There is no secret to Karl Lagerfeld’s success. There is only instinct. As the world’s leading example of the possibilities for reviving a dormant fashion brand, with more than two decades of experience at the house of Chanel, Lagerfeld holds an incomparable position in the modern evolution of the luxury apparel industry. In analyzing the growth of the Chanel brand under Lagerfeld’s direction — building the brand from a stale, yet iconic image into a global status symbol that encompasses ready-to-wear, couture, beauty and accessories — it appears to be the result of one of the most masterfully crafted marketing plans ever conceived.
This story first appeared in the November 17, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
But as Lagerfeld attested during a dinner conversation with WWD executive editor Bridget Foley at the United Nations, his is a mind that focuses on all things creative rather than the mundane details of business. Chanel’s ability to succeed, he said, has more to do with a rare confluence of circumstances at the house than any master plan etched out when he joined the company in 1982.
WWD: OK Karl…21 years into it, you have your core customers enthralled, you have girls lining up for the first Chanel jacket, you have movie stars all over the world, you have Chanel stores all over the world that say: “sell, sell, sell!” Let’s cut to the chase: What is your secret?
KL: There is no secret. The only thing is that you must be 100 percent behind it. You must never think you did it because the minute it’s done — what you said, they buy it, they wear it — then it means they have to continue to buy it and you bring something that they don’t really expect, but what they want and what they need. It’s a very strange thing. But I’m not a marketing person, I don’t think by instinct, I don’t do meetings, I’ve never been to a boardroom in my life, I just improvise, I’m a professional improviser.
WWD: So when you started, you had no strategy for Chanel?
KL: No, I don’t want to make things look too simple. I spoke to Alain Wertheimer, he just got the company then and everyone told me, “Don’t take over that, it’s hopeless, it’s an old name.” You know, because nothing was revived, few labels existed but — don’t say boring, but very basic. The good fashion excitement came later. This was another period. Everyone said, “Don’t touch it, it’s dead. Because if Chanel was dead, she was dead. Cemeteries are full of people you cannot dig up, you’ll have to do something else.”
There is something at Chanel that no other house has — a label and an initial is not enough?— what makes it is that the look is easy to identify. And I don’t think there is a label that you can identify that easily. We have the braids, we have the jackets, we have the camellias, we have the quilt. There are all those things. There is a certain number, called Number 5. And with those codes, we can play, you can adopt it to all kinds of coming fashion. What codes do other people have except their initials?
WWD: When you came into Chanel, though, the braids and the chains and the pearls had a certain “madame” aura to them, if you will.
KL: Because they were poorly used. If you look at what Chanel did herself, the braids, the chains, all of this came in a very discrete way. All the jewelry was small, the jewelry wasn’t brassy and everything was very dull. After her death, things became even more boring, because if you make collections because you have to respect what you are supposed to do, it means you have no personality, no talent, no nothing. This was a drop that needed fresh blood and a kind of cruel treatment of tradition. Some people say, “It’s terrible what you’ve done with Chanel.” And maybe what I’ve done would have killed her, but without me, she would have been dead.
WWD: You took over Chanel in the Eighties, but you sort of saw that through up to the point of more and more extravagance and opulence.
KL: It came step by step, you know.
WWD: Talk about the steps.
KL: When things are done and you see it from 20 years’ perspective, you think it happened in a certain way, but when it happens it’s all different: It’s slower. It’s less evident. You have no distance. You’re in the middle of it. So I never really had the feeling that I did something. And, thank God, I still have the feeling I did nothing, because the minute you say, “I did it, I need an exhibition, I am an artist,” it is more dangerous. The only person that understood that well was Andy Warhol, he was a fashion artist and loved it. He became an artist for other reasons. He never said he wanted to be Michaelangelo by doing his faces for Vogue. That is a big difference. And you must not forget that people like Madame Vionnet and Madame Chanel and all those people never had an exhibition during their lifetime. The best exhibition for clothes is on the backs of people who buy the clothes, who want the clothes, who are happy in the clothes. Extreme fashion in the past had a reason to exist because there were women who used to wear it, and now it is a kind of runway thing — [for someone] who doesn’t want to be caught up in the establishment. They want to be avant-garde, whatever the garde is, I don’t know, but that’s very, very dangerous for fashion.
WWD: Let’s talk about that because you design clothes that are constantly wearable and everything you put on your runways is constantly wearable, yet your shows are utterly editorial. How do you manage that fusion when others don’t?
KL: You know I think it is very difficult to explain because there are no rules, and you must never think there is a rule because it becomes a recipe and it will look boring. I finish a show, it’s OK, it’s OK, I don’t know. It doesn’t make the next one. That is my favorite line in the business. For me, every collection is a first collection. There was no collection before, and there may be no collection after. So all my future is leading to six months, but I have no vision longer than six months and I think that is very healthy. I take what the Germans call the zeitgeist and cook it my way but not sitting down saying we do this, this and this. I improvise, let’s try this, let’s do this. But you have to do that in order to get to the next step.
WWD: Let’s talk about if the zeitgeist seems to be turning in a direction that is not your way.
