Today, at the age of 85, Karl Lagerfield, one of the most legendary designers of the 20th and 21st centuries, has died. Below, we reprint Kennedy Fraser’s profile of Lagerfeld, “The Impresario: Imperial Splendors," which first appeared in the September 2004 issue of Vogue.
Karl Lagerfeld is a complex, brilliant, postmodern sort of man. He gives the impression that there is nothing you can think—especially nothing you might think about Karl Lagerfeld—that he hasn’t thought of for himself. “Perhaps I am pretentious,” he will say with a smile. Or “In a way my life is bizarre and eccentric, but to me it is the most normal thing in the world.” His life is ceremonial, even when he is alone. On the eve of a recent collection, I saw him pause at the top of the famous mirrored staircase of the Chanel salon in the rue Cambon. There (where Mademoiselle once sat on the third stair down, in her tweed boater, surreptitiously watching the audience for her shows) was Lagerfeld reflected by the angles of the Art Deco walls. Many Karls, wearing their hair in a white-powdered ponytail, lifted a hand with knuckles half-hidden in biker rings to check the knot below a starched collar a full four inches high. The same platoon of Karls gazed back through dark-tinted spectacles as if checking up on their collective mood. “I am a puppet of my own life,” he once told me. “A marionette. Not a human being.” The mirror moment passed. There was another pause at the threshold, a perceptible presentational instant, as if he were poised on the balls of his feet in order to see and be seen. Now he stepped into a square of brightness, already speaking to the people in the room. His step is light and quick. He loves ballroom dancing, and one friend compares him to Giacometti’s striding man. He looked inquisitive, happy, eager to work with the people from the ateliers and the models. He treats these co-workers of his with courtesy and kindness.
Rilke, a poet he reveres for the untranslatable beauty of his German, once wrote, “We are born provisionally, it doesn’t matter where. It is only gradually that we compose within ourselves our true place of origin, so that we may be born there retrospectively and each day more definitely.” Lagerfeld was born in Hamburg in 1938, but his life could have flowered the way it did only in Paris, where he moved when he was a teenager. He trained at the couture studios of Pierre Balmain and became head designer at Patou when he was 20. (Yves Saint Laurent, a friend of Karl’s in their youth, became the head of Dior at 21. “There are no young designers or old designers,” Karl says, dismissing the way new names are now pushed as if they were rock stars by the moneymen in corporations. “You’re there as long as you’re OK for the job. It’s like movie stars—based on nothing. There is no justice. You cannot expect pity.”) He became well known when designing for the luxurious ready-to-wear firm of Chloé, in the seventies. He has designed furs and fashions for the Italian firm of Fendi since 1965. And he has been a freelance designer for various manufacturers of shoes, jeans, and knits. He produces a line of his own, called Lagerfeld Gallery. And these days he works continually as a commercial photographer—a second career that enables him to create many of his own advertising campaigns, editorial coverage of his fashions, and portraits of himself. But in the blossoming of Lagerfeld’s celebrity—if not his rebirth as a Parisian—nothing has the weight of his masterminding fashions at Chanel.
After a triumphant comeback that began in 1954, Coco Chanel withdrew into a shadowy and embittered old age and died at 87 in 1971. Her house belonged to the Wertheimers, perfume manufacturers who had invested in No 5 in the early twenties. In 1983 Alain Wertheimer, having taken the reins of the privately held company, asked Lagerfeld to give the kiss of life to the house. For a decade the fashion had been ticking over in a shadowy backwater, taking care of aging clients. “If you want to ruin a business, be respectful,” Lagerfeld says. “Fashion is not about respect. It’s about fashion.” With an impeccable sense of timing he created the clothes, the publicity, and the atmosphere that drove the Chanel company forward. In German, French, English, and Italian, he sweet-talked the fashion press, giving them visuals and witty sound bites on demand. He made sensational shows, subverting and redefining the Chanel look in every way imaginable (trashing, slashing, parodying if need be) but perpetually filling the stores with a fresh supply of wearable sexy clothes, often with the magic logo of the double C. The new designer stretched to the limit Coco’s maxim “Luxury is not the opposite of poverty, but the opposite of vulgarity,” the way the special machines in the factories stress-tested handbag-chains and tweeds. “It worked,” Karl says simply, of the company’s remarkable success. The couture, the 134 ready-to-wear boutiques on three continents, the fragrances, the cosmetics and skin care—it all became the model of how to rebrand and make sales in the billions from a dead designer. Wertheimer, Karl says, has been “divine” as a boss. They trust each other completely; and there are no stockholders to whom they have to “streetwalk.”
