Did Anyone Know The Real Karl Lagerfeld?
By now, you are probably already dusting the Karl Lagerfeld superlatives off your shoulder pads, and shaking the posthumous hagiography pouring in from every fashion and news website off your designer laps. You can probably recite all of his achievements by the chapters and a biopic must surely already be in the works. (Glenn Close in a powdered ponytail as Kaiser Karl, anyone?). But here are some points you might have missed in the fog of dry shampoo.
No one actually knew a whole lot about the real Karl Lagerfeld. Even his age was a matter of some dispute—the German fashion designer, who died in Paris on February 19, was said to be 85 years old, but his chronological age was never confirmed. Even the conditions of his illness and death were glossed over. Tellingly, no account of his last hours has surfaced, as is wont with people of his stature.
An icon of his own invention, Lagerfeld had constructed a glittering and impenetrable edifice ceaselessly honed over five decades in fashion, starting in the 1960s when he first started working at Chloé. Through media omnipresence, the Lagerfeld avatar had wormed its way into everyone’s minds beyond the fashion industry, making him a global icon.
Lagerfeld was so starkly drawn that he was like an emoji. Think armour plate‑like dark glasses swept over a wide mouth; white powdered ponytail joined to stiff white collar; strictly‑tailored black coat with narrow sleeves ending in fingerless gloves; and heavy Chrome Hearts rings. In the 1980s and ’90s, he didn’t wear gloves, but fluttered a fan. So recognisable was this caricature that Fendi made the Karlito bag charms, which remain hugely sellable.
We think of Lagerfeld as a silhouette, which appeared on everything from tees to Diet Coke cans. We do not reflect on how this image was painstakingly assembled, much like how Chanel’s mega shows at Paris’ Grand Palais, with icebergs and rockets, and waterfalls and gardens, were mounted—through sheer force of will, an army of enablers, military precision, limitless resources, discipline and vision.
Kept Under Wraps
Despite having lived his life in the full glare of the media spotlight, Lagerfeld had no personal scandals, unlike public figures such as John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, or even Michael Jackson for that matter, whose personal struggles, addictions and weaknesses were tragically human. This reflected a life led with monastic chastity despite his Swiss Guard of male models and bodyguard-chauffeurs. Even his affection for his godson, the 11-year-old child model Hudson Kroenig, was only slightly creepy; and his avowed desire to marry his cat, Choupette, while camp, just made him sound dotty, like a neighbourhood cat auntie.
People didn’t give Lagerfeld enough credit for the gruelling grind which must have been his reality. To design multiple collections for multiple brands, every season, for decades, is a colossal achievement. And then, he also took the photographs for the ads and editorials. He drew illustrations for branding collaterals, invites and magazines. He wrote essays and handwrote notes, letters and cards. He designed interiors and shop windows, and schmoozed with C-suites and celebrities. It was no wonder he hardly slept. Lagerfeld turned up and delivered—for more than 50 years.
Despite his outsized alter ego, Lagerfeld must have been humble at his core. He had never built an eponymous fashion house of any importance, unlike Yves Saint Laurent (his arch‑rival), Valentino Garavani, Miuccia Prada or even Calvin Klein. The various iterations of the Karl Lagerfeld label always felt boutique, and secondary to the labels he laboured under such as Chanel and Fendi. Throughout his career, he had also worked for Pierre Balmain and Jean Patou, and even Max Mara, always effacing himself and subsumed under the big couture names he worked for.
A Smart, Lovely Person
Not enough is made of Lagerfeld’s voracious literacy (in four languages!) and his scholarly pursuits. Yes, the mountain of books and papers would have given Marie Kondo a nervous breakdown, but his erudition gave gravitas to the Maison Lemarié feathers and layers of gossamer Lesage lace. The learnings that Lagerfeld wore so lightly imbued everything he created with a special refinement and polish you couldn’t find anywhere else. It gave a dignified sheen to even the unlikeliest of clunky Chanel shoes. The strangest fancies at Fendi had the sparkle of a thing which knew its place in the history of fashion, a look that money couldn’t buy. Besides a high IQ, Lagerfeld obviously had a high EQ, too. His loyal friends and collaborators were legion, and many had stayed with him throughout his career. This has to say something about his human warmth, because nothing could have inspired such loyalty up and down the hierarchy, from the Wertheimers (the family owns a majority stake in Chanel), Fendis and Arnaults, to the petites mains (tailoring specialists in the ateliers), studio heads and model muses. This also just means that Lagerfeld must have been not only a smooth corporate operator, but in the end, simply a rather lovely man.
(Related: Inside The Gucci Universe, According to Alessandro Michele)
Speaking His Mind
Unafraid to say what was needed to be said, Lagerfeld wasn’t cowed into political correctness. He took a logical approach to the issue of fur—he catered to clients who appreciated his beautiful fur creations for Fendi and continued making them right up to his last collection, which was shown just after his death. He spoke hard truths about people who were less than slim and made no bones about not liking certain celebrities—and why should he be hypocritical about any of these? Some have taken issue with his snippy side, but it takes great courage and moral integrity to say these things in the most PC of ages.
Lagerfeld was always looking ahead. An example of how far ahead he was: he made his beloved cat, Choupette, a social media and endorsement star, demonstrating (with wry irony) what modern celebrity meant and was worth. He voraciously consumed modern media, and was never far from a TV screen, multiple iPhones and his 300 iPods. He embraced each successive generation of stars, however incongruous, incorporating them into the thrall of Chanel, inclusive and democratic to the last.
Most important of all, Lagerfeld was simply an original. His ideas and creations were always his—he would never be called out by fashion industry critic @diet_prada for copycatting, unlike latter-day designers. He was a Renaissance man in a two-dimensional world, and each of his art added lustre to the body of his work. He was also an uncomplaining stoic. Not only did he quietly do the work that had taken a toll on his contemporaries, he continued doing so right up to his last, gravely ill, and probably in great pain from pancreatic cancer. And still he delivered. Lagerfeld never let up.