KL: That is more dangerous, but more interesting. Because then you have to analyze yourself and ask yourself questions. I’m not right for the time anymore. When you think it was better before, you better go. When you think the good old days were better, then you make your presence secondhand. It is the worst thing you can do as a crime to your life. So I always think the past is OK, but forget about it. What is important is now.
WWD: When fashion changed from the overt flamboyance of the Eighties and into the minimalism of the Nineties…
KL: But look at what Tom [Ford] did at Gucci, it was not that minimalist. It was a double life of sexiness and minimalism in the Nineties, but the Nineties, I think, are really now over. It is another, perhaps a more boring, epoch coming. I don’t know, I prefer not to think about it.
WWD: You just said a very interesting thing about Gucci. Let’s talk about the role of the designer in the megabrand system. You are a huge presence at Chanel. John Galliano is a huge presence at Dior. Tom has been a huge presence at Gucci, and now suddenly it’s over. In this year of house reinvention, how can an organization find a balance between brand identity and designer identity?
KL: When Tom took over Gucci, he had no personal identity because he was not a designer before, he started in that company. Chanel existed before and I existed before. His thing is different than our thing, but it’s easier to identify a brand with a person. Initials are okay. But, there has to be a little fun, a little sparkle, a little extreme, because if fashion becomes too boring, it’s not fashion anymore. Especially in the area of the red carpet. That is the whole thing, fashion has to be part of that. In the past, the idea of fashion and high fashion where it is a woman of society, that doesn’t exist anymore, so they have other faces, other lives, other tastes, you buy other kinds of magazines to see what’s going on. People want to know about what is going on with Nicole Kidman and all those people. These are icons of today, and these are important to the designer. I would not say that we are icons, but they need some visibility, too, because otherwise it’s boring. Your name on a label is OK, it is a guarantee of high quality, but with the licensing of the Eighties some of the quality of some labels was not so good, that they all killed themselves. And some of them try to get rid of the licensees in order to clean up their image, but you know more about that than I do since I am not a businessperson.
WWD: Can a major house, whether private or public, become too dependent on its superstar designer?
KL: That depends on the house, on the shareholders, on the owners and of all that. I think there is no general rule. You have to take it case by case. My case is different, but my thing is a totally personal thing. I don’t have a real contract.
WWD: Is there something to be learned from your relationship with Mr. Wertheimer?
KL: If you find somebody else and another brand without shareholders owning the whole company, then yes! But I don’t know anybody like this. I must say that I am pretty lucky because there is no other company to which I can compare my situation to and their situation.
WWD: How have you made it work all these years? Twenty years is a long time for any relationship. Have you had your spats, your tiffs?
KL: They trusted me, they gave me time, finding we needed less, but from the starting point on, Mr. Wertheimer said, “We can take time, we have plenty of time.” Shareholders never say “We have plenty of time.” They want it back. That’s another story. Its much more relaxed. I could do what I want, I do what I want. I could ask for anything and boom, it’s there. I don’t have to ask for anything. I never hear about budget, I never hear about plans. I feel what I want to do. Most of the time I see it in the early morning and I put it on the paper. So there must be something inside my brain that works like a machine, I don’t know, it’s a very strange thing but I don’t want to analyze because I don’t want to do automatic things.
WWD: Do you think that the rush to go public, the fascination with being public has hurt fashion?
KL: Going public was an obsession before Sept. 11, but now they are less into that. That changed the whole world, and this business, too, in a way. This going public to make some cash makes people tired of their company. It’s something I’ve never had to cope with.
WWD: Do you think the money guys in general respect the designers enough?
KL: I can only talk from my own circle. I’ve never had the feeling that I wasn’t respected enough, but Fendi is another story about the family business.
WWD: Do talk about Fendi.
KL: I talk about anything you want because I never make speeches because I have nothing to say. I only speak when I’m asked.
WWD: So what is your relationship with the Fendis?
KL: The Fendis — it is something that goes back to another century. I started back in 1965, which was not yesterday as you know, then it was still the family business with still the mother around with the five daughters who had to do what the mother said because the mother was tough, tough, tough, but divine. Really Roman matron, like in the book, divine. But it was quite a small business with shops in different parts of Rome and they had just bought a huge place to make expensive fur, and they showed at the same time then as the old couture in Rome. In the beginning only the fashion part of the fur collection became popular and then the mother died and the daughters took over. The trouble started when the saturation came in because saturation is always troubling as we all know. Then it was time to sell.
WWD: You mentioned couture. What is the relevance of couture today?
KL: It’s a tradition. It’s a special job. It has nothing to do with ready-to-wear because ready-to-wear today is what couture was in the past. Today you have expensive ready-to-wear that is beautifully made and you have the Gap and all those things, which means that middle thing doesn’t really work and nobody wants it. You can have for little money very modern things, or you can have very beautiful things. If you take a Chanel suit from today, I am talking about that because I only know those prices, it is exactly the price of what couture cost in the past. Today couture is beyond, and thank God there are a few people who are beyond and can buy that. So it’s extravagant because of the security things, the taxes, the strange things they have called TVR and all that. It is still out of this world but it still can exist and there is still a need in a way, there is not a need like there was in the past. Women have changed, but what has changed most is the body of the woman. Today, before they spend money on clothes, they spend money on their bodies. When I was very young, when you went to the workroom where they kept all the dummies of the clients, they were monsters, all of them. Today you go to the workroom and you see the same dummies, you have the feeling that they are 40 or 38 because they have model size now. So it’s different.
