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Simply Chanel

Still, there is the nagging sense through the exhibition that a delicious secret has been left unspoken or communicated in a barely audible whisper. A Russian lover stirred her affection of furs; an English lover left her enamored with tweed.

The clothes of the day celebrated a voluptuous figure. Chanel was thin and with a tiny bosom. "Essentially she said, 'I'm chic; you're fat.' She made her own persona one that women aspired to," Koda says. "She changed the rules."

Before there was Tom Ford, Armani, Donatella Versace or even Lagerfeld, Chanel was the first true celebrity designer. She befriended artists such as Picasso and Jean Cocteau. From the vantage point of a Star-People-InTouch Weekly era, we find ourselves feeling as though we can't understand the work without a constant stream of intimate details about the famous creator. We yearn for more than the catalogue -- beautiful as it is with Lagerfeld's hand-colored images. We have come to expect an appendix to the catalogue prepared by People.

But the curators challenge us to focus on the clothes. The exhibition dares us to look closely at fabric, seams and details. To focus. When we do, we are rewarded. She embraced black before the Japanese. She beat Armani to beige. Deconstructed hemlines long before the Belgians thought of it.

This is not a retrospective. It is organized as a dialogue between Chanel's modernist philosophy and Lagerfeld's post-modernist one.

During his tenure, Lagerfeld famously embraced hip-hop style, incorporating oversize trousers and grotesque jewelry into his collections. At the time, there was a sense that he was mocking the Chanel customer, leading her down the dark path of nouveau-riche striving and "old fool" embarrassment. But he was applying Chanel's own belief. "Fashion does not exist unless it goes down into the streets. The fashion that remains in the salons has no more significance than a costume ball," she once said.

It is an unwritten policy at the Costume Institute not to organize shows around a living designer. The inclusion of Lagerfeld in this exhibition must have felt a bit like performing an autopsy on a live body. But his presence elevates Chanel to something that is alive, evolving and alluringly imperfect.

Lagerfeld shares Chanel's belief that fashion should be utterly of its time rather than a reflection of history. He likes fashion that gets down into the streets. But he is just as quick to mock the brand's iconography -- with a faux pearl necklace strung with golf-ball-size beads -- as celebrate it.

He, too, has turned himself into a fashion celebrity. He is a walking pastiche of popular culture and modern neuroses. With his white ponytail and sunglasses; his exhausting, machine-gun manner of speech; his diet book and hungry physique; his fingers full of rings and his fingerless gloves; he has fashioned a public identity that reflects our obsessions with fame, immediacy and appearance. He is vaguely aristocratic, a haunting "tale from the crypt," an intellectual curiosity. Chanel succeeded in inventing herself. Lagerfeld keeps reinventing Chanel.

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