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The Paris spring haute couture may be less than two weeks away, but Karl Lagerfeld didn’t let that stop him from flying to New York for the WWD CEO Summit. After all, as he put it with a nod to his penchant for the private aviation sector, “There are traveling conditions and traveling conditions, so it’s not that difficult.” Nor, it seemed, was it for him to attract a glossy entourage for the occasion, which included Sarah Jessica Parker, Carine Roitfeld, Anna Wintour and Stephen Gan, as well as Lagerfeld regulars Brad Kroenig and his son and sometime Chanel model Hudson.
They came to see WWD’s executive editor Bridget Foley sit down with the designer to discuss a wide range of topics, from his fashion impulses — “I listen to my inner voices, like a French male version of the Joan of Arc” — to the relevance of couture, his relationship with the Wertheimers, who own Chanel, and his views on France’s recent political shift to the left.
This story first appeared in the January 9, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
WWD: Karl, I know you are not one to revel in past glories.
Karl Lagerfeld: My own past. Other people’s past, what I had known or I don’t know, is interesting. I am not really interested in my own past, because I know everything about it.
WWD: Well, one thing you know is that this year will mark, if not celebrate, your 30th anniversary at Chanel, and you have been longer at Fendi. Recently we have seen a number of changes at the creative helm of houses. What makes for a successful designer-house relationship?
KL: Some people say I am a hired gun, and I am very flattered to be one because the label is there. Ms. Menkes recently wrote a very interesting article about this in The New York Times. The label is there before, it has to be after. It’s not the star system of a person for a certain number of years and then…who knows? I think the important thing is to be behind the label, and not use the label for something that pushes your own fame. I cannot cross the street, but Chanel also [did] a lot to help me make Chanel what it is now. When I took it over, everybody — even the people from the business — said to me, “Don’t touch it, it’s dead.” Mr. Wertheimer said, “You can do whatever you want,” and I did, and apparently it worked because I am good when the work conditions are perfect. The people who don’t make an effort on things they know better get less. It’s very strange but the best get the best.
WWD: What were the conditions? Chanel was doing very badly when you went in.
K.L.: Ten or 11 years after her death, it was a sleeping beauty with one idea: respect. The good thing about Chanel is that her whole life was not that flawless that, “Yes, we have to be respectful.” The other side, that’s about fashion. Only doing an homage really gets nowhere. That’s boredom incarnated.
WWD: How do you balance the two — staying true to the Chanel identity that you, at this point, have nurtured and created, and with the proper amount of irreverence to make it modern?
K.L.: You have to have your eyes open. It’s easy to make Chanel into something fashionable for every period. First of all, there are so many elements. In a way, my job is to make believe that something’s very Chanel even if that was something that was never done at Chanel. It’s like a game, and maybe I am not too bad a gambler.
WWD: What is it that you have learned from your relationship with Mr. Wertheimer?
K.L.: Without that, it wouldn’t exist but he never interferes. I have nothing to do with the perfume, but in our world, we do the fashion we think is right. Me, Bruno Pavlovsky, Virginie [Viard], the creative studio director of everything, we don’t do meetings, we don’t talk about marketing. Maybe they have marketing people but I never saw them. I have never gone to a meeting in 31 years. In fact, 30 years is not true. It’s 31. The first collection was in January 1983 but you don’t do the collection the week before and I started in 1982. But as I am not into anniversaries, I will not be touchy about the subject.
WWD: Your work ethic is legendary. What drives you?
K.L.: If you accept a job or it’s something that is your own business, you do it decently, or you forget about it. I am beyond. I can do whatever I want, in the most perfect conditions, and it works. In a moment in the world where not so many things are working that well, I am very lucky and hope that this reflects in my work. Work conditions are important. I mean, I don’t want to run a company myself. I have nothing against business. My father was a businessman, but I like the creative freedom.
WWD: You said you don’t do meetings, and you don’t get involved in the marketing, but you make no bones about being a commercial designer. Do you think about how things will sell and performance when you’re designing?
K.L.: No, thank god, because then it becomes marketing. I hope it will, but I don’t formulate it. I think that’s a very unhealthy thing. I am a commercial designer. As Carrie Donovan used to say, “Fashion is what people wear,” and I don’t think that’s changed. I am happy that so many people in the world like Chanel. The other day, the owner of another big group asked me, “Do you have permanent sales at Chanel?” Why? “Because the shops are so crowded all the time.” I am saying we are pretty lucky. They may say I do the right thing. Somebody may do it better, but I don’t know who for the moment.
