This morning, we learned the sad news that Karl Lagerfeld, the fashion legend and Creative Director for Chanel and Fendi, had passed. In remembrance, we’re revisiting our fall 2009 cover story with the late, great designer, interviewed by Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni, with illustrations from Jean-Philippe Delhomme.
Karl Lagerfeld is phenomenally striking for many reasons. First, there’s his appearance — powdered, tied-back hair, high-collared Hilditch & Key white shirt, medieval-like mix of Chrome Hearts silver jewelry, fitted Tom Ford jacket and black jeans — then there’s his rapid-fire speech. No one talks as fast as Lagerfeld, and he manages this feat in four languages: English, French, Italian, and his mother tongue, German. He claims this started from having a charismatic mother who had no time for baby talk. Perhaps, but no doubt she sensed that her son was both brilliant and wildly curious.
In many ways, the combination is quite magical, because what makes Lagerfeld such entertaining company is that in spite of being so ridiculously accomplished — he designs hit collections for Chanel, his auctioned-off personal collections reach millions, his photographs have been exhibited worldwide, he both publishes books and is fabulously well-read, two full-scale film documentaries have been made about him, crowds gather whenever he makes a public entrance — he remains surprisingly grounded and open. Just as Lagerfeld talks, he also listens. He’s refreshing in that he enjoys a dialogue.
Still, Lagerfeld is no Oprah. He hates to be touched. “That’s why I wear gloves,” he says. He’s also sensitive to smell. “You have a feeling that the base of their food is cabbage soup and Camembert,” he has said, referring to certain admirers after Chanel’s last show. Nor can he bear ignorance. He was appalled that 90 percent of the journalists he spoke to backstage hadn’t heard of Beau Brummell, the regency dandy who was a chief influence behind his collection. “It was very shocking because if you interview people in the fashion world about fashion, you should know a little. If not, there are other jobs!”
Found in the studio behind 7L, his bookshop on rue du Lille, he was sitting at the Droog design table, a vast goblet of diet Pepsi Max by his be-ringed hand. He was in a relaxed, mild-mannered mood.
WHITEWALL: You’re famous for your focus.
KARL LAGERFELD: I’m shortsighted, but I can focus.
WW: When did you discover that you were shortsighted?
KL: I was 12 or 13 and couldn’t see the blackboard. I was in the last row. So I said to my mother, “I want glasses,” and she said, “I’m sorry — I don’t want children with glasses. Sit in the front row.” I refused to sit in the front row. You can do nothing in the front row.
WW: Have you ever met anyone as amusing as your mother?
KL: Not many . . . She was very special, from a different generation, although it’s difficult to say. I never compare, so I know other people who are funny, witty, and mean. But it’s different.
WW: Is your life a performance?
KL: You think I’m a performer? For me daily life is a stage, then you go backstage. It’s a play with several acts, then there’s a curtain. Then one day it’s the final curtain, but who cares? I’m performing and I’m not performing; it’s just me. Charlie Chaplin put on his looks for his movies and looked different in real life. Me, I look the same all the time.
WW: Who are the great performers?
KL: People like Madonna and Prince used to be great. There are not so many. I like the Scissor Sisters onstage. The singer Jake is great.
WW: Do you think fashion has become a performance?
KL: The shows, maybe, if you have the money to do them.
WW: Designers whom you rate?
KL: I think there are very gifted people like Olivier Theyskens, Nicolas Ghesquière, Stefano Pilati, Marc Jacobs, and Alber Elbaz. They are all interesting, but then it’s an interesting moment in fashion.
WW: Why interesting?
KL: In Italy, it’s more the red carpet and bling-bling, except Prada, but in France it’s different. Some people say there are too many designers, but everyone is allowed to make a collection. I didn’t like the attitude and pretension of the designers in the nineties. They thought they were god. Now they’re cooler, and I think the clothes are of better quality.
WW: Fashion and the Darwinian-like recession?
