Why Makeup Was the Secret Behind Karl Lagerfelds Iconic Fashion Sketches
Photographed by Annie Leibovitz, Vogue, 2018

Why Makeup Was the Secret Behind Karl Lagerfeld’s Iconic Fashion Sketches

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2023 Costume Institute exhibition and gala is “Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty,” celebrating Lagerfeld’s enduring legacy, along with the translation of his 2D renderings to their final 3D form. And though said legacy may not be immediately synonymous with makeup, those familiar with his creative process know that Chanel’s longtime creative director enjoyed a unique relationship with beauty products—particularly eye shadow. To create his iconic sketches, Lagerfeld relied on unique mediums like Tipp-Ex Whiteout (the better to communicate volume and texture) and eye shadow, particularly from Shu Uemura’s cultish palettes. 

A sketch of a Chanel dress, spring 2019Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“The makeup, I don’t have any clue now when it came—many years ago,” says Caroline Lebar, SVP of image and communications at Karl Lagerfeld. “It came as a surprise for everyone because we did not see that it was makeup. Karl was always drawing at home, so we could not know what kind of material he was using.” After dreaming and drawing, Lagerfeld would arrive with a folder of creations and scrutinize the sketches with Anita Briey (the director of the atelier), determining how best to transmute them to garment form. 

Though the use of shadow may have begun with any number of pots and palettes, it soon filtered down to one: Shu Uemura. Lagerfeld became enamored with a specific red, which, once discovered, was incorporated into sketches for the remainder of his career. In fact, when the brand was forced to discontinue the hue due to lead content, Mr. Uemura re-created the color for Lagerfeld. 

A sketch of a wedding dress, Chanel spring 2005Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Lagerfeld’s artistic tendencies extended well beyond the atelier, with his creative touch offered to cars, furniture, and art alike. But his sketches continue to inspire—and fetch exorbitant sums—for their expert hand, old-world air, and attention to detail (often a result of the aforementioned red).

To Lebar, the inclusion of makeup lent more to Lagerfeld’s creative enjoyment and the elegance of the sketches than to the resulting designs. “He was using [the eye shadow] to make a contour or to create a beautiful shadow,” says Lebar. “It’s not the same look and feel as a pastel, for example—it’s less brusque, less bold…it’s very light.”

A sketch of a coat, Chanel fall 2017Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“I think, really, sometimes it was out of patience, the way he was drawing,” she says of Lagerfeld’s uncompromising attention to detail. It’s that very approach that allowed him to transcend one medium, morphing and melding the designations of designer and artist. And though Lagerfeld did insist that fashion does not belong in a museum, his drawings, details and all, belie his opinion—at least in this instance.