May 31, 2023

Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue and global editor of Condé Nast, has been the maestro of every Met Gala since 1999. But this time it’s personal.

Not only because the exhibition honoring the party is dedicated to the work of much-celebrated designer Karl Lagerfeld, who passed away in 2019, but also because Mr. Lagerfeld was one of Ms. Wintour’s best friends for decades. He created the clothes that, she said, “I’ve worn to the most important events of my life — to my wedding, to my kids’ weddings, to Met Galas and state dinners and tennis championships where I watched my heroes compete for their dreams.”

To her, she said, Mr. Lagerfeld “a uniform, a kind of armor and a way to hold certain moods and memories. His fashion does what fashion should do for me. It gives me more confidence to be myself.”

Now, when she wears his work, she said, “I still feel like I have him close by.” The Times asked Ms Wintour to pick some of the favorite Lagerfeld designs still hanging in her closet and describe the memories they evoke.

I wore this collage Chanel dress with Hillary Clinton at the amfAR gala in New York while she was in the middle of her first term as a senator in 2003. I wanted to feel both chic and confident. I was thrilled when my daughter-in-law, Elizabeth, wore the same dress to her first Met Gala a few years later. Karl, who liked to pose against nostalgia, looked at her and said, “Recycled!” In fact, Karl’s dresses are recycled enthusiastically in my family, treated with reverence – but not too much. My daughter, Bee, plans to wear this dress to a Met after-party this year.

Honestly, I don’t remember when or where I first met Karl, or what I was wearing. I was probably nervous because in the early years of my career I was always nervous about meeting people. What is certain is that he quickly put me at ease. He loved to meet people and he loved to talk. We were both masters of compartmentalization—we kept our working lives quite separate from our friendship—and when we met socially, fashion was never our subject.

Karl was interested in so much else and seemed eager to escape the snow globe of his public life. He publicly embraced his image as the high priest of chic and surfaces and everything absolutely new. In private – a side he guarded much more carefully – he was different.

I wore this for the first time color box dress, inspired by the colored paints and pencils Karl always kept scattered across his desk, to a fantastically over-the-top Chanel spectacle he arranged ten years ago in Dallas, one of the first catwalk productions in unlikely locations. (This “travelling” fashion show model, breaking away from the boring catwalks in Paris or Milan, was hugely influential because Karl did it. Other houses soon followed.) This event was completed with a drive-in movie theater, a bucking – bronco ride and a rodeo.

Since then, that paint box dress has been at many tamer parties in our family, including my son Charlie’s wedding. Bee has also worn it at possibly too many of her friends’ weddings.

Karl’s dresses don’t seem to age or date from a particular era. They stay with us as we travel through time and live our different lives. This trompe l’oeil dressa tribute to Coco Chanel’s love of jewelry, it was part of Karl’s first Chanel couture collection in 1983. It had been in my closet for quite some time before I found the perfect opportunity to wear it to President Biden’s state dinner for Emmanuel Macron.

Over the years, Karl has designed a number of dresses especially for me, but we never talked about how they should be. It was more like osmosis. We exchanged a few words or a few texts about an occasion, and from there, Karl was able to figure out what would be just right – for the event as well as for me. He absorbed a lot more from people than he let on.

As broad as his own interests, he always seemed to have room for those of others, and over the years he sent me vintage prints celebrating my love of tennis and porcelain. Karl didn’t play tennis, and he didn’t like porcelain the way I did, but it was his quiet way of being attuned to other people’s minds.

Karl used to send me sketches that he could do in an instant, but just as quickly roll them up and throw them away. One of them shows us on the dance floor, a memento of the ways we spent our time together in Paris. In the early days of our friendship, we met at Café de Flore, where Karl was a regular. He later took me to chaotically planned, totally glamorous dinner parties at his house, and those incredible nights often ended with dancing.