The people at Chanel like to talk about the chemistry between Lagerfeld and Mademoiselle—such a productive one for the company for more than 20 years. Just because she’s been gone so long and he never met her doesn’t mean their relationship isn’t alive. When he was young in what was then the small, familial, still craft-based world of the Paris couture, the extraordinary comeback she had made at 71 was rolling along; only Balenciaga rivaled her influence on fashion. Lagerfeld has a grounding in the tradition, in the ancient techniques of hand-making luxurious clothes, that few if any designers can now rival. In his teens, he learned from elderly seamstresses at Balmain “stiff dressmaking” methods from the 1920s and 1930s. “In a way, I knew more than Yves, who had only the Dior techniques,” he says. He also had in his head a capacious image store of fashion history. His designs for Chloé seemed fresh in the late sixties—the age of Quant, Courrèges, the miniskirt—in part because of their old-style femininity and their postmodern nostalgia for the thirties. He was rich enough to build what became a world-famous collection of furniture and decorative objects by then unfashionable Art Deco masters such as Ruhlmann and Dunand. The seventies was a great age for dandies. Karl had a beard and a monocle, double-breasted suits, and then in his close friend the limpid-eyed, elegant, and aristocratic Jacques de Bascher a man whom Proust himself could have fallen for.
Karl’s vigorous, ironic, and knowing modernity, and his long experience in the business, made him just right to colonize the legend of Mademoiselle. “I want to be part of what is to come,” she used to say. What was to come, for fashion, was multinational luxury branding; fashions aimed at a broader, richer, and more “aspirational” market than the world had ever seen. Like Mademoiselle, Karl was a genius of self-presentation. He understood the value of a carefully controlled personal image as engine for the house’s sales: the designer's life as icon and artifact. For sheer fable, few lives could rival the life of Coco Chanel: the low-class provincial origins, the orphan years in the Cistercian school, the glorious progress from kept woman to independence and entrepreneurial wealth. The small daily journey (for, like Karl, she loved to work) across the rue Cambon from the Ritz, where she slept, to the salons that were spritzed before her arrival with her own perfume. The famous photographs of the enduring beauty that attracted a lifetime of loves—Balsan, Capel, the duke of Westminster (“the richest man in Europe,” she said), Iribe the ultra-reactionary illustrator, and more. Then there was the dashing “Spatz,” a Nazi officer and propaganda attaché. All through the Occupation she went right on living in great comfort at the Ritz, which had been requisitioned for use by the German high command.
In the new world of Chanel in the eighties, Karl chose a design strategy based on what the house referred to as “les elements eternels,” including the quilted bag, the camellia, the two-tone shoe, the braided trim. He embraced her continual play of contrast and contradiction: tweed and satin, black and white, and the “democratization” of jewelry by mixing priceless things with flashy fakes. Like most couture houses, Chanel had no archives, and Mademoiselle kept none. “She survived everybody,” her successor says. “She pushed the image of what was important in her own past, and there was nobody left to say it was different.” At first, he was like another admirer, wooing the now-virtual Coco: His published sketches of her—he is a brilliant draftsman—were tender and even romantic. But by this year, when he acted as the photographer for a Chanelish story for French Vogue, his cartoon of Mademoiselle—old, and with an exaggeratedly jutting chin—wanted only a pink tweed broomstick to be a picture of a witch. The photographs were shot in the private apartment of Mademoiselle, on the floor between the public salons and the ateliers at 31 rue Cambon. Visitors from all over the world come to pay homage to the Coromandel screens, her ashtrays and reading glasses, the white bergère where she was photographed by Horst, and the quilted-suede sofa, where she was photographed reading or entertaining friends. In Karl’s shoot the apartment looks gloomy and claustrophobic, reflecting his distaste for the decor of rooms he says he never enters as a rule. (Their occupant, he says, was nasty. He doesn’t think that he and she would have got along.) The model wears a Chanel suit from 1961 and a couple of pieces from the current Chanel couture, but the clothes are mostly copies of Chanels by designers other than him—worn with real diamonds from the fine-jewelry division of Chanel.
