Karl Lagerfeld was nothing like how you might imagine the world’s greatest fashion icon to be. His self-made image, as precisely drawn as a cartoon superhero, as instantly recognisable as a Nike swoosh – with his ice-white ponytail and dark glasses, whatever the hour a permanent fixture – merely the aloof public ‘package’, as he called himself, that belied a man who was far more gentle, generous and self-mocking than he would have the world believe. ‘It’s true, when you meet me, I’m not as horrible as I might seem in a photo with a mean expression on my face,’ he once told me, from behind his desk late at night in the Chanel studio. When I asked him that night who he took advice from, he announced with particular glee: ‘Myself, because before I propose anything, I ask myself several times and if the answer is not spontaneous, it goes to the garbage can.’ This was one of his favourite sayings – that almost everything went in the bin; as if he had so many ideas he didn’t know what to do with them.
I had the great privilege of interviewing Karl Lagerfeld on many occasions – at his former home, a grand maison particulière on the Left Bank (where he allowed me to see his bedroom, with its peculiar single bed, rail of Dior Homme suits and baskets of Chrome Hearts jewellery, his obsession at the time). I’ve interviewed him many times in his studio at the house of Chanel in rue Cambon and watched many ‘accessorisations’ – when every model stood before him in the dress rehearsal before his shows (‘That’s vulgar!’, ‘That’s perfect, beyond!’). I’ve caught his bon mots sound bites in the journalist scrum after his shows. And, for almost two years, I somehow found myself in the position of Chanel’s official post-show Karl interviewer, in Seoul, London, New York and Paris.
I observed that he always worked late, rarely arriving at Chanel before late afternoon and working long into the night with his inner circle. Indefatigable, he lived to work; designing eight collections a year for Chanel – one every six weeks – which roughly translated into over 600 fully accessorised outfits a year. His workload was immense, designing the collections, photographing the campaigns and dreaming up the blockbuster show concepts (‘They come to me, like a lightning flash, in the night when I dream’). The Chanel shows, held in Paris’s Grand Palais, became the fashion world’s most anticipated and extravagant spectacles – from the supermarket (stocked with 100,000 mock Chanel products) to the rocket (that actually ignited and lifted off). His imagination was limitless, providing the fuel that not only propelled Chanel’s perpetual renewal but turned it into one of the world’s multibillion-pound megabrands. ‘You don’t control Karl. You just have to give him the correct support and what you get is 1,000 times more powerful than if you tried to control him,’ Bruno Pavlovksy, president
of Chanel, once told me. To which Karl retorted: ‘Because if he [Pavlovsky] said “no”, I would say, “No, I don’t work for the poor,”’ before his self-deprecation kicked in with: ‘There is nothing I can do on my own. I’m just a stupid person who can make a sketch, has a few ideas, and who can vaguely talk and explain and has a vision. But I have no patience – I admire the seamstresses, when I see what they do – but it’s not for me, I’d be jumping out of the window after two hours.’
The most prolific designer of our age – even in his eighties – Karl regarded himself as the ultimate freelancer – ‘free’ being the operative word. It was this freedom, to design for three visually distinct labels, for Chanel (since 1983), Fendi (since 1965), and his eponymous line (which he founded in 1984), plus do any project that amused him, that oxygenated his work and the man himself. His insane workload also prevented boredom – which he detested and dreaded, saying, ‘I am never bored because I think being bored, if you have
a privileged life, is a crime that means you don’t know what to do with your life.’
His free-agent status, not being pinned to one point, one vision or one thought, meant he continually surprised us, season after season, year after year, decade after decade. He relished doing the reverse of what was expected. It was Karl, in 2004, who was the first designer to work with H&M, allowing the high-street brand to hop on the back of his luxury credentials and help break down the chasm between high and low fashion. The collection sold out in two days. His ability to reinvent fashion and defy convention went well beyond the catwalk when, in 2001, he lost 92lbs so that he could be slim enough to wear his Dior suits. He then wrote a book about it, The Karl Lagerfeld Diet – which, naturally, became an international best-seller.
Karl was an avid reader (with a library containing over 100,000 books), a tech whizz (he owned countless iPhones and iPads) and a hawk-like observer (of everyone and everything) – condensing all that came within his orbit into powerful fashion statements. All of which fed his greatest talent – for capturing the mood of the moment. From the time he took over Chanel, he pitched it squarely at a new generation, irreverently serving up the traditional tweed suit with knicker-skimming skirts, blinging-up the little black dresses and sprinkling the double C logo like confetti on everything he touched – including a bottle-top-sized bikini.
Every collection since has reflected the zeitgeist, including the time he erected a wind farm and a catwalk made of solar panels to talk about sustainable energy, or when he issued Chanel robots inside a show that resembled a mainframe computer, at a time when the fashion audience began to view every show through their iPhones. If anyone masterminded the blueprint for renovating heritage brands, it was Karl – long before Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs, Nicolas Ghesquière, Raf Simons, Phoebe Philo, Maria Grazia Chiuri and all the rest.
As Virginie Viard, the head of the Chanel studio with whom he worked for over 30 years, put it: ‘Karl is a genius. His scope is not fashion. His scope is everything… To have your eyes opened by Karl is incredible. After, it’s like being a sponge, to understand where he wants to go and to give him the support to carry on the story.’ It was Virginie who came out at the end of his last couture show in January, when the announcement was made that Karl was ill. A statement from the house last week revealed that she will succeed him as creative director, muffling rumours that a big name designer would take over the brand, which last year revealed its sales figures for the first time, of $9.6bn.
What, I wonder, would Karl think of the outpouring of sadness on social media. Not one for nostalgia or sentiment, he once told me that his favourite occupation, were he not the world’s most celebrated designer, would be as a caption writer. Who would you choose to carry on the legacy of Chanel, I once asked him. ‘I don’t call it a legacy, we do collections of a name, label and logo; it’s the spirit of the flame you have to keep alive. And that’s my job – even if you put the fire out.’
There will never be another Karl Lagerfeld