“You need distance.”
Karl Lagerfeld was referring to his disinclination to offer a broad-stroke take on current fashion. Genuine perspective, he maintained, requires hindsight. “You cannot [judge] with an instant view,” he said during an interview a few days after his glorious waterfall show in Paris for spring. “That’s not possible. You need distance. We can talk about the Nineties now. Not in the Nineties.”
One wonders how time and context will enhance Lagerfeld’s aura; in real time, its enormity awes. In an era when the pop-culture superlative is as overused as the selfie, Lagerfeld is the real thing, a living superlative who has captivated the broader culture for almost as long as he has insider fashion. Six or so decades in, that fascination factor shows no signs of tempering, And it has naught to do with nostalgia. As Bernard Arnault put it, “Never has anyone deployed such inventiveness and coherence in fashion over such a long period.” Said Miuccia Prada, “Karl Lagerfeld is to me a representation of a true creative force. He has and is giving so much to the fashion industry, not only through his designs, but through all of the many artistries he masters.” Ralph Lauren heralds him as “our own one-of-a-kind Renaissance man.”
Across his various disciplines and interests, Lagerfeld has turned out creative work in volumes monstrous by mere mortal standards. And his work is not only abundant. It is always smart, current and, often, brilliant. Yet never good enough. “I am never pleased,” Lagerfeld said. Whether true or a motivational mantra, he sells the line. “I always think I could do better. I think I am lazy; I think I could make an effort. And that’s why I can go ahead. If you are pleased with what you did, that’s very, very bad.”
To know Lagerfeld is to experience his singular, almost surreal juxtaposition of grandeur, intimacy and honesty. During our conversation in Paris in advance of tonight’s WWD Honors at which he’ll receive the John B. Fairchild Honor, I asked about his early relationship with Mr. Fairchild, longtime editorial director of Fairchild Publications. For some time, he said, “I had no relationship with him at all. And he was not even very nice in the beginning. But all this I forgot because in the end it was all OK.”
More than OK. Once established, Lagerfeld’s importance to WWD never waned; we have chronicled every aspect of his remarkable career for decades. He arrived at Chanel in 1983, having just completed the first of two template-establishing stints at Chloé, and nearly 20 years into his tenure at Fendi, now 50-plus years and running. He oversees the creative for his eponymous collection, which, after numerous incarnations, is run under the auspices of Karl Lagerfeld Group BV. He is a world-renowned photographer, a niche book publisher and ardent bookseller, those endeavors sprung from his voracious reading habit.
The nucleus of it all: Chanel. Lagerfeld’s transcendence of mere fame into global cultural icon may not have happened had Alain Wertheimer never come calling. Lagerfeld was already fashion rock-star famous upon his arrival, the talent a known and ever-broadening phenomenon. Then, 12 years after Coco Chanel’s death, the house had fallen out of relevancy into a diminished dormancy, as had she. “Nobody cared about her anymore. She was the most démodé thing in the world,” Lagerfeld said.
Who knows how much the legacy of the lady herself has benefited from Lagerfeld’s attentions?
We do know his arrival proved the catalyst to a very special alchemy — a perfect, opportunistic blend of a storied name ripe for revival, a brilliant, audacious designer and a forward-thinking owner with the good sense to take a hands-off approach to that creative brilliance. It led to the most mutually beneficial employment situation in fashion history.
Tom Ford was then a student obsessed with the inner workings of fashion. “I was in design school at Parsons in Paris when Karl went to Chanel and I just remember it was incredible,” he said. “He was the first — way before me reviving Gucci, and Nicolas [Ghesquière at Balenciaga] and Marc [Jacobs] at Vuitton and Phoebe [Philo at Chloé]. Karl was the first. And he survived longer than all of us. Karl is still there. It is remarkable.”
Lagerfeld maintained that the volume and diversity of his work have fueled his success. Exclusivity breeds insularity, which in turn stifles creativity “because you live in a closed world, there’s no windows. I can do what I want. I have exclusivity with nobody,” he said. He doesn’t mind working within parameters: “Chanel is Chanel. If I didn’t like the idea, I shouldn’t do it.” At the same time, boundaries are amorphous. “I can Chanel-ize anything. I can make believe she did things she never did.”
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing. While the Chanel match between the Wertheimers and Lagerfeld has seemed to thrive in employment heaven from Day One, not so always at Fendi. There, after a happy start “when the sisters were very young and fresh and Carla was a kind of genius at p.r., too,” for various reasons, including too many family opinions, a sale became inevitable. “There were ups and there were downs,” Lagerfeld recalled. “And then thanks to Bernard Arnault, [former ceo] Michael Burke, who had the dirtiest job to clean everything, and [current ceo] Pietro [Beccari], things became beyond pleasant. And Pietro transformed it into a cash cow.”
