Karl Lagerfeld needs no introduction. It stands to reason that everyone in the room to see Lagerfeld receive the John B. Fairchild Honor on Tuesday evening is well aware of his legendary work for Fendi and Chanel — not to mention his own label. In conversation with WWD’s executive editor Bridget Foley, Lagerfeld talked about what has made his decades-spanning tenures at Fendi and Chanel possible. A big part of it: hands-off management and cushy work conditions. Lagerfeld has never had to rush to the subway at 7 a.m.
Perhaps the audience was slightly less familiar with Lagerfeld’s pre-Chanel history. The John B. Fairchild Honor was far from the designer’s first experience with the man after which the award is named. As Lagerfeld recalled, he first met the legendary chairman and editorial director in the late Fifties, when both lived in Paris, Lagerfeld working at Patou and Fairchild managing WWD’s bureau there. “He was not really keen on what I did,” said Lagerfeld of Fairchild. “Because, you know, I must admit I was bored to death.” At Patou he was required to create only two collections of 56 dresses a year.
“That is not a lot for a young man,” he said. “Imagine somebody who has to do only 120 dresses a year. That means every third day a dress.”
Lagerfeld found other things to take up his time, such as going to the beach, traveling, immersing himself in the incredible fabric archive at Patou and learning technique from the premiere of the atelier. “I never went to fashion school, nothing, but I’m pretty good in terms of technique,” Lagerfeld said.
Boredom led him to pursue a freelance career, working with Chloé, Krizia — “which in those years with Mariuccia Mandelli was like the Prada of today,” he said — and Max Mara. Lagerfeld’s ability to juggle multiple jobs without ever seeming to tire or at a loss for ideas is nearly incomprehensible to the average human and continues to be one of the hallmarks of his career. “I hate to be bound to one thing,” he said.
Foley spoke with the designer about other things he loathes, and many that he loves. Here, an edited version of their conversation.
Bridget Foley: What has made your Chanel the consumer psyche gold standard that it is?
Karl Lagerfeld: That is a very interesting question, but the story is what people forget today. When I took over Chanel, everybody said to me, “Don’t touch it. It’s dead. There’s nothing you can do.” And I said to myself, “I love that people think that. Now let’s see.” Then I met the owner and he said to me, “The way it is for the moment I’m not really proud. Do whatever you want and if doesn’t work, we see.” I said, “Could you put that on a paper?” So my contract is in fact very short because I don’t read contracts because I don’t believe in contracts. I believe in trust and work and something like that. Now, something like 35 years [later], the owner’s family never bothered me with one word, nothing. I can do what I want. I have a very tight team. And it works. So there’s nothing I can say. It was fine. But also, you know, not everybody is lucky to get in a business with a family who owns who can decide what they want and who let you do what you want.
B.F.: You talk about being bored as a young man after doing two collections of 65 outfits a year. Your work ethic is renowned; your productivity is legendary. When you accepted the Chanel job in 1982 you had already been at Fendi for almost 20 years. Did it ever occur to you that maybe those two jobs would be one job too many?
K.L.: No. And I will tell you why: I hate to be bound to one thing and nothing else. I want to know what’s going on in the world. Fendi, I had Fendi 20 years before Chanel, and I love Fendi. Fendi is completely different. Chanel is my French version. Fendi is my Italian version, and the very different Lagerfeld business is a copy of myself. So that’s another story.
I had never wanted to own a company. I’m not a [chief executive officer]. That is another job and I’m not good on the job because it bores me to death and you have to be gifted for that like Mr. [Bruno] Pavlovsky [president of fashion at Chanel] is gifted for that. So it’s not for me. I like only one thing. In fact, I’m not even an art director. I’m a sketching artist because I like to sketch. But my fashion sketches are easy to read. So I can do things without being there for hours saying, “This is for this,” because when I see old sketches from the Fifties there are no details. I give on my sketches every technical detail and it still looks, I hope so, like a trendy illustration.
But this is what I like. I spend hours doing it. My whole life is taken by that. But I’m enchanted and I must say I like the job even better now than I did when I was younger.
B.F.: We saw so many of your beautiful sketches here, drawings. And you used the word enchanted. They are enchanting. How did you develop your style of drawing?
K.L.: I don’t remember too well because I always make big efforts to forget. No, but it is very good. I have no archives. You want a sketch, I have to make the sketch. I have nothing. Fendi — I have 80,000. Chanel, I don’t know how many. I have nothing. I never look back at what I did because fashion is like show business today. You’re as good as your last show. But no, it’s your next show. And this is very exciting because I’m never pleased with myself. I think I’m lazy, I could do better, I could make an effort. I know it’s grotesque, but that’s how I treat myself.
B.F.: Did you ever have an “a-ha” moment when you knew that your particular situation at Chanel would create a new template for luxury house fashion?
K.L.: No, I never thought about that because I was the first and then Tom Ford in the years later. But Tom tells everybody that I was the first.
B.F.: I talked to Tom recently about you and he said, “Yes, Karl was way ahead of all of us and he has outlasted all of us.” Why has it been so hard for other companies to replicate?
K.L.: At Chanel, the conditions were never hard. They were soft beyond soft. I never suffered. I had not to fight. I mean, I was pretty lucky. I’m not sure that in the other houses people had such good luck, after all they never stayed as long.
B.F.: But that’s what I mean, there had to be obviously a special chemistry.
K.L.: Yes, but it’s up to me to create it. And also you work for a company, for a label. Fendi is Fendi. Chanel is Chanel. I don’t have to add Chanel by Karl Lagerfeld, Fendi by Karl Lagerfeld. If it’s good, people know. If it’s not good, it’s better if they don’t know. And you know, working the way I work, not putting my name on everything, I cannot even cross the street. So there must be something strange going on but I cannot control. But is OK.