KL: Recession is like a housecleaning in the spring. It gets the dust out of the place. So maybe for a few it will be difficult, but maybe we don’t need so many. I’m not the bookkeeper of other people’s business, so I have no idea. For sure, it’s a moment for big groups with big money to survive this moment. But the crisis shouldn’t be blamed if some people aren’t creative. We’re not in a period when everything can go; that’s over.
WW: How would you define fashion?
KL: It’s what’s right for the moment. And right for the moment is when you do something not for yesterday, not for tomorrow — it’s just now. And that’s how fashion should be, and that’s why I don’t believe in avant-garde fashion because avant-garde fashion never happened because fashion’s life is short. It’s six months, six months, six months. It’s not something you do for a great future. That childish vision of the sixties with Courrèges, there’s always the year 2000, and we’ll all ride to the moon. Did so many people ride to the moon in 2000?
WW: Is that why you avoid anniversaries? Your 25 years at Chanel were ignored . . .
KL: I don’t do things for the 40th anniversary like Sonia Rykiel. I think it’s the worst thing to do, because it makes her look old. People think, “Oh she’s been there for such a long time, what a bore.” People don’t have to remember what you did. They should see what you do. If you want respect for your past, it means that you have a problem with your present and even more with your future.
WW: Is that fashion’s appeal? That it changes?
KL: Yes, yes, because fashion is supposed to be unpretentious. But the fashion world has a new complex. Before it was a social complex, now it’s the aaaaaaart complex [writes aaaaaart on a piece of paper]. It’s grotesque. A designer whose name I will not mention said one day, “You understand my world, the world of art.” Good — I mean, you have a complex doing clothes, so get out. Nobody forces you. Go and run a gallery or something. There was another designer who said to Bernard Arnault, “I’m not like Karl. I’m not a stylist. I’m an artist who agrees to do fashion.”
It’s not up to you to become an artist. It’s not a mother who decides that her daughter will be a top model or not, it’s others who will decide. But we live in a period of self-declared artists and that is very, very dangerous.
WW: Why dangerous?
KL: If something is really art, the drama is that you don’t have to explain to people that it’s art. You know by instinct it is . . . What I also hate most is intellectual bullshit small talk about art. It reminds me of Helmut Newton, who said, “If I read what people write about me, what they see in my photos, I wouldn’t take photos because I would have to think about all of that.” So the talent is the feeling, the mood they get without making this kind of intellectual comment.
WW: Was Newton an artist?
KL: Yes, but he only said he was a photographer. It’s like Zaha Hadid, who says she’s an architect. A designer who does furniture like Marc Newson says, “I’m an artisan.” The great people don’t say those things. The third-rate fringe people try to make-believe they are aaaaaaartists. The really good ones don’t do that. They don’t have to.
WW: Who are the great artists?
KL: Turrell, Jeff Koons . . . but I think there are a few who are overrated and are not really interesting. They are mostly, very, very pretentious . . . Then there are photographers, and you cannot say the photo is bad, because it’s a social problem that they want to confront you with. I don’t want to be confronted by third-rate people to the sadness of the world. First-rate people do it better. You can be shocked by a photo by Newton and not agree because it’s not politically correct, but it’s always a beautiful photo. Today they make an ugly photo and you have to respect the ugliness because there’s some social thinking behind it. I think all that is bullshit.
WW: When you start a collection, are you avid? Do you need every piece then and there?
KL: I do it nearly like a stage designer. I create moods, atmosphere. I build houses that I never lived in but only for the joy of doing. I like that. Maybe I’m a frustrated interior designer. But I don’t think I’m frustrated.
WW: How about relentlessly energetic?
KL: Exactly. I like to do things for doing things, not for having done things. And when something is finished, I want to do something else. That’s why the world of fashion is perfect for me, because it’s about change and redoing it again. I had a show today. Now I have to think about the next one.
WW: No looking back.
KL: Precisely. I like the idea of a past I have not known. Everything I know, I prefer to ignore.