“Nobody believes me,” he tells me over lunch in his own enormous, light-filled, eighteenth-century apartment on the Rive Gauche. “But I have limited ambition. I only wanted to have a privileged life. A civilized, elegant life that is right for now. You have to have ambition to get to that level. But the minute you are there, you don’t have to kill your mother, your father, and the rest of the world to stay there. No. To go ahead—to go on doing it—is already a big ambition. One day I may be old, tired, bored. I don’t know. I don’t think like that. For me it’s six months. Six months. Six months.” He knocks his knuckles emphatically once, twice, three times on the tabletop, setting the iron-cross biker rings clicketing away like chain mail. “There’s always another collection.” (Eight of them a year, just at Chanel. And there are rumors that he is about to take on a big new challenge, as well.) “I have no idea of the future, never, ever. That’s what I like about fashion. It’s paradise now.”
Where Mademoiselle was reinvigorated by collecting and deacquisitioning lovers, Karl sheds his skin from time to time by divesting himself of houses and collections of priceless things. He lives in a palatial hôtel particulier—grand, high-ceilinged eighteenth-century rooms with historic wood paneling. For years the rooms were filled with furniture and rugs that had been made for King Louis XV and his queen at Versailles; Karl slept in a brocade-curtained bed topped off with a canopy of bird-of-paradise plumes. He became a world-famous connoisseur. He is a voracious reader of historical memoirs, among many things. As he sat on their chairs beneath their pictures, was he a character in the world of Madame de Boigne and the duc de Choiseul, or were they characters in his?
“The eighteenth century was a most polite century,” he once told me. “And so modern. It was perfect. The rooms were so flattering to live in. You can age gracefully in them. No one was young; no one was old. Everyone had white hair. Madame de Pompadour and Madame du Barry wore the same sort of dresses. Age is a racisme that showed up later.”
Then at a stroke he guillotined his dix-huitième: the little chairs and escritoires were shipped off to Christie’s or banished to the Louvre. He says he didn’t want to live any more as his own curator. “I like to collect things; I don’t like to own them. What I like about collecting is to create a mood, to put things together, then . . . gone.” The great Art Deco collection went under the hammer. The Memphis pieces went next. He has bought and sold a number of houses, including some where he is reputed never to have spent a night. But the apartment in Paris is where he has put down roots since 1977. “This is where I fit,” he says.
In decor he seems to be moving at lightning speed back up the rabbit hole to the present. He sleeps now in what he calls a “very funny” modern bed made with columns of light and metal. At the top of the great marble stair leading from the courtyard, the anteroom is a mirror image of his contemporary design for a reception room at the Chanel jewelry showroom in the Place Vendôme. His salon at home now has elongated, modernist white sofas and white flowers, as neutral as a luxury hotel. On the walls behind the sofas are giant plasma-TV screens, while the space at the center of the room is filled with towering stacks of extraordinary books on art, decoration, history, and philosophy. (He is the proprietor of a bookstore, at 7 rue de Lille; in addition, through the German firm of Steidl, he publishes what interests him.) He has never disposed of a single book, but he claims to want less and less of everything else. “I sold so many things, but I still have zillions.”