B.F.: You’ve often said your ideas come to you in your sleep. And then you wake up and you always have a sketch pad available. Does it usually start with the set or with the clothes? And literally you’re dreaming of a waterfall, art gallery, Eiffel Tower. Is that how it works?
K.L.: Yes, yes. Sometimes. I hope it will work all the time, but you cannot count on it. Sometimes you have to make an effort and squeeze the brain.
B.F.: But when you do that, when you have the idea for a waterfall does the set idea come first and then you work on the clothes?
K.L.: No, no, no. It’s a mix of everything. There are no rules. I’m totally unorganized in terms of creativity.
B.F.: I guess I would say that the word disorganized is the wrong word. I mean, when you see these shows that Karl does they’re so amazing. I’m sure most of you know Karl recently installed a gorgeous waterfall in the Grand Palais. He installed the Eiffel Tower in the Grand Palais. When you’re designing for a set that you’ve designed, is it a different design process than when you’re actually going to some remarkable site, whether it’s the Great Wall of China?
K.L.: I only work with my instinct. I cannot answer this kind of question because I never ask those questions to myself. I don’t know why, I don’t know how. And even at Chanel nobody ever said to me, “That’s too expensive.” I don’t even know how much it cost.
B.F.: I bet someone does.
K.L.: If somebody would tell me how expensive or say it’s too expensive. I would say, “I don’t work for the poor.” But I never had to say that. At Fendi either. And I must say Fendi with Bernard Arnault and [ceo] Pietro Beccari, it’s also a dream like Chanel is dream. We went through difficult moments before the sale, then Michael Burke came in to clean all that. He had all of his work to do, but he did it very well. And now with Pietro, I must say it’s beyond pleasant.
B.F.: That is remarkable though. Fifty years with one company.
K.L.: Fifty two.
B.F.: Fifty two with different ownership. There must have been rocky moments. You just said it had to be cleaned up. How did you get through the rocky moments?
K.L.: I just got through it. I don’t remember. I don’t have a diary, so I don’t know. When I was very young I had a diary. And it was in my parent’s house…and when my father died my mother sold the house because she hated the place. And in my room there was a desk with my diary from the early years in Paris. So I couldn’t find them, but my mother was allowed to read them. I said, “Where did you put the diary?” She said, “I destroyed them. You think it’s [good] that people know that you’re that stupid?” You see? So I record nothing anymore.
B.F.: You’re very generous in your take on individual designers, and you said you think a lot of people are doing very good work and that designers are nicer than they were 20 years ago.
K.L.: Much nicer.
K.L.: Don’t ask me. They’re less pretentious. I don’t know. And, you know, for me it’s very important that there are good shows and new people, because if not it would be very boring for the people to come to Paris for fashion. So it’s in my own interest to push others that we make a nice crowd of all different kind of things.
B.F.: Whom do you think is doing work today?
K.L.: There this young Frenchman called Jacquemus. I think he has a good future and quite a lot, and J.W. Anderson at Loewe, he’s great as a person and everything. I like their personality also, no?
B.F.: You’re a world-renowned photographer. You do your own campaigns, but you do a lot of editorial. Do you ever think that you might make somebody else’s clothes look too good?
K.L.: No. No, no, no. Because it’s in my contract and I like to do my own campaigns and everything. Also if you’re insulated in studios, even if you have several, you are cut off from the outside world. Being in the world of photography the circle is larger. And I think that it’s very important because ivory towers are the worst. That’s the jail of the brain.
B.F.: You’ve said it’s hard for you to go out in the street. And you’re so easily recognized and that you tend to stick to a small circle. How do you stay informed? You told me you have spies all over.
K.L.: I don’t know. I have a healthy life, always had a healthy life. In the Sixties and Seventies when the others were on [makes sniffing noise]…you see what I mean? I never did. I’m kind of a serious person without wanting to be a serious person. That’s my nature. I’m born to work.
B.F.: Born to work. Where does the work ethic come from? Do you ever get tired?
K.L.: Yes, to go to bed and then wake next morning. That’s all.
B.F.: Do you ever feel at a creative loss?
K.L.: No, no. This is something people like to talk about because it sounds very artistic. I’m sorry. I love what I’m doing. I’m lucky that I can do it in the condition I can do it, and I don’t want to make it difficult. One collection follows the other. So I have not so much time to think about this kind of thing. I have to produce something.
B.F.: It’s been a very long time since the young Karl Lagerfeld won the Wool Secretariat prize with a very yellow coat.
K.L.: This was the Stone Age.
B.F.: So much has happened since then, including you have become the single most admired designer of your era and a cultural icon. You’ve got nothing left to achieve. What keeps you engaged?
K.L.: I have to make the next collection. That’s enough.
B.F.: Why do you still do it?
K.L.: You know, I don’t believe in achievement, not in the fashion world. The beat goes on.
B.F.: Why do you still love fashion?
K.L.: I liked it as a child. I was interested in what other people had on their backs and in my own clothes. I changed twice a day when I was a schoolboy.
K.L.: Yes. Sometimes now I’m not changing twice a day because I have no time. But my work organization is very special. I work at home in the morning. I do all my sketching in a white smock because it’s a dirty job to work with pastel and colors and things like this. And then after lunch I go to the studios for the fittings. I hate outdoor appointments in the morning. And what I admire most is people who at seven o’clock in the morning run to the subway and all that. This must be a terrible life.
B.F.: A lot of people would agree with you on that.
K.L.: I’m sorry. I never had this kind of life. And some of them do it for very little. So this is something I really admire.