Karl was a great dancer and a bigger night owl. As we got older and wiser and more outwardly respectable, we gave up late nights and the Café de Flore, and I persuaded him to join me for dinner at my hotel (Karl was always, sometimes ridiculously late, and on this way I felt I could get some work done while I waited for him to show up). But the airy skirt of that sketchboth ethereal and down-to-earth, is a reminder of that era of night dancing.

When one of his late parties was over, he would go home and read Hegel by himself and sketch long into the night. He was constantly sending me books, in large quantities—strange, unexpected books of the kind known only to those who spend time browsing stores.

One day I would fly across the Atlantic to present him with an award in London. I’m not very good at adjusting to time differences, and I don’t really like public speaking. I’m always early – in this case I arrive two days in advance – and on the day of the event, a few hours before it started, I got a vague alarming text: Karl just left Paris. Another a few hours later: Karl had landed and was in the car, but had stopped at a bookstore.

About an hour before the presentation, there was a third: Karl is on his way but wanted to visit a gallery. Finally, within seconds of our curtain call, Karl burst into the wings with an entourage of 15 and his usual puzzled “Am I late?” We were swept onto the stage.

Karl’s Chanel suits reminded me of his stubborn, unexpected strength. They’re uniform and armored, a testament to slow and controlled change, but there’s also something vividly human about them. When we went together to the opening of the Foundation Louis Vuitton in Paris in 2014, Karl told me that my golden trompe l’oeil dress was his favorite with me of every piece I had worn. Since then I have worn it often. It’s Karl at his best: the classic profile remade, the sparkle and simplicity, the way it brings out an idea of ​​strength in femininity.

Karl often surprised the world as a designer (he loved to turn heads), but as a friend he surprised me the most. Many years ago, as I entered my first summer vacation with my kids after my divorce, I was frozen. I wanted to give them a good time, but I felt broken. It was Karl, of all people, who sensed this and swooped in to lend a hand.

He had a holiday home in Europe, on the beach, he told us, and we should spend some time there. When we arrived, to my surprise, he had planned an entire summer camp full of activities for my young children – surfing lessons on the beach, day trips to the nearby art museum, evening dancing after dinner. Karl may have been even less of a kid person than a porcelain person, but he went above and beyond when I needed it most. You don’t forget that. A real relationship with Karl was an association and connection that was built up step by step over years.

Karl can be serious, but I will remember his tremendous sense of fun. In the early nineties he designed a lot very short skirts. We shot some of them in Vogue, and I kept wondering if the skirts were short enough. Whether it was to consider this question, or just to tease me, he sent me a short skirt suit himself. I wore a lot of short skirts in those days, but none were happier than his.

Or there was the benefit Chanel hosted in the meatpacking district in 1991, when the uptown crowd descended on West 12th Street in an endless array of split leather and ruffled tulle, all Chanel. I remember a journalist asking him if he had ever seen so many middle-aged women in biker jackets and miniskirts. Karl’s answer was typical Karl, generous and cool: “As far as I’m concerned, there are no middle-aged women.”

I never fully understood its contradictions. He was someone who could be rigorous in his diet, which was notoriously strict and health-conscious, and then consumed a tsunami of Diet Coke. He had a penchant for books and magazines and printing, but also needed the very latest technology and devices at his fingertips. He was always looking ahead to the next thing, to the future – with a fear, which I always felt, of falling behind, of getting caught.

He would have been alarmed to find the subject of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But “A Line of Beauty” is an appreciation and embodiment of his genius. Since 2005, I’ve worn his dresses to nearly every Costume Institute opening gala that I’ve co-hosted. This poppy dress, which I wore on the 2015 “China: Through the Looking Glass” show was an example of Karl’s agility and quick wits behind his desk. On the runway it was short, but with a swipe of his pencil it became ankle length – and it worked beautifully that way.

Our friendship meant everything to me and I miss him very much. I am grateful for all the moments, like this one, that can bring his work to life and keep him close in the process.