Genius. Legend. Icon. Such words are inadequate. Karl was Karl. Like no other, unique. His iron-clad hold on fashion and the larger cultural psyche, around the world and across generations, for more than a half-century without a shred of diminished relevance, is astounding and impossible to put into perspective so soon after his death.
For now, remembrance and respect will have to do. And immense gratitude for this extraordinary man who produced an extraordinary body of work. Karl Lagerfeld awed with his rock-star celebrity persona. Those who love fashion know that his, particularly that for Chanel and Fendi, resonated as real, aspirational and transformational. Yet despite all he created, he refused to ever be satisfied, almost obsessively so. While others piled on the praise, he considered strict self-evaluation the better part of success. “Some designers think they are artists,” he loved to say. “I am not an artist. I make dresses, no?”
A dressmaker who understood scale and showmanship. Over the past 15 years or so, Karl became increasingly taken with the impact of megashow sets, embarking on that path before the Instagram explosion. He staged his Fendi tour de force on the Great Wall of China in 2007, and the increasing power of social only intensified his resolve. His Chanel sets became renowned, master works of creative vision and exacting, spare-nothing execution: all-white undersea world from which Florence Welch emerged from a hinged clamshell; Haussmann-esque Chanel Boulevard; space ship that launched; Chanel casino, nightclub, art gallery, supermarket, and on and on. Along the way, Karl garnered praise for audacity of vision and sometimes, criticism for blatant excess. More recently, he turned toward calm majesty — the Eiffel Tower, mesmerizing beach, and finally, January couture’s Mediterranean villa. Whether frenetic or serene, madcap emporium or man-made natural wonder, all were 12-minute home to a population of beautiful women in beautiful clothes that flaunted the signature iconography, often with irreverence, humor and overstatement, and sometimes, cultural commentary, but never angst or angry political messaging. Karl believed unapologetically in the positive power of fashion, both philosophical and commercial. He needed no more noble a goal than to make wonderful, wearable, salable fashion. It worked.
In showing fashion as big-budget theater under the dome of the Grand Palais, his preferred venue for many years, Karl brought his audience, both live and virtual, in to revel in the spectacle and ultimately, take part in the Chanel world he so perfectly reinvented back when and kept fresh through decades of fashion’s often treacherous vicissitudes. The shows were remarkably seductive, some outrageous, some enchanting, all perfectly realized.
Yet for all the take-your-breath-away show moments, the scene I will cherish most is that which played out season after season in Karl’s studio on Rue Cambon, the same enclave where Mademoiselle once resided and worked her own magic. A day or two before each show, Karl would welcome a small WWD contingent for a preview during his fittings. Typically, we would be greeted at the ancient elevator by a longtime p.r., Laurence Delamare, Ellie Hawke or Rebekah McCabe, who would escort us into the epicenter of controlled mayhem over which Karl presided and in which his creative process thrived. Frederic, his devoted butler, would offer coffee or a Coke as we settled into the studio, where Chanel owner Alain Wertheimer and president of global fashion and Chanel SAS Bruno Pavlovsky might be sitting in the corner, to Karl’s left. Around the room: a board featuring a Karl-drawn illustration of every look; countless handbags on drop-cloths on the floor, tables packed with the buttons and baubles du jour. And many people bustling about, each expert in one of the many aspects involved in creating at the highest level of fashion.
These sessions were privileged encounters; I am honored to have been welcomed in to experience the process of this man whose creative brilliance spanned major chunks of two centuries, to observe and converse as his work went on. Yet he made it feel like the most ordinary of circumstances. We’d sit in chairs pulled up to the messy compilation of stimuli atop Karl’s desk — books, iPads, random jewelry pieces, a stack of press packets for the upcoming collection. Always, these featured a Karl sketch on the outside and Karl photographs on the inside. With a conspiratorial tone, he might pick up an iPad to offer a glance at photos of the current set. (Unlike many designers today, Karl didn’t insist on keeping such particulars secret from you until the big show-moment “reveal.”) Once, taken with the “reality” of the Chanel Paris Boulevard pictures, I requested a private walk-through. The day before the show, I spent a good 30 minutes or so meandering about Karl’s private Haussmann’s Paris, examining building facades and street grates, unbothered by the adoring throng to come.
Asked how he conjured such ideas, the answer would always be the same. “In my sleep. That’s where I think of everything,” Karl would say. As for talk about the clothes, he would provide a key sound bite in his staccato delivery, and would then call on Amanda Harlech to fill in the details.
