PARIS — It was a moment for the fashion industry to come together, momentarily put their competitive instincts and egos aside, and honor one of its greats, Karl Lagerfeld, four months after his death in Paris at the age of 85.
With monumental portraits of the designer framing the vast Grand Palais, the stage for so many of his spectacular Chanel shows, guests arriving for the “Karl For Ever” celebration gaped with awe, wonder, respect and affection for Lagerfeld, who enjoyed an unprecedented career in fashion.
A who’s who of designers, business titans, models, actresses and artists — plus a smattering of politicians and society figures — were invited to the celebration, organized by the houses of Chanel, Fendi and Karl Lagerfeld — a cooperation in and of itself unique — and conceived by theater and opera director Robert Carsen.
“I wanted something full of life and unexpected,” Carsen told WWD, adding that the event was designed above all as a “joyful celebration of all things Karl,” in keeping with Lagerfeld’s lighter side.
As guests streamed in, luxury worlds collided. LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton chairman and chief executive officer Bernard Arnault chatted with Alain Wertheimer, the secretive head of Chanel, who had removed his jacket in the balmy venue.
Kering ceo François-Henri Pinault posed for photos with Sidney Toledano, chairman and ceo of LVMH Fashion Group, and Chanel fashion president Bruno Pavlovsky, and was later seen chatting with Antoine Arnault.
“I knew him personally, not professionally. Salma [Hayek] was close to him and I met him through her,” Pinault said. “His studio was 50 meters away from my apartment in Paris, so there were epic moments with Salma. He was so free, and very respectful, very nice when you knew him on a personal basis.”
Stella McCartney leaned over a chair to greet Charlotte Casiraghi, while Anna Wintour hugged Ralph Lauren. Valentino Garavani, Alber Elbaz, Silvia Venturini Fendi, Kenzo Takada, Jonathan Anderson, Tommy Hilfiger, Haider Ackermann, Pierpaolo Piccioli and Alessandro Michele were also among the designer contingent.
Garavani recalled they met in the Fifties, when he was just starting out at Jean Dessès and Lagerfeld was already at Balmain.
“We didn’t see each other very often, but when we did, it was really the real friendship. He was a fantastic guy with unbelievable ideas. I admired him as a designer and I was very happy to be his friend,” he said. “We miss him very much.”
“It’s a very emotional moment for all of us in the fashion industry,” said Elbaz, lauding Lagerfeld’s “wisdom and vitality. I find that combination is rare, plus he had incredible energy and was never blasé. That’s why everybody is here.”
McCartney, who succeeded Lagerfeld at the helm of Chloé, said she was most impressed by his biting humor and sharp tongue — even when she was on the receiving end of it. “His intelligence and his wit is something that I will take away,” she said.
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“When I went to Chloé, he came out with an amazing statement that I just think is the coolest thing ever: he said, ‘I knew they would take a big name to replace me at Chloé, but I thought it would be in fashion and not in music.’ So chapeau to you Karl!” McCartney added.
“What I’m expecting of today is what everyone is expecting: to remember somebody who really fundamentally is crucial and was crucial to this industry, and who brought humor and was a zeitgeist of what is and what is to come,” said Anderson.
Giant screens and portraits of the designer were displayed around the hall of the Grand Palais, such as black-and-white self-portraits or images of Lagerfeld shot by photographer Annie Leibovitz. “We are in his setting. He owned it ‘til the end,” said Anderson.
“He was a wonderful man. He loved life,” enthused Michele.
“Most of these photos I know; some I didn’t,” Fendi noted. “It’s beautiful.” She was standing next to one of the rectangular aluminum bars, arranged in interlocking Ls, a wink to Lagerfeld’s design of the double-F logo for Fendi back in the Sixties.
“It’s as good today as it was before,” she said of the logo. “It’s something that will stay forever, which is why we are here today, because someone like Karl will be here forever.”
“I prefer Karl looking melancholy,” declared Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. “So handsome — young and melancholy, but also looking so tender. I have never seen this picture before.”
The photos provided some consolation for Antoine Arnault, head of communication and image of LVMH, which owns the Fendi brand.
“He was someone I knew very well, that I deeply loved. We saw each other frequently over the past 15 years, but it was more than that — he was a friend of the family and we were always plotting things, and we had fun with him. We miss him a lot. But he is here, a bit everywhere — it’s nice to see him again,” he said.