If he has been a shapeshifter in decor, he has also made dramatic changes in his personal style and most dramatically, in recent years, of his body. His response to entering the twenty-first century as a man in his 60s was to go on a strict diet and emerge, thirteen months later, looking like an insect. He lost such a large amount of weight (some 90 pounds) that people suspected an eating disorder. He had fallen for the narrow-cut clothes of the designer Hedi Slimane, who had taken over men’s fashions at Dior and was showing them on boys scarcely old enough to use a razor. Out went Karl’s roomy black Japanese suits (and his trademark fan, which had hid the double chin from the camera), and in came Dior Homme.
Karl was wearing a chalk-striped suit at our luncheon. A dark jacket, jeans, a high-collared shirt, and cowboy boots—for the present, that is his more usual uniform. He waxes enthusiastic about the cut of the Slimane sleeve: high in the armhole, tight, yet mobile.
“That's all Chanel was about—the tight sleeve. I won’t say Hedi invented it, but he put it back on the market for men.”
In his youth Karl was a bodybuilder, before it became the fashion. In 1971, he played a role in L'Amour, one of the movies Paul Morrissey made in association with Andy Warhol. There is a young Karl, with a head of thick, short black hair and bulging biceps, doing chin-ups in an undershirt while Jane Forth and Donna Jordan, naked, giggle and paint their nipples (a sight only slightly less startling than to see him passionately kissing Patti D'Arbanville). But happily he long ago gave up building muscles, which would not have worked with his Slimanes. (“Ugh, how grotesque!” he thought on waking up one morning.) He also stopped going to the beach, although he loves fresh air and has homes in seaside places (Monte Carlo and Biarritz). For exercise, he does the tango with Hedi.
Like Mademoiselle mixing precious stones with paste, Karl wore the tacky Chrome Hearts biker rings with a rare black diamond ring. He said he had owned this for six years.
“It’s very simple but very beautiful,” he said. “I always wanted it. But it belonged to somebody who refused to sell it. It took me 20 years to buy it.” As his house pares down, ornament sprouts on his person like an irrepressible efflorescence of his inner rococo. Round his neck, over a narrow necktie, he had a necklace of Napoleonic bees, from Dior Homme, and a Chrome Hearts chain, designed for backstage passes at rock concerts, holding the wedding rings of his parents.
He often talks about his mother and his early childhood on a huge family estate in Germany near the Danish border. The deer his mother would feed from the balcony, the cow barn like a palace, with fancy brass name plates for the pedigreed cows.
“I was lucky; I escaped everything. I saw nothing of the war.”
His father was a Hamburg-based industrialist with a fortune made, Karl says, from introducing condensed milk to Europe. His mother (who was in her 40s when he was born) was an aristocrat whose salad days had been in the 1920s. In later years he would have liked to talk to her about that era. “The twenties are over,” she said. “Who cares?” His father spoke Chinese and Russian; his mother could translate philosophy from the Spanish. In any of the languages he is fluent in, he rattles along at top speed—a habit he has often ascribed to his mother’s telling him to hurry when he was a little boy, because his stories bored her. “You may be six years old, but I am not” was how she put it. “Make an effort when you talk to me, or shut up.” She said he reminded her of von Ribbentrop, a statesman she thought particularly stupid.
He was, by his own account, an infant prodigy who by the time he was five could write, speak English and French, and demand his own valet. His whole ambition was to be grown-up. As a little boy he bought himself a print depicting a fashionable gathering in the Age of the Enlightenment—men and women in the fashionable dress of the day, with intergenerational powdered wigs—and hung it in his bedroom. Presumably when he imagined himself up there with them, they had all the patience in the world to listen to him.
His sisters, who were older, were sent away to boarding school—a fate he sought as a small boy to avoid at any cost. “I understood that if you were a troublemaker, you could do what you want,” he says in his forceful, enigmatic style. His parents were away sometimes. He learned to entertain himself. “I hate it when people say I was alone,” he says. “No. I was enchanted to be free. To read, sketch, learn languages.” The estate was filled with Eastern European refugees, one of whom taught him French.
