Farewell To Karl Lagerfeld, A True Fashion Superstar

Lisa Armstrong pays tribute to the wit, intelligence, charm and mischief of one of the industry’s most legendary figures


Fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, circa 1990. Photo / Getty Images

When Karl Lagerfeld was born in Germany to a wealthy industrialist family in 1933, 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 — and it’s only now that he has died that we can be certain of his age. It made him a challenging interview subject. In 2007, he told me he was saving “all the best bits” for his autobiography, to be published posthumously.

READ: Chanel Fashion Designer Karl Lagerfeld Has Died

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 at least four hours 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 Andrew Marvell or the philosopher George Santayana as the whim took him, often in three languages.

Nocturnally inclined, he never appeared to switch off. He didn’t care what he said as long as it was intelligent and honest. 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 he was possibly the only designer of the past 50 years 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 told me.

READ: Noelle McCarthy On Chanel & Girl Power

Cherchez la mère; designers are so often obsessed with their mothers, but perhaps none more than Lagerfeld, who spent most of his life trying to impress her. Why else take on a Stakhanovite amount of work and stick with it until the end? He never complained about the load, never spoke of stress. He seemed to revel in the constant stimulation and adored being the focus of attention.

For half a century he designed for Fendi. He had been at Chanel for 40 years and only missed one show. That was last month in Paris, when he failed to appear in the catwalk finale for his couture collection. We all knew things must be serious.

Along the way, there were interludes when he also headed up Chloé, twice. At one point in the Nineties, he was in charge of four major labels, including his own. However, nothing else had the impact of his tenure at Chanel. The Wertheimers appointed him creative director in 1983, when it was a fatigued dowager best known for a perfume that Marilyn Monroe had immortalised in the Fifties.

Lagerfeld leapt on this chance of a lifetime. This savvy recognition of what could be done with a fusty old label (this long before everyone began reviving faded houses) may have been his biggest moment of genius, at least up to that point. He knew exactly what to do with those madamey tweed suits and pearls: pump them up and pimp them out, almost to the point of parody. It was perfect for the Eighties: a power suit rendered in pastels and brights and distinctively expensive-looking.

Coco Chanel might have curled a lip at this brash distortion of her less-is-more sporty androgyny, 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 inventions — the 2.55 bag she’d created in 1955, the bouclé jackets, the co-respondent 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.

READ: Chanel Takes Over Rome With This Blockbuster Fashion Show

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. Nothing was done in moderation.

When he embarked on his famous diet in 2000, 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 protégé, 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 Hallowe’en icon.

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. 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.”

READ: An Interview with Choupette Lagerfeld

In the Seventies, when the rest of 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. 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. He [Saint Laurent] was the opposite of what one should do. He was a genius ruined by his entourage.”

Lagerfeld had quite the entourage, too: stylists, muses, friends who came and went. And 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 delivered to 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.

READ: Top New Zealand Model Ashleigh Good on Karl Lagerfeld

His constant companion, and one who never seemed to irritate him, was Choupette, possibly the world’s most pampered cat, whom he acquired in 2011. And he admired greatly his right hand, 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 is proof of his unassailability. Viard will take care of his legacy. Even after his death, Lagerfeld’s wishes are being observed. And, as his mother would be gratified to learn, he was anything but boring.

11 Of The Best ‘Karl-isms’
Karl Lagerfeld will be remembered for many things, but the one-liners and soundbites he gave to journalists in interviews were second to none. Here are some of his most memorable side-swipes — or ‘Karl-isms’...

On sweatpants
“Sweatpants are a sign of defeat. You lost control of your life so you bought some sweatpants.”

On Coco Chanel
“What I do Coco would have hated. The label has an image and it’s up to me to update it. I do what she never did. I had to find my mark. I had to go from what Chanel was to what it should be, could be, what it had been to something else.”

On his image
“I am like a caricature of myself, and I like that. It is like a mask. And for me the Carnival of Venice lasts all year long.”

On his signature white ponytail
“It’s the easiest hairdo. I don’t like gel and all those products. It’s perfect with this white powder, because my hair is not that white at all.”

On always wearing sunglasses
“They’re my burka.”

On his cat, Choupette
“She has become the most famous cat in the world. I even get propositioned by pet food companies and things like that, but it’s out of the question. I’m commercial. She’s not. She’s spoiled to death. Obviously.”

On fashion shows
“I’m a kind of fashion nymphomaniac who never gets an orgasm.”

On beauty
“Life is not a beauty contest... some [ugly people] are great. What I hate is nasty, ugly people... the worst is ugly, short men.”

On the Middleton sisters
“Kate Middleton has a nice silhouette and she is the right girl for that boy. On the other hand, her sister struggles. I don’t like the sister’s face. She should only show her back.”

On ‘hard-working’ designers
“Please don’t say I work hard. Nobody is forced to do this job and if they don’t like it, they should do another one. If it’s too much, do something else.”

On never retiring
“Why should I stop working? If I do, I’ll die and it’ll all be finished. I’m lucky to work in the most perfect of conditions. I can do what I want. I would be stupid to stop. Work is making a living out of being bored.”

— The Daily Telegraph

Share this:
New Zealand Herald

New Zealand Herald

Subscribe to E-Newsletter