How Karl Lagerfeld reinvented modern fashion

When Karl Lagerfeld was born in Germany to a wealthy industrialist family in 1934, his mother Elizabeth, a lapsed Protestant who had been told by a fortune-teller that her son would become a bishop, promptly forbade him from stepping inside a church when he was growing up.

Or that’s what he said. He was as inventive and mischievous a yarn spinner as Colette – it’s only now that he has died that we can be certain of his age. It made him a challenging and slippery interview subject – which was entirely deliberate. In 2007 he told me he was saving “all the best bits” for his autobiography, to be published posthumously. At least we have that to look forward to.

For he will be sorely missed, as much for his wit and shrewdness as his achievements on the catwalk. The terrifying apparition of Karl and his powdered white hair, inscrutable sunshades and somewhat sinister fingerless black leather gloves – part 18th-century fop, part defrocked priest – was (partly) deceptive.

If you were on your toes, he was a dream to observe, notwithstanding his creative approach to time-keeping. He would often turn up four hours or more late, but he would give you more entertaining, provocative quotes in half an hour than almost any other designer, citing the singer Adele, the poet Marvel or the philosopher George Santayana as the whim took him, often in three languages.

Nocturnally inclined, he never appeared to switch off. He worked for the two most powerful families in fashion: the Wertheimers who had acquired Chanel from Coco herself, and the Arnaults who owned Fendi where he was creative director, and was possibly the only designer of the last half century to be entirely safe in both jobs.

Perhaps these traits were the upside of having a tough-love mother who would shut her young son up whenever he began to bore her. Harsh, yes. “But she was the perfect mother for me,” he once told me.

Cherchez la mere; designers are so often obsessed with their mothers, but perhaps none more than Lagerfeld, who spent most of his life trying to impress her. He never complained about his workload, never spoke of stress. He seemed to revel in the constant stimulation and adored being the focus of attention. For 50 years he designed for Fendi. He has been at Chanel for 40 and only missed one show. That was last month in Paris, when he failed to appear in the catwalk finale in Paris at his couture collection. We all knew things must be serious.

Lagerfeld leapt on his chance of a lifetime at Chanel. This savvy recognition of what could be done with a fusty old label may have been his biggest moment of genius, at least up to that point. He knew exactly what to do with those madame-y tweed suits and pearls: pump them up and pimp them, almost to the point of parody. Coco Chanel might have curled a lip at this brash distortion but Lagerfeld ensured her namesake label remained at the heart of fashion and the height of desirability for the next four decades.

If that meant returning endlessly to Coco’s own inventions – the 2.55 bag she’d invented in 1955, the bouclé jackets, the slingbacks, the pearls and the little black dress, so be it. Lagerfeld was intelligent enough to realise she was the essence of the house while he was its talented custodian. In some ways they were similar characters: spiky, cultured outsiders who reinvented themselves. But where she believed fervently in always removing one item before you leave the house, Lagerfeld naturally belonged to the more-is-more school. Numerous homes. Hundreds of identical white Hilditch & Key shirts. Lashings of kitsch accessories on the catwalk. When he embarked on his famous diet he would chain-drink Diet Coke. (And inevitably designed a series of collectible Diet Coke bottles to mark the achievement).

After the weight loss – in order to be able to fit into the skinny suits his protegé Hedi Slimane was designing at Dior Homme – he evolved an almost ecclesiastical uniform of black frock coats, black ribbon ties, black leather trousers and those white shirts, revelling in his new svelteness.

He seemed delighted to discover that he had become a Halloween icon, especially when he learned that the Italian designer Roberto Cavalli had dressed up like him one year.

“An act of courage, no?” was his stiletto sharp response. “His silhouette is a little . . . just say I think I look better.”

A born superstar, for the first part of his career, it looked as if he might be an also-ran on fashion’s board of snakes and ladders. By 14, his formal academic education was over and he was in Paris, at fashion school, living in a pension. Being German in post-war Paris must have been a potentially alienating experience, but he says it was fine, really. “I’m not that German.” His first job was with Balmain: “My God, the terrible things that went on behind the scenes in those couture houses,” he told me. “The cruelty. The cheapness. It was like Victor Hugo.”

In the Seventies, when many creatives in Paris wallowed in an orgy of drugs and, well, orgies, the strikingly attractive Lagerfeld preferred to retire at the end of an evening with work or a good book. There was his great love, Jacques de Bascher, a notorious “bad boy of Paris” whom Lagerfeld met at 19 and would later tenderly nurse when the former was dying of Aids. But after de Bascher died in 1989, there followed an apparent withdrawal from emotional commitment.

His chief professional rival at that time was Yves Saint Laurent (who came third in a competition to design a coat, behind Lagerfeld). And what a rival. Saint Laurent was hailed as a genius and presided at the centre of a cultural zeitgeist, while Lagerfeld remained something of an outsider. “My choice,” he insisted. “I was not born to be wild.”

Lagerfeld had quite the entourage too: stylists, muses, friends who came and went. He had an impressive capacity to hold a grudge. “I’m good at cutting people off. Revenge is one of my less pleasant pastimes. I can wait 10 years and then pull the chair. Sometimes people don’t even know that it was me who pulled it. Some are not even worth the effort. Others are so mediocre that life takes care of them anyway.”

All this he told me with a spectacularly avuncular chuckle. It was hard to know quite how serious he was. But after his lover died, Lagerfeld appears to have withheld his emotions somewhat. He never spoke of his family, apart from his late parents, and rarely visited his homeland. His numerous godchildren had mostly been a disappointment he reported, with typical lack of sentimentality, although latterly his angelic looking blonde godson Hudson, aged 11, had become a favoured mascot, often appearing with Lagerfeld on the catwalk.

His other constant companion was Choupette, possibly the world’s most pampered cat, whom he acquired in 2011. And he admired greatly his right hand woman, Virginie Viard, whom he would escort on to the catwalk in recent shows, so that she could receive her dues. It was an act of anointment and the fact that within hours of his death being announced, the Wertheimers officially named Viard his successor. Even after his death, Lagerfeld’s wishes are being observed.

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