At the far end of the studio, a doorway opens onto a small dressing room. From there, each model would emerge for her practice runway walk toward Karl, awaiting either approval or adjustment. Karl would greet her in English, unless she were French/German/Italian, and he spoke in her native language. He would then deliver his orders — repositioning of the hat; a bracelet more or less; hands in pockets, please. Among those carrying out Karl’s every mandate: Virginie Viard, his longtime, trusted creative right-hand. On Tuesday, Chanel announced that Virginie will take over full design responsibilities.
Karl focused 100-plus percent on each model and her look, even while engaging in near-simultaneous conversation with us. Though he often proclaimed disinterest in politics, he would weigh in knowledgeably on the latest goings-on in the world — Trump, Brexit, Angela Merkel, the Yellow Vests, as well as on countless other topics — books, media, industry gossip. Then a seamless shift back to the bedecked young woman in front of him. Yes, the shoe works. No, the glove doesn’t.
Along the way, Karl disseminated selective updates on personal connections — his famous, famously pampered cat Choupette; his godson Hudson Kroenig, particularly so if the boy were set to walk the show. Karl would also inquire about former WWD colleagues with whom he’d forged relationships — Etta Froio, Ed Nardoza, Patrick McCarthy.
Karl did more than talk. He could be extremely helpful. I know. For several seasons a while back, WWD ran a video series, “Closer than the Front Row,” which focused on the preview process. Naturally, I couldn’t wait to feature Karl. When he offered an immediate “yes” to my request, I was ecstatic; who could ask for more than an off-the-cuff video session with quip-master Karl? No one, except Karl himself. Soon after we arrived, camera guy in tow, an atypical model bounded out from the dressing room — Gisele Bündchen, ultraleggy in a striped cardigan and bodysuit. She had left the regular-gig runway behind and was making a special appearance at Chanel. “Hi, guys. What’s happening?” she queried enthusiastically, commencing an interlude of video-heaven banter with Karl. An accidental scheduling overlap? Hardly. Rather, a surprise gift from Karl.
Yet that wasn’t my most memorable preview; two others merit that distinction. The first, for spring 2014 couture, I didn’t even get to, due to a faulty passport (it hadn’t technically expired, but, tell that to the French Immigration brigade), upon arrival at Charles de Gaulle. I was hauled off to an airport holding cell [read: customs jail] and, later that day, to the Police Hotel [read: worse customs jail] where I would either be held for several days or deported back to New York. My colleagues kept their Karl appointment, and Ed explained my absence. Pause the banter, the fittings, the show prep. Karl marshaled his and the house clout to get me out of custody after a harrowing daylong ordeal — on a Sunday night, when many far more mundane tasks are tough to accomplish in Paris. I like to think I hold the distinction of being the only person Karl ever sprung from jail; I will never forget his kindness in doing so, nor cease to marvel at the power he wielded and respect he commanded — from government folk no less — in orchestrating my release.
Which brings me to my other most memorable preview, my last one, last month, before what would be Karl’s final couture show. WWD editor in chief Miles Socha and I arrived a little early, preceding Karl to the Rue Cambon. (His days at the studio tended to start midafternoon and pushed into the night.) We waited downstairs in the building lobby. When he arrived, we saw him as we hadn’t in the past, his walking severely labored so that he needed assistance ascending the lobby’s two small steps. A back issue, he bemoaned. Yet once upstairs, he took his usual seat at the desk and held court as always, chatting with us while training his eye for the last time on every last detail of each model’s look. It was Karl in his element, fully engaged in the work he loved. The next day, he failed to appear for his postshow bow.
Once again, Karl had shown us photos of his set, this one a perfect Mediterranean villa. It radiated gentility and calm, as did October’s wondrous beach. That he recently shifted to such serene situations from his more visually hectic, high heart-rate sets (supermarket, space vessel) may have been happenstance. Or perhaps not. Nothing about Karl suggested that he was a fan of mortality, nor that he accepted his own. Yet perhaps he was starting to pull away from the frenetic pace of his work-obsessed life. Maybe his newly peaceful sets were his way of acknowledging that no one can launch rockets forever, not even Karl Lagerfeld.
Karl’s death comes at a volatile time for fashion, and carries with it historical poignancy. His ascent at Chloé and Fendi created a template for the long-term star-designer employee model that became an industry norm, beginning with Tom Ford’s emergence at Gucci. But that model didn’t last, and today’s appointments are a rapidly revolving door in and out, with varying degrees of short-term success. Only Karl lasted, at Fendi and Chanel. The template he forged proved too ambitious as an industry model, and he died a shining outlier, a golden era of one.