into there 50’s. Other designers would consider them to be one the hill, but not Karl; He knew the importance of catering to his bread and butter client: The well heeled middle aged woman. 

It was Karl who appointed his two successors shortly before his death: Virginie Viard for Chanel and Silvia Venturini for Fendi. Both women, women who had been his creative collaborators for over 30 years. Who is the misogynist now? OK, so maybe he said that Adele had a beautiful face and voice but that it was a pity she was overweight. I’m sure he’s not the only one who shared this opinion. Besides, two out of three is not bad!

With Model Stella Tennant Paris/Bombay Collection 2013
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qCuSN6Q30Ro

 

Although Karl Lagerfeld and Coco Chanel never met, they were creative soulmates. Both dabbled in costume design (Coco for “Le Train Bleu” and Karl for the cult classic “Maitresse”) and both where masterminds at taking the process of creating a couture collection to a whole new level. Coco Chanel liked to tie in her collections with a destination, Karl took it one step further and brought the fashion to the destination. Case in point his “Death in Venice” collection on the Lido Beach, the “Paris Bombay Collection” and my personal favorite: Chanel Resort in Havana, Cuba. All the time fusing the unique conceits of each culture while maintaining the integrity of the design concepts of the House of Chanel. 

Chanel Resort 2017 in Havana, Cuba. Notice the “Guayabera” embroidery on the Chanel Jacket and the “Spectator/Cuban” shoes. Fusing cultures. click on link below to watch:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o6PEVrQNk4w

 

Most importantly was Karl’s ability to laugh at himself. Case in point being Mick Jagger’s hilarious spoof of him on SNL. Rumor has it that Karl laughed last and loudest.

He who laughs last, laughs loudest. Jagger as Lagerfeld on SNL. Click to watch
https://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/versace-bathroom/2872711

Karl, worked tirelessly till the end, keeping his health problems to himself. His death came as a shock for most people because he was one of those larger than life figures who, like Bowie or Elizabeth Taylor, one thinks will live forever.

“Reincarnation” directed by Karl Lagerfeld, starring Pharrell and Geraldine Chaplin as Mlle Chanel.

 

So in closing we will not say “Goodbye” but instead “Auf Wiedersehen”.

Because the literal translation of “Auf Wiedersehen” from German is not goodbye, but “see you later”. And in truth you will never leave us Kaiser Karl, Your body of work and your legacy will live on forever to serve as an inspiration to us lesser mortals.

Jason Momoa at the 2019 Academy Awards wearing a final commission by Lagerfeld

 

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