First Lady of France Brigitte Macron and Princess Caroline of Hanover rubbed shoulders with friends of Chanel such as Carole Bouquet, Inès de la Fressange, Claudia Schiffer, Caroline de Maigret, Carine Roitfeld and Kimora Lee Simmons, who said she was just 13 when she started working for Chanel.
“I was a young girl from St. Louis, Missouri, and he taught me so much about fashion and confidence, and really just going for it when everyone says you can’t,” she recalled. “When I wore my first wedding gown, I think I cried, I’m sure, all the way down the runway.”
Roitfeld chose to focus on happy memories of working with Lagerfeld. “It’s about laughing. He always made me laugh and he always called me Madame Roitfeld. And for me, he’s not dead, he’s still here, and I wore this rose today because I’m sure he would like it. Everything is for Karl, always,” she said.
Roitfeld noted that Lagerfeld always protested he didn’t want a memorial. “It was not what he wanted, but maybe afterward he would be very happy. You know, you never want that sort of ceremony, I know him, but maybe if it’s as good as I wish it’s going to be, he’s going to be very happy,” she added. “I miss him so much.”
De la Fressange thought Lagerfeld would have had his word to say about the choice of portraits on display.
“I imagine that Karl would have hated it! He would have come and said, ‘What is this cathedral? How dreadful,’” she said. “There are some pictures that he wouldn’t have liked so much because he was not thin, or something. I can hear his voice making stupid jokes and giggling, very probably, about this whole organization.”
Yet she said it was impossible not to acknowledge his passing. “I can understand that Fendi, the Karl Lagerfeld brand and Chanel had to do something. He would have understood. And for many people here — customers, journalists, friends — it was important to be all together and talk about Karl,” she said.
Singer and actress Arielle Dombasle said she became close to Lagerfeld when he designed the gown for her wedding to French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy.
“We remained friends ever since and I had such great moments with him, when he directed me in his short movies. He gave me all kinds of presents all the time. He was such a sensitive person, very sweet — not at all fake,” she said. “He would be happy to be in this place.”
The evening featured performances by Pharrell Williams, Lang Lang, Dame Helen Mirren, Charlie Siem, Tilda Swinton, Cara Delevingne, Charles “Lil Buck” Riley and Fanny Ardant, among others.
Swinton, dressed in a tweed peplum jacket and bloomers, recited an extract from Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando,” one of the designer’s favorite works. “Clothes wear us and not we them,” she declared. “They change our view of the world, and the world’s view of us.”
Delevingne, dressed in a fluffy pink feathered dress, took to the stage to recite a poem about cats by French writer Colette, one of Lagerfeld’s favorite authors, as images of the designer’s beloved pet Burmese, Choupette, were shown on the screen.
Mirren read excerpts of “The World According to Karl: The Wit and Wisdom of Karl Lagerfeld,” a book of quotes by the designer published in 2013, alongside Siem, who punctuated every quote with a piece of music.
“’When people show their ass, that doesn’t bother me. When people show their feelings, that bothers me,’” she deadpanned, quoting the book. “Personality begins where comparison ends,” she declaimed in French.
Lang performed Chopin’s “Waltz No. 1 in E flat major” on a Steinway piano designed by Lagerfeld himself, while Williams sang “Gust of Wind” from his album “Girl,” before shouting for everyone in the audience to “stand up for Karl” and to make the V sign for Lagerfeld.
The ceremony was peppered with clips of Lagerfeld speaking to camera, starting with a montage of him interviewing himself. “I don’t deliver a description of my person. You have what you see — there’s nothing behind,” he demurred.
Music, movement and the rhythm of the body were a great source of joy, inspiration and amusement to Lagerfeld. “The rappers are the nicest to me, they ask for autographs and want to shake my hand,” he said in one clip.
Lil Buck, the American dancer, actor and model who specializes in a style of street dance called jookin, delivered a sensational performance. He danced, whirled, twisted and bent his limbs as if they were elastic bands to music by Ryuichi Sakamoto from the film “Merry Christmas, Mister Lawrence.”
Lagerfeld was known for his love of tango, and in particular the Argentine tango singer Carlos Gardel, whose portrait flashed onto the screen at one point, followed by two separate performances by the German Cornejo dance company and orchestra.