WWD: You have successfully done something so many people have tried. You have cross-generational appeal. Real women; young girls who want the first Chanel jacket; young actresses who can’t wait to wear Chanel on the red carpet…but you haven’t lost the core of the lady who really has the money to buy Chanel. How do you do that?
K.L.: That is a mystery that I don’t try to analyze because that would be very unhealthy. I just work like this. I am not such a serious person. I don’t ask too many questions. I try to give kind of the right answers. I don’t listen to my voice, I listen to my inspiration.
WWD: What inspires you?
K.L.: Everything. I am what people call a voyeur. I look at everything. I remember everything. I can redo things my way because a bad idea of somebody else can give you a good idea. I am like a building with an antenna that captures everything. I want to know everything. I read every magazine. I want to be informed. I think that’s exciting about fashion. You look at paintings from whatever century, but you can only date them by the clothes. That means fashion is important.
WWD: Are there artists you are particularly interested in right now?
K.L.: My favorite is Jeff Koons, because I think that’s the right spirit of our times. I like the spirit, the proportions, the person, the whole thing. When I like something though, I don’t ask myself why. I only like it, that’s all.
WWD: What are you reading right now?
K.L.: As I, more or less, speak three languages, I read a lot of books. I have two publishing operations in Germany with Gerhard Steidl, one for reading and one for photo books. I read what’s new in English, what’s new in French, what’s new in German, though there’s not much. For the moment, I am reading “Back to Blood” by that man in the white suit [Tom Wolfe].
WWD: You photograph other people’s clothes, you photograph fashion. Are there any genres that do not interest you?
K.L.: You never know where good photography is. I love to do architecture. It’s interesting for a designer to do photos, because if not, you are isolated in your studio after you do a collection. Doing photos, doing advertising, you meet with other people. You are not isolated. The worst thing in fashion, which was the case with couture in the past in France, is the ivory tower. I think that’s like a cemetery. I am very much against it.
WWD: What’s the role of couture today?
K.L.: Somebody once said that couture was dead when someone closed their house. Apparently, it’s not really true, because, in fact, there are more clients for couture than there were 20 years ago. The clients look like models. They could buy ready-to-wear and buy it because some of the rtw today has the prices of couture in the past. There are so many new worlds and so much new money. They’re interested in it because they discover it.
I think couture has a real reason to exist in a limited way, like Chanel or Dior, because they have a real couture house organization. Small designers who don’t have a real organization should do expensive rtw, because couture is not just the same dresses made-to-order, but it’s also the presentation, the fittings, the whole thing that goes with it. There is something mythical about it that cannot be improvised. You can make very good clothes at home on a limited scale but a real couture organization…there are very few left.
WWD: Are the new clients mostly in what are the newer markets or is there a remaining significant core in the West?
K.L.: Today, the private jets. Most of the clients don’t even see the collection in the salon. The collection goes to the country, it’s shown to the women after they make a vague choice on the video. It’s a different world from the past, because of private planes. Many of the rich people of the past are poor people compared to the richness of today.
WWD: You have also taken various rtw collections — not the major collections for spring and fall, but the pre-collections, the special collections — [out of Paris] and just did a big show in Scotland. How important is it, do you think, to leave Paris for a collection?
K.L.: It’s very important to do it in a very special way, because today, everything is shown on the Internet and on television. When you have a show with only a girl coming out of the door, crossing a runway, it’s OK for fashion freaks but the public get bored very quickly. There has to be some magical surrounding. That’s why I went to Scotland to this castle where Mary Stuart was born, and it was quite a magical moment. To do the opposite, next time, in a year, I will go to Dallas. You know why? First of all, I love Texas. I love Texans. There’s another reason. When Chanel reopened, the French press was beyond nasty. The only press that understood it immediately was the American press, and Neiman Marcus gave her the Oscar for her collection, so I think it’s a nice thing to go there.
Normally I try to find a vague connection. For Scotland, it was easy because her lover was hunting with her in Scotland and it’s is how she discovered tweeds, even if our tweeds have nothing to do with her tweeds of the past, but that’s not the subject. She went to Venice a lot, that’s why I did a show in Venice. She had a Russian lover, and loved Russian art, and so I did it in Russia. I try to find a connection, but the connection is often very vague. With Texas, it’s a detail, but with little detail, you can make a whole story. I am a storyteller for that.
WWD: Do you like going to different client bases? Do you like meeting with clients?
K.L.: I never meet clients. I never go to the salon. I am not a coutourier from that school — who goes downstairs to the salon to see if the dress fits. I don’t do this. I only do collections.