Right up to the moment when lunch was served the day I went to his home, Karl had been working in his cavernous studio—the largest room in the house. As I sat waiting for him I heard his Afro-Cuban music and then some Beethoven float out through the door. The uniformed maid stood in the hall, awaiting the slightest signal that the wizard was ready for his low-fat lunch. (He keeps a large staff, including bodyguard, chauffeurs, butler, laundresses, and chef. “Do you think 40 servants is too many for one man?” he once asked.) When at length he emerged, he invited me to peek inside at his seven different tables, each with giant piles of books, dedicated to the different tasks—making his sketches for his collections or the cartoons and caricatures too mean, sometimes, to be seen while their subject is living; reading; writing the notes (sometimes illustrated) in his boldly sloping handwriting that he faxes or sends round by chauffeur to a network of friends. Somehow this luxurious workshop (whose disorder the maids are categorically forbidden to touch), this dream factory and power plant for thousands of jobs reminds one of the little boy alone. Like a dauphin’s, his private routine is often observed. Meanwhile, he conceals his reactions to the world by wearing sunglasses indoors and out. Even in the frolicsome L'Amour, he projected a blithe, good-humored detachment that is still characteristic of him.
“I am a watcher,” he says. “I have a kind of voyeurism in my relationship with periods and with persons. I never want to change people. I am the way I am, and I like people who are very different from me.” He never drank to excess, smoked, or did drugs like so many people he knew in his youth. “Somebody said the most important thing in life is not how to save yourself, but how to lose yourself. I wasn’t very gifted for that. My deep nature is Calvinist.” So many people of his own generation, he says, are “ruins” by now, who want to talk about their health or—worse still—about the good old days. “Fuck the good old days,” he says. “Today has to be OK, too. If not you make something second-rate out of the present.” He reads serious books, but for conversation he likes gossip. Mostly, he says, he spends time with people far younger than himself, people who are 30 or 35, like Hedi. He says he hates the louche. “I only like the light side of life.”
He was fourteen when (with his parents' consent) he moved to Paris to continue his education. He lived in the house of a woman who had been his mother's vendeuse at Molyneux in the thirties. He was supposed to go to a private school but spent more time walking the streets in a kind of rapture, looking for the hôtels particuliers that once belonged to the titled ladies he had read about in memoirs. He kept his own journal at this time and sent it to his mother. In 1954, at sixteen, he entered a contest sponsored by the International Wool Secretariat; he won the prize for a coat, while Yves Saint Laurent won with a dress. Saint Laurent, who triumphed so early and had Paris at his feet after he had established a fashion house of his own, faltered and ran out of ideas before retiring two years ago. Now his work is to be found only in his museum. As it turned out, Lagerfeld, with a far more complex career than designing clothes, was the survivor. “I was too pretentious to want my name over the store,” he says, laughing. He doesn't care if you call him an artist or not, and he is almost superstitiously opposed to designers’ having retrospectives.
For a man with such an interest in letting go of things and who swims so serenely through the modern world of image, subversion, and the context of no context, he is tremendously cultivated in a way that seems almost quaint. He has a phenomenal memory, and his conversation is continually peppered with quotations from poetry and the classics. At his huge house in Biarritz, he has three miles of books. He may be friends with Sir Elton and Sir Mick, with La Kidman and Princess Caroline, but he remains at heart an eighteenth-century scholar-gentleman whose inquisitiveness about the world is boundless. You get the impression he has worked to know himself and to accept what he finds, however nice or nasty. His virtues are eighteenth-century virtues: stoicism, a lack of sentimentality, and the rejection of hypocrisy. “It starts with me and it ends with me,” he says. “I never wanted anything that looked like a family.” He and de Bascher, who died in 1989, never lived together.