Are there lessons here for other designers, whether the already famous or the anonymous aspirant? Certainly yes, in taking measure of Lagerfeld’s legendary work ethic, his steadfast belief that he can always do better, and his overt respect for sophisticated owners who in turn respect creative independence. Yet in other ways, probably not. While fashion has its share of monster talents, in this industry as in most, true genius is rare. A Mozart acolyte could mimic Mozart precisely without ever becoming Mozart. And at this particular fashion moment, it seems inconceivable that any designer and ownership pairing would last for decades. As for replicating Lagerfeld’s pop-culture status; the playful merch — the dolls, the phone cases, the handbags, the Choupette accoutrements (for anyone just emerged from several years’ residency in a hermetically sealed bubble, Choupette is Lagerfeld’s beautiful, beloved celebrity-in-her-own-right cat) — suggest that, in the public fascination sphere, Lagerfeld has struck some kind of nerve, and reigns as one of a kind.
Facetime with Lagerfeld supports that premise. Mine has occurred via several major interviews and, mostly, in Chanel ready-to-wear and couture previews that have become, for several generations of WWD staff, a highly anticipated collections season ritual. While the typical designer preview is a pop-in-and-out affair — greetings, inspirations, mood board perusal, a few looks — not so chez Chanel. There, one typically would walk into the styling fray on Rue Cambon, entering through a room with a round table often piled with accessories (most recently, a plethora of Chanel boaters, classic but plastic, in deference to the waterfall set) and propped against one wall, various artistic renderings of Lagerfeld, none commissioned. They just arrive, sent by creative admirers.
You then enter the studio, an upbeat frenzy of activity. Lagerfeld, dressed impeccably in Dior Homme and often accessorized with a bold fine-jewelry tie broach, held court at his desk, a mess of books, magazines, note pads and iPads. Immediately, his butler Frederic would offer a coffee or Diet Coke. Across the floor, models exited the dressing room, runway-walking up close for Lagerfeld’s review, while tended to by various members of the design and styling crew.
Lagerfeld launched into rapid-fire conversation, often starting with a line or two about the set, installed for many years now beneath the soaring dome of the exquisite exhibition hall, the Grand Palais:
Spring 2015, the Haussmann-esque Chanel Boulevard, for which he showed flat shoes only, not a single high heel: “It’s not the red carpet. It’s the street.”
Spring 2014, an art gallery for which he designed scores of original art pieces: “The idea came from people who overreact to art today. It’s all become a little too much.”
Fall 2014, the Chanel Supermarket: “Even the woman who wears expensive clothing goes to the supermarket, but she shouldn’t go in stilettos.”
And this July, for couture fall 2017, the Eiffel Tower: “It’s all about France. This is the moment for France, with Monsieur Macron as president.”
Lagerfeld then instructed house glamour aristocrat Lady Amanda Harlech to explain “something about the clothes,” while he continued his mental multitasking — commanding various studio people (in various languages, depending upon to whom he speaks) to swap this necklace for another, change the bag, tweak the hemline, or he’ll proclaim the look perfect and ready to go. In addition to his native German, Lagerfeld speaks French and English fluently; he regrets not learning Spanish and Portuguese.
“I love South America. And Spanish translates quite well into French. German and English don’t translate well into French. They are horrible. German especially horrible.”
Over the course of an hour or so, Lagerfeld might comment on a book he’s reading, world events (though professing to be apolitical, he’s highly informed and opinionated), or harmless fashion gossip — this designer said to be difficult; that ceo, on the brink of a move. If he knows a model, he might inquire about a prior job or a boyfriend.
What he doesn’t do is talk about himself — unless you ask. Which is the point of our postshow conversation at his bookstore, 7L on Rue de Lille – a jewel in itself and a front for a backroom operation — an 80,000-book library tended by two librarians. The space, a former courtyard, now enclosed, also houses the photo studio in which Lagerfeld does all of his nonlocation shooting. “I love this place,” he said. Lagerfeld maintains he can put his hands on just about any volume. “I walk very often and look at them. I know where things are. It’s my gym for my brain, my memory. It’s an anti-Alzheimer’s treatment.”
Not that he needs one. Lagerfeld’s work schedule remains as dizzying as ever. If he’s modified his lifestyle in any way in recent years, it has been in limiting the number of people with whom he spends time, more a concession to his celebrity than his age. He has often said it’s difficult for him to walk the streets of virtually any city, and he’s increasingly put off by the constant attention and selfie requests. “Normally I only see the people I consider very good friends. The rest, forget about it. No?” he said. Yet he stays very aware of the zeitgeist. “I’m very curious. I read every magazine, I have spies all over the place, I know everything. Very few people are as informed as I am.”
He has found streamlining a pleasant approach to his life — employing “pleasant” as a frequent descriptive — extending the concept not only to people but possessions, “detaching” himself “from unnecessary stuff. Houses, trips, holiday, social life, all that s–t.”