WWD: But what about the parties, when Chanel has a party in Scotland or Dallas?
K.L.: Yes, I go to them, but I am not really a party freak and I don’t have so much time. For Chanel alone, my contract…if there is a contract. In fact, it’s just a little paper between me and Mr. Wertheimer. It’s nothing. I don’t read contracts longer than one page because it’s boring and unnecessary. When people are supposed to work together, you don’t need a contract. I try to find the right way; what the company needs. Chanel, with all the shops in the world, needs not four collections as the contract says, but six. That makes eight with the couture. I do eight collections for them because I think Chanel is one of the few, if not the only company, where, every two months, the windows are totally renewed.
WWD: You say fashion freaks might enjoy a girl coming out of a doorway….With Chanel, we go in anticipating an extravaganza. How do you come up with the ideas?
K.L.: I thought a basic show was boring. One has to do something to make it more memorable. Also, the way people look at shows, on the television or the Internet, was very different 10 years ago. Look at the show in Scotland. Mr. Pavlosvky told me it made 100 million euros in free advertising only by going through the press and on television. Do you know many other things where you get 100 million euros of advertising for free?
WWD: In the past decade, we have seen some designers leave the landscape and many more, certainly in the U.S., come up, Do you pay attention and whom do you think has the potential for major success?
K.L.: Major success is very fragile in this business. You can have a huge success and, three seasons later, you are killed or fired, or you leave or are retired, or you have a problem. I am not talking about myself and so I don’t know. Of course I pay attention because I am interested in fashion.
I think we live in an interesting moment in fashion. People always say it was better before. That is ridiculous. First of all, one shouldn’t compare. Circumstances are different, and I think there are very many gifted designers in the world today. The funniest thing, in France, all the people who have artistic director jobs in important companies are no longer French — an American at Vuitton, English at Celine, Belgian at Dior. Isn’t that a strange thing?
WWD: This past season, with Raf Simons at Dior and Hedi Slimane at Saint Laurent, there was a lot of buzz about the season. Did you feel increased competition?
K.L.: Is there something healthier than competition? If not, you fall asleep and think success, and what you did, is granted. Nothing is granted in fashion, and this is what I love about fashion.
WWD: What irritates you most?
K.L.: What irritates me are people who create complications because they think they are professionals by creating complications. And then people who make things messy to look serious and in fact try to justify the salary. I hate this.
WWD: You said you don’t want to talk about French politics but I am going to ask anyway. Do you feel a difference since the last presidential election?
K.L.: A difference? It’s another planet. If you read the papers — and I am not French, so I can say it — you cannot believe what you read. The story between Putin, Hollande and Depardieu. Things like this should not exist in politics. I think it’s funny what Mr. Putin did because he doesn’t want to be lectured by the French.
You know, I never voted in any country. Politics is interesting if you are in politics. If not, forget about it. I stay in countries where I think it’s OK, the minute I don’t think it’s OK, I go. I am a free European, I am linked to nothing. I pay taxes in France but I wouldn’t pay one cent more. There’s no reason to, because I have no social security, I ask for nothing. I have a flat fee given by the left wing government 15 years ago. They respect that, I respect that.”
WWD: Indulge us in a little bit of nostalgia. Tell us about Paris in the Seventies and Eighties and fashion.
K.L.: The Eighties were very different from the Seventies. I prefer to forget about the Eighties. In the Eighties, I lived in Monte Carlo most of the time…because Paris with Mitterrand was not the most exciting place, either. The Seventies were great in a way because it was careless, it was free… as long as you were young. It had something unpretentious. It was not about money. You never heard about money. Today you hear too much about money. We need it, but as a subject, it’s not very funny. There was no red carpet, there were no 200 bodyguards for famous people. The cool thing was light, young, improvised and fresh. Today things are all overorganized.
WWD: You said there was no red carpet. I was reading some old interviews. Ten years ago, we talked about celebrities’ impact on fashion. Ten years later, that’s proven not to have been a passing fancy. What do you think the celebrity impact has been on fashion? Has it been good on fashion, bad for fashion?
K.L.: I don’t know if it has had an impact on the fashion department for the clothes, but certainly for the beauty and the fragrances, because the girls are great. You must admit. I can understand that everyone wants to look like them, but here’s another thing: You talked about couture. If you give an actress a couture dress a woman had ordered, they cancel the dress in a second. Perhaps they are afraid that the husband compares and thinks that Nicole Kidman looks better in the dress, but I don’t know. That’s a very strange thing, no? The public who looks at television is impressed by the red carpet. The women who are in a kind of competition on the money side, who buy the dresses, don’t see it the same way. But that’s only limited to couture.