While he danced himself, Lagerfeld couldn’t play an instrument — a never-ending source of frustration. “There is nothing worse than those who are not gifted trying to play,” he said.
Wintour kicked off the video homages. “He was the original multitasker, a man who did everything at once,” she said. Dozens of others followed, including fellow designers Maria Grazia Chiuri, Nicolas Ghesquière, Simon Porte Jacquemus, Kris Van Assche, Clare Waight Keller and Marine Serre.
“Karl made the fact of reviving an existing house possible, so he opened up the path for all of us who are now for reviving existing houses,” said Van Assche. “He made this idea possible that somebody can make an interpretation of an existing DNA. I guess that idea comes from him.”
Anderson noted that although Lagerfeld was from Germany, he came to be known as the epitome of French style.
“He’s one of the truest examples of being able to come to a country, and embody it. Sometimes it’s very difficult to be a French designer if you’re French, because you don’t see the irony in something. You don’t see the baguette, whereas Karl saw the baguette,” he said.
Waight Keller remembered Lagerfeld’s spitfire text messages.
“Every interaction that I ever had with him, his mind was so fast. I remember, we were texting each other about something. The minute I would press send, within 30 seconds I had a full response, and then I’d ping something and it came straight back again. The mind was so sharp, just an incredible focus,” she marveled.
Lagerfeld’s inner circle was also represented: his butler Frédéric Gouby, his longtime spokeswoman Caroline Lebar, his muse Amanda Harlech and his favored model Baptiste Giabiconi, who described how he asked Lagerfeld to cat-sit Choupette and never managed to retrieve his pet.
The most moving testimony came from Virginie Viard, who worked alongside Lagerfeld for three decades and succeeded him as Chanel’s new artistic director.
“Karl is probably the person I’ve spent the most time with in my life. To me, he was accessible. My opinion counted. Above all, he loved my energy and my ideas, and he showed it. Together, we created the most beautiful collections that we could and today, I’m trying to continue so that everything is perfect for him,” she said.
Princess Caroline described their friendship as undemanding. “There was just pure joy. We were so part of each other’s lives in a very enriching and extremely easy way — just sheer fun, and absurd and hysterical situations,” she said.
The event contained video tributes from executives including Arnault; Pavlovsky; Toledano; Serge Brunschwig, ceo of Fendi; Pietro Beccari, ceo of Christian Dior, and Pier Paolo Righi, ceo of Karl Lagerfeld.
Wertheimer allowed himself to be interviewed for the first time. Asked why he hired Lagerfeld in 1983, he said the designer came recommended by former Chanel executive Kitty D’Alessio, who said of Lagerfeld: “Above all, I was seduced by the prospect of having conversations with him.”
He noted the designer never considered fashion as art, and didn’t take things too seriously. “It started as a business relationship, and it very quickly became pure friendship,” Wertheimer said.
Arnault compared Lagerfeld to Picasso, noting that he managed to set trends for decades. “Karl used to say that the most important thing in life is to reinvent yourself. Some of the things he said, I felt very close with. For example, he often said he was never satisfied with his work. I’m the same,” he said.
Photographs and clips illustrated the many facets of Lagerfeld: photographer, publisher and even ballroom dancer.
The screen also displayed some of Lagerfeld’s most memorable shows for his three fashion houses, from the Fendi show held on the Great Wall of China to the multiple transformations of the Grand Palais, which he turned into a beach, a supermarket, a forest, or in which he installed a gigantic cruise ship or a replica of the Eiffel Tower.
After the show, a tearful Harlech was swarmed with well-wishers. She said her favorite moment was a clip of Lagerfeld cracking up as he repeatedly spoke German instead of French during an interview for TV channel Arte.
“It was so funny the way he kept stamping his feet! I laughed so much when I saw that on the screen,” she said.
Takada was similarly moved. “During the performance I thought a lot about Karl and I really laughed,” said the 80-year-old designer, who met Lagerfeld in the Seventies. “I really felt a lot of emotions.”
Fendi summed up the feeling of many guests when she spoke on screen about how hard it was to accept that Lagerfeld — who was notorious for always being late — was truly gone.
“I still ask myself, ‘What would Karl think about that, what would he do if he was in my place?’ The thing today for me, it is difficult to think that he’s not there. Because he was always late, I always think that he will arrive. Maybe this time he’s a little bit more late than before, but he will show up,” she said.
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