WWD: Karl, you remain a fascination for people. You have umpteen collections for three houses every year, the photography, always on the go, you have this legendary work ethic. How do you do it and how do you keep coming up with new things to do?
KL: For me it’s normal. I never did anything else. I don’t really want to do something else, it is OK with me. I don’t have the feeling I am too good for the job. Often designers, after a certain amount of success, feel they are too good for the job. I don’t feel I am too good for the job. I am OK for the job.
WWD: I guess so. Where does the inspiration come from?
KL: I cannot take it only from one thing because when you do a collection you have to have your eyes open — everything can be an inspiration. Sitting here looking at the river can be used as inspiration — you know everything can be an inspiration, everything can be used. It is for the moment, you have to go with your time. When you think your time is over, you stop. But you have always to find something in what is going on for the moment. Suddenly you find nothing, then you may be in trouble. You have to force yourself. Sometimes it’s easy because it is spontaneous. Sometimes you like it less, but then you have to make a little effort and you have to ask yourself why you like it. This is a healthy, survivor attitude.
WWD: Karl, it’s just that attitude that makes everyone think that you are the ultimate modernist, and yet you still prefer faxes to e-mail. You aren’t into technology, computers, right?
KL: No, I am into it but I don’t do it myself — the people I work with do. I still cannot do it myself. My little brain is my own computer. I use myself as a computer. I am a human computer.
WWD: Let’s switch gears a little. Let’s talk about department stores. What are they doing right and what are they doing wrong?
KL: Today the big labels have more and more shops than in the past. In the past European designers, to be known in America, needed department stores. Today well-known European designers in America have labels that have tons of shops. I don’t know if department stores have the strength and the money to impose new designers like they used to do in the past. That has nothing to do with the people who are running the store, it has more to do with the shareholders again — that they cannot do it at that level. The thing is, everyone knows that they have to compete with so many big shops. The position of a department store is completely different than what it used to be 20 years ago. So it is very difficult to say what is right and what is not — no, it is another world. They have to reinvent the whole thing because the situation is completely different. Every big label now has a tower —?its own department store.
WWD: What, in your opinion, is the area of fashion most ripe for explosion?
KL: I don’t know if this is the moment of explosion. You may have now the moment of implosion.
WWD: Well, what do you think may implode?
KL: I think it’s the turning point. What is going on — is a new century, it is a new world. The whole attitude has changed. People may have too many clothes, there may be too many labels, I don’t know.
WWD: Let’s talk about that — are there too many clothes? Are there too many labels?
KL: I mean today nobody buys at this level a new raincoat because their old one is over. They buy a new raincoat because suddenly there is a new exciting raincoat that you want.
WWD: Perhaps a new tweed-trimmed trench?
KL: I don’t take it personally.
WWD: I love it, I think it is fabulous!
KL: Whenever people give you advice for a new line, especially in France, people, buyers and women who are running the shops — they say we need a trench- coat. In the past it was only Burberry, and Burberry is still there, but everybody wants to be in Burberry at the same time, too. They all want their trenchcoat, but it is normal. Burberry invented the trench- coat, or the name, or the idea. Like Chanel invented the purse…but Chanel was in fact the first stylist…She reinvented something that people think was always Chanel. And that is genius. Who cares that the little jacket with the braids is a jacket from a luggage man in Salzburg? Who cares — it’s what she did with it, is the genius.
WWD: What companies do you see as ripe for growth right now?
KL: I like the idea of small labels, because if you say it becomes too big, everyone has it and suddenly there are people who don’t want it because they see it on everybody. And then the crowd who likes to see what everyone wears is bigger than the crowd of the people who like the things you see nowhere.
WWD: But is the small label an endangered species?
KL: It will never be. There will always be shops with smaller labels. They must not become too pretentious. I think it is very stupid when they talk about the young designers, if it needs the label “young designer” it means that they are not very good. The day they are not young anymore, what is left? It gets very dangerous. When I was young, it was something that was played against me because it means no experience.
WWD: But today, one good collection and we in the press are all over someone and the stores are all over the designer. Is that a bad thing?
KL: No, it’s not bad but it can be dangerous for the designer and they think that this is there forever and will never change — and in this business nothing is forever. And I think it is very unhealthy to be in retrospective after a few years. Clothes are there for the runway and to be bought. What I like about fashion is that it shows a proposition of an ideal life. Life may be not that perfect but there must be a possibility of an identification. Without the possibility of identification, it is irrelevant to me. That doesn’t mean it’s not creative — creativity is a good thing. But creativity without reality is something I don’t think is genius.
WWD: Do you ever think of retirement?
KL: No, why should I? Chanel started at 71 and died at 86 making collections…I think I have a few years left. I think one should retire when one doesn’t like fashion anymore.