WWD: But do you think that is, sort of, the world’s runway and by playing to such a broad audience, the fashion itself gets watered down?
K.L.: We propose, the selection is after. That is not our problem. My problem is to show collections I think are right for the moment and for the label. But I don’t think it’s bad or good for fashion. This comes later. This is not my problem. I am not a journalist, I am not a buyer, I’m hardly a consumer.
WWD: You did make a life out of fashion, and we know that you love photography and you have a real, serious, photographic career. Have you ever thought about writing memoirs or essays?
K.L.: No memoirs. I have nothing to say, and what I could say, I cannot say. But that is why I like this interview. I only answer questions personally, I have nothing to say. And also, you know, there is a problem with memoirs. Things are not always that pleasant. There are people who have perhaps played an important part in life, but I don’t want to give them the pleasure of ever mentioning them again. That limits the thing. I could write about backstage couture when I started at Balmain, but this is different. Memoirs, no.
WWD: What do you consider modern? Can you definite modern today?
K.L.: Modern is right for the moment and the next moment, but the word avant-garde is an overused word.
WWD: Is there an avant-garde today?
K.L.: No, avant-garde was OK in 1920, 1930, or perhaps the 1960s. Today avant-garde is an overrated word.
WWD: Last question, what are Karl Lagerfeld’s three, or four, or five, steps to success.
K.L.: It’s a whole staircase. I try to pay attention not to fall down, but with my black glasses it’s not easy, because in fact I am shortsighted. To go down the staircase, I don’t need it, and to go up I don’t need it either, so I prefer to keep my glasses to watch everything, and make an effort not to fall. I think, step by step, sometimes you go two steps back, that’s a healthy thing. Nobody has a one line career like this. That doesn’t exist.
Audience Question: You’ve channeled Coco Chanel and you know more about her than perhaps anyone alive. Is it true that she was an orphan and do you think that the underlying tone of respect perhaps comes from that?
K.L.: I think so. Her parents died when she was young. Her father left, her mother died. In the 19th century, people died very quickly with tuberculosis and all of this. She invented perhaps part of her life, but she’s totally allowed to do that. It sounds good in books. I think her big problem was about how to get away. You must put her back to the period. In those days, there was no big choice for girls. There was no background, no money, no school. You could be a worker, a maid, and if you were a little cute, you could make some money with men. Horrible to say, but we forget that today. Our moral standards of today are totally unnecessary to be applied on that period. It was very difficult period for women.
Audience Question: You have a very distinct look. Is it something that came about by accident, or is it something that you sort of evolved into?
K.L.: You know, you think it’s a very distinct look. For me, it’s a normal look. I have a shirt with a collar with a tie with a black jacket with jeans. I’m surprised myself. It’s not an invention — it’s a normal evolution. I had 100 different looks in life. Just like the steps of success, the steps of looks should be, too. Stay yourself, but change the aspect or else it becomes really boring, no? You cannot compete or compare yourself to what you were before, so you better change.
Audience Question: You had mentioned that you don’t keep archives. So you don’t go back and take a look at things from 20 or 30 years ago?
K.L.: No, never ever. First of all, I have a good memory. There’s a lot in storage, so if I make a good effort I can vaguely remember. It’s different for houses. I can cross all of the houses that I’ve lived in and decorated in my life, everything included. Professionally, I do not make this kind of promenade because I think it is not good. I can redo something because I had forgotten I did it, but I did not do it on purpose. The other day, I went to the opening of the museum in Paris for the show for Chloé, in my fact only my Chloé — the clothes from 1965 to 1983. I looked at it and thought “that’s not that bad,” but could not imagine that it was me, the person, who did that. I had no relationship to the thing. Some of them could still work today and they were good ideas. I was the most surprised person, but it was not an influence of my next step in work. The show was well done, I must say. But I had to shock myself.
Audience Question: Karl, you did a collaboration with H&M some years back and since then every year retailers have done some collaboration with designers. Do you think that this is over or is there someone that you would still like to collaborate with?
K.L.: It can continue and I think it is a very smart thing to do, collaborating for a short time, because you get into other kinds of work and it’s interesting, but it depends on what they propose. I’m not looking for jobs, thank god. The other day, some man from the Gulf called and wanted me to do something with him. I said, “I’ll see you when you come to Paris,” and he said, “No you must come.” I said, “No, I’m not looking for jobs, but I can send you my assistant.” He said, “We don’t work with girls.” I never called him back.