“My world conditions are beyond perfect,” Lagerfeld offered. He lives in a huge space, but one appointed sparely — at least by the standards of someone who once surrounded himself with the trappings of 18th-century ornamentation — which he likened to a studio where he can listen to his music and lose himself in the sketching that is both joy and essential to his work.
“It’s a perfect life for what I want now,” he explained. “I had other lives, perhaps right for then. But I am happier now.” He thus divested himself of the various Louis-era antiques at a highly publicized auction, just as the new millennium dawned, in the spring of 2000. Three years later, he similarly sold off his collection of Art Deco decorative arts. “It was not right for my mood,” he said. “I wanted something modern. Living in beautiful antique things, you feel as antique as the stuff.”
Not that he’s gone monastic or sworn off all things with a past. At the risk of sounding pretentious — his word — Lagerfeld supposed he possesses the world’s largest collection of antique sheets to dress his cloudlike bed, white sheets only: “Printed sheets are for people who don’t wash them often.…I think I have the biggest trousseau in the world and I love it. Even on my canopy I have antique pillows. Everything has to be washable.”
Talking of easily laundered bedding leads back to his sketching, often done in bed — the pencil not the color. He noted frequently that he never obsesses over what to do; endless ideas come in his sleep and he awakes, will grab his sketch pad and chronicles each thought. Dreams conjure not only the overarching motifs and sets, but “Yes, the clothes, everything, details, handbags. You will say that my dreams are very superficial, but it’s pretty good…it’s in my brain when you sleep, you know? You cannot make an inventory of what’s going on up there.”
Lagerfeld has loved drawing all his life. Initially, he wanted to be a cartoonist, his love of drawing spurred by his childhood fascination with a book of Aubrey Beardsley illustrations uncovered in the attic of his family’s country house, and, soon thereafter, by the German magazine Simplicissimus, filled with political cartoons, each “a masterpiece of drawing.” He particularly liked the work of Thomas Theodor Heine.
Then came the 1954 International Wool Secretariat Prize, which Lagerfeld entered after seeing posters all over Paris. It seems incredible that he and Yves Saint Laurent famously won in the same year, he, for a yellow coat that he now re-sketches in an instant, and Saint Laurent, in the dress category. For both, the win proved a first step toward fashion deification.
Lagerfeld’s prize led to a job at Balmain followed by a stint at Patou, where everyone was “quite nice.” Eventually, he grew bored, and after five years, embarked on a freelance whirl — Chloé, Krizia, Mario Valentino, Max Mara. “I did a lot of people.”
Decades later, two of those former employers have made news with high-profile designer situations. While stressing that he’s not a fashion critic, Lagerfeld acknowledged that he pays attention to the work of other designers and is informed and generous in his assessments. Of Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing, he said he is “a sweet boy,” and his work, “not my taste, but something quite interesting.” He didn’t pay close attention to Natasha Ramsay-Levi’s debut collection for Chloé, but liked what her predecessor, Clare Waight Keller, did there. Keller’s Givenchy “has to find the right way.” He said he is impressed with Simon Porte Jacquemus of Jacquemus and Alexander McQueen’s Sarah Burton, and he gets along swimmingly with Louis Vuitton creative director and fellow LVMH Young Designer Prize juror Nicolas Ghesquière. He jokes that the two have formed an unofficial alliance.
“We even have fun together in front of all the English designers [on jury] who never want French people to win,” he said. “English people think only English are good for fashion. Don’t ask me. But finally we got this French girl [Marine Serre] winning.” For the record, as listed on the LVMH Prize web site, the 2017 jury included only two Brits, Phoebe Philo and Jonathan Anderson, who’s from Northern Ireland.
While Lagerfeld apparently thought those two had a geographic bias when it came to talent assessment, he likes both and admires their work. In fact, he had a positive read on today’s designer population in general. “I like the people in the fashion world now better than the one from 20 years ago,” he said. “They are less pretentious, they are nicer, they are much friendlier, they don’t have stupid ego trips. I’m interested in what they do.”
As for his interest in his own work, he said he cares only about what comes next; he never looks back or deigns to assess his remarkable body of work: “The day I start to think that way, I have to stop. Oh no, no, no, no, no. It makes your brain heavy.” And legacy — don’t ask: “What a horrid word. It sounds like a funeral.”
Though not ungrateful for the endless accolades with which he has rightfully been showered, Lagerfeld prefered to remain his own harshest critic, viewing self-satisfaction as conduit to decline. “I am not paralyzed by success because I think in my own eyes, I am not a success, I still have to improve,” he declares, while adding a caveat for the disbeliever: “That sounds ridiculous, but it’s true.
“You know, like in show business, you are as good as your last show. I even say no, [as good as] your next show.”