And all appearances to the contrary, there is a kind of modesty to him, a part that is very simple. He is supremely loyal to a few old friends; the gestures of affection he makes to someone who is sick or who has suffered a bereavement are experienced by recipients as a minor art form. His graciousness as a host is legendary: Decades later, people remember parties lit by candles, with footmen in powdered hair and breeches. An American friend, flying over to visit him in France for two nights, was astonished to realize that he had put himself and his whole staff onto Eastern Standard Time to spare her from jet lag.
Many of his staff and the people in the ateliers have worked with him for decades. “Il est un ange, Karl,” said Anita, the head of studio at Lagerfeld Gallery, who has worked with him for 40 years. He smiled when I told him. “I am an angel with the angels. And a devil with the devils.” Like many witty people, he can be cruel about others in conversation. Stupid and ugly are words he uses almost as freely as interesting and boring. If someone violates what he perceives to be his code of honor, if they “overstep the mark” with him, he will cut them out of his life, and he sees no need to forgive them.
“My mother was quintessentially Prussian,” he told me when we were talking about his high shirt collars, which are more like corsets. “Her idols were Walther Rathenau, the German foreign minister murdered by the Nazis; Koestler; Stresemann. They were all dressed like this. These clothes are cut like the clothes of those chic people.” After the war, his parents moved to Baden-Baden. His mother retired completely from social life (“She was not unhappy; she liked to read and be alone”), and then his father died—Karl likes to say of boredom. She didn’t tell her son about the funeral until weeks later. “You don’t like funerals,” she said. “Why should I tell you?” (It’s true; he also doesn’t go to weddings.) She disposed of many things, including young Karl’s journal (“The world doesn't need to know you were that childish and stupid”), and moved to France—a small château in Brittany, with four formal gardens. At 70, she threw out every last one of her skirts; from then on she wore only pants and cardigans. Frau Lagerfeld herself died, he says, of thinking she knew better than the doctors who told her she should take more exercise. She had the flu and sent for her doctor. Before he came, she got her hair done. She died as she crossed the room to greet him.
“She looked chic,” I said.
“I don’t know,” Karl said. “I never saw her. She left a paper to say I was not allowed to see her dead. Or go to her funeral.”
Normally when Amanda, Lady Harlech, Karl’s confidante and “muse,” comes over to Paris from her home in the English countryside, she stays at the Ritz, which stores her clothes from the Chanel couture. But she told me once that she had stayed in a little green-walled room at his house, with shelves of poetry and furnished with the pieces from his childhood bedroom. After lunch, I asked my host if I could see it. We went down a tiny hallway and into a room of such modest proportions, compared to the rest of the place, that we seemed to be in another country. When his mother closed the Baden-Baden house, she had it all shipped to him: his narrow French-style bed, the little Biedermeier chairs, the desk, the table where he used to sit to sketch and eat his breakfast, the German romantic landscape paintings with cows and stags and mountains. “The same,” he said, as we stood there in this green-tinted daze, with a garden outside the window. “Exactly.” His dream, he says, is to have a comfortable little apartment, with his books and this furniture from his childhood. “To have no appointments, never look at my watch, go to the movies in the middle of the night, read, sketch, daydream. Totally free, the way I was in Paris, those first two years before I started working.”
MASTER OF CEREMONY Karl Lagerfeld, photographed in the Jardin du Luxembourg. “If you want to ruin a business, be respectful,” he says. “Fashion is not about respect. It’s about fashion.”
PARLOR GAMES Lagerfeld is famous for taking the classic, iconic pieces of Coco Chanel’s day and rethinking them with provocative originality. From left: Chanel Haute Couture navy tulle dress with feathers. Chanel tweed jacket and embroidered lace dress with tweed detail. Neiman Marcus. Chanel lilac tweed jacket with lace sleeves and sheer camellia-print mousseline dress. Jacket at Bloomingdale’s. Dress at Neiman Marcus.
Karl Lagerfeld has taken a legend and turned it into a masterpiece. Out of a remembrance of things past, Kennedy Fraser writes, come the design ideas of an ultra-modern connoisseur.