He was beyond generous, and his energy was formidable — and infectious.
Karl Lagerfeld gave his all from the beginning of his career right up to the end — not only creating transporting shows and unforgettable collections, but also photos, short films, books, illustrations, collaborations galore — and enough wit, wisdom and kindness to assure his place in history, and in many hearts.
He represented the very best of this industry. He took fashion seriously — but never too seriously — and he never, ever tired of it, nor belittled it. He always saw the big picture, and took pride in the fact that fashion was no shallow, empty pursuit, but a dazzling ecosystem of creative people, an engine and mirror of the popular culture, and an industry that supported millions of jobs and preserved rare craft skills.
Yes, he was prone to saying controversial things in the press and during live television broadcasts, but he had his reasons: “Well, I don’t want my lawyers to be unemployed,” he would say in his winking fashion.
He was riotously funny, attentive, endearing and surprisingly down to earth, despite his towering intelligence and imperious appearance. He was also a role model extraordinaire whose discipline, work ethic, attitudes and opinions offer a road map — or at least, inspiration galore — for a more rewarding career and a richer, more challenging life.
Here, in brief, are just a few of the wonderful things I learned from Karl.
Live in the now: In fashion, Lagerfeld found an industry that celebrates and defines the now, and he always kept his gaze fixed ahead, considering it perilous to exalt the past, thereby denigrating the present. “I am interested in what I am doing and what I will do, not what I have done,” he said way back in 1976.
He held steadfast to this conviction. “My favorite collection is always the next one,” he repeated in 2003.
He considered being open to the future as essential, noting that Gabrielle Chanel lost her cachet when she started to say that miniskirts were over and jeans were out. “Her final image was dowdy,” he lamented.
“When you listen to the same operas in the studio for 25 years, there’s a chance you’ll get the same dresses, too,” he once said.
By contrast, Lagerfeld kept music guru Michel Gaubert close by and crammed his bundles of iPods with all kinds of new sounds, from rap to techno.
I once asked him what he liked about the iPod and iPad in 2007, and he replied by fax, which he ultimately jettisoned for the speed and efficiency of text messaging: “For us, it’s like electricity, trains, cars, planes, etc. for other generations. It’s great to witness new things that never happened before us, and use them and life with them. It’s part of fashion or lifestyle — even if there is an overuse of cell phones and e-mails very often.” Touché!
Discipline is awesome: Only discipline could account for Lagerfeld’s staggering creative output, indefatigable nature and unprecedented career. It was something instilled in him from an early age by his domineering mother and he considered it “not something unpleasant” and an essential quality to face the challenges of life, and to wring the most out of it. “Discipline is like breathing; it’s easy, it gives one great strength,” he once said. “I’ve also learned to have no self-pity. I believe self-pity is weakness, but discipline makes life easier.”
I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t mystified by Karl’s enormous creative capacity and staggering productivity. What drove the man to keep up such a blistering pace?
“The lack of satisfaction; that I think I can still do better. That I’m lazy, that I could improve, that I should kick myself in the ass, and things like this,” he said in 2012.
Despite his stature and confidence, Karl never, ever took success for granted, always expressing hope that a collection and show would be appreciated, and that his work would be noticed above a multitude of other designer voices.
“Is there something healthier than competition?” he asked in a 2013 interview. “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.”
It was a conviction he applied to all things. “Life shouldn’t be that comfortable,” he said in 1994. “I push myself around only because I know the edge is more exciting than the restful center.”
Work is bliss: Karl always called himself “working class,” double entendre intended, and he exalted labor so much that the usual vocabulary seemed inadequate. “Work is when you do something that bores you to death and you do it only for the salary,” he said. “If you are lucky, you can do what you like to do in the best circumstances. I have the chance to do it. There should be another word to describe this kind of activity.”
By all accounts, Lagerfeld loved nothing more than being busy, something of a one-man multinational who juggled multiple labels, and assorted extracurricular activities. The latter he chose because he liked to do things he had never done before: an ice cream commercial, crystal tableware, a condominium lobby, a helicopter interior, a hotel suite or an entire hotel (soon to open in Macau). He stressed that it was deep in his nature to work like mad — so much so that a vacation for him is sketching and reading. “What I love about my job is the job,” he said in 1983.
When I would text Karl wishes on New Year’s Eve, he was invariably working on the January couture show, Choupette at his side climbing over embroidery samples. “She tells me what to do,” he would tease.
Get smart: Before his beloved Choupette came into the picture, Karl had another profound and lifelong love: for books. He was the ultimate poster child for continuing education, and learning on the job. “I’m a voyeur. I want to be informed, to know everything, read everything,” he said in 1991. “I have millions of spies. I read all kinds of papers — the best and the worst — all kinds of books, from trash to not trash at all.”
He would admit to, but not brag about, reading up to 20 books at a time. “Buying books is a real disease for me, but I don’t want to be cured,” he said.
Books covered the walls of his photo studios, and most of the surfaces at his Paris apartment, leaving little room to sit.
Lagerfeld never went to university, and left a drawing school to intern at Pierre Balmain. “You know you only learn by doing things, not by remembering things,” he said in 2003.
He was convinced that continuous learning and the mental demands of work are what safeguards a person from the hazards of a brain that, like a muscle, can turn to flab. “If the brain is a muscle, I’m a bit of a bodybuilder,” he demurred.
Be light, not heavy: Karl never took fashion too seriously, considering himself a dressmaker, illustrator and photographer and nothing more. “Nothing in life is serious. Nothing should look serious, because I think everything should have a light touch,” he said back in 1984.
“Lightness doesn’t have to be unbearable,” he quipped in 2015 during a preview of his latest couture collection for Chanel, all pale colors, gossamer fabrics and frothy embroideries. (His pun on the title of Milan Kundera’s celebrated novel was signature Lagerfeld: witty, but also extremely telling.)
The designer never frowned on caricatures of himself, however silly. His likeness became a Japanese figurine, a Barbie doll, a parody book based on “Where’s Waldo,” and a fur pom-pom at Fendi that Cara Delevingne dangled from her finger to open the fall 2014 show. Why this frivolous fur dolly? “Because I’m a cartoon, my dear,” he said in 2015. “I’m easy, everybody can recognize me, and it’s fine.”
Lagerfeld simply shrugged at questions about how he was able to propel Fendi and Chanel to ever greater heights over multiple decades.
“That is a mystery that I don’t try to analyze because that would be very unhealthy,” he said in 2013. “I just work like this. I’m not such a serious person. I don’t ask too many questions. I try to give the right answers. I don’t listen to my voice. I listen to my inspiration.”