remembering karl

Karl Lagerfeld Did the Work

The pop-culture icon worked harder, changed faster, and lasted longer than any other fashion designer.

Karl Lagerfeld, photographed in 2007. Photo: Alec Soth/Magnum Photos
Karl Lagerfeld, photographed in 2007. Photo: Alec Soth/Magnum Photos
Karl Lagerfeld, photographed in 2007. Photo: Alec Soth/Magnum Photos

In 2005, I spent the better part of the summer and fall reporting a profile of Karl Lagerfeld for the New York Times. Any time spent in Lagerfeld’s company was a treat: no one in the fashion business was funnier or more literate or more disciplined about the work. “Lots of class,” he would frequently say about himself, with a twinkle, “but working class.” Lagerfeld was far from proletarian — he was a cultivated bourgeois German to the core, whose wealthy father ran a condensed-milk business — but his ability to handle the grind of fashion, to design multiple collections for multiple brands every season for decade after decade and make it look easy, was indeed singular.

That fall turned out to be a blockbuster for the then-62-year-old Lagerfeld. He sold his trademarks — among them, Karl Lagerfeld, Lagerfeld Gallery, KL — to Tommy Hilfiger. He staged a spectacular Chanel show with Nicole Kidman, who would soon appear in Chanel No. 5 ads. In November, as Lagerfeld was preparing a series of Chanel shows in Tokyo, 1,000 people stormed H&M on Fifth Avenue in an hour to snag pieces of a line he had created for the chain, the first of many such collaborations by H&M. And, in addition to designing his collections for Fendi and doing photo shoots for magazines, he approved plans for a major Chanel exhibit at the Met.

Lagerfeld, who died in Paris today aged 85, was a fashion legend since he captured the bohemian light-as-air sensibility of the ’70s at Chloé, but by 2005 he had become a pop-culture superstar. Even then, I knew how lucky I was to spend so much time with him, at that extraordinary moment. I saw him that August at his marvelously private, civilized home in Biarritz, just the two of us, with his butler and his cook; in Milan for Fendi; in Paris for Chanel and a party at his home in Saint Germain; in Tokyo, where a mob of Japanese teens stood in respectful awe, their camera phones raised as he did a photo shoot on the street in Shibuya.

We spoke for hours about fashion, his mother and father, his childhood in Hamburg, the Second World War, Thomas Mann, couture in the grim 1950s, Saint Laurent, his great friend Jacques de Bascher, books, and his very first night in Paris, in 1952. On that evening, he told me, he had returned to his hotel for supper because he was too petrified to dine alone in a restaurant, and watched a French family in a neighboring flat gobble down tomatoes from his bathroom window. “Never in my life have I been so envious of food!” he told me with a huge laugh. “I will never, ever forget. Salade de tomates, seen from the window, with the bread, the butter, and the red wine. And me, starving.”

It was not the kind of image most people had of the superhuman Lagerfeld at the time, and even less so a few years later, when Chanel began staging mega shows at the Grand Palais with icebergs and a colossal sculpture of its iconic tweed jacket, and Karl himself was so famous his pony-tailed silhouette appeared on a special bottle of Diet Coke, his favorite beverage. Later, he made his beloved cat, Choupette, a social-media star, as if to demonstrate how far modern celebrity could go.

But in that hinge year of 2005, and after a decade and half of observing Karl at close range, I wanted to make the point that although he had never built a major fashion house in his own name, like Saint Laurent or Armani, he had nonetheless built a house for the people who loved his creative spirit and his incredible human warmth. That side of Karl wasn’t always evident, especially to those in the competitive French fashion world who somewhat disdained an outsider from Germany. So I wrote, invoking Janet Flanner on Mann’s place in the German-émigré community in America of the ’40s: “For a lot people in fashion who still care about ideas and the individual mind, who prize the mean remark as well as the plate of tomatoes, Lagerfeld is their official center.”

As Joan Juliet Buck, the former editor of Paris Vogue, who had returned to the States, told me, summing up, “There’s such a hatred of thought and intelligence in that world. Karl has managed to survive without playing stupid.” And: “Who do I miss from Paris?” she said. “I would have to say him.”

Cathy Horyn and Karl Lagerfeld in 2008, photographed at the opening party for “Mobile Art: Chanel Contemporary Art Container” in Central Park. Photo: Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

Today, with the news of Karl’s death, the sense of loss runs deep. People will say it’s the end of an era, the era of the all-encompassing genius designer, and in a sense it surely is — but Lagerfeld had already outlasted his contemporaries by decades. Saint Laurent, his friend and sometime great rival, died in 2008, but stopped being a creative force in the ’80s. Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent’s partner, died in September 2017, and Azzedine Alaïa two months later. Karl, who created the fecund mold that later broke so many others, just kept on going.

Lagerfeld’s passing is different, for he was part of not just one era but several, stretching back to Germany in the 1930s. The timeline goes back even farther when you consider that his Swedish-born father witnessed the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, and his godfather was born in 1868. “He was the chicest man I ever saw,” Karl told me. His stories of his mother, who was a socialite in ’20s Berlin, were legend — and usually told at his own expense. She never attended any of his shows; when I asked why, he recalled her saying, “‘Well, I didn’t go to your father’s office, either.’” Karl just shrugged and laughed. “What can I say?” Yet if you went to his houses in Biarritz and Paris, there were photos of his parents in his relatively simple bedroom, where the linen was white and impeccable, and there was always a desk.

Karl got his start in the postwar era of couture, when he worked for Balmain and then Patou, and the atmosphere in the ateliers could be grueling. In the late ’50s and most of the ’60s, while Saint Laurent was arriving on the scene with great fanfare, Lagerfeld made a quieter mark as the ultimate freelance gun for hire at Fendi, Tiziana, and Max Mara. (Bergé mocked Karl for years because he never had his own well-known house — the various iterations of his Lagerfeld line always felt marginal — but it was savvy, because he never had to carry the financial burden, either.) When he took over at Chanel in 1983, that ability to shift sensibilities and mimic rivals came to the fore as he studied the house’s history and incorporated modern trends into it. He used to say that Chanel was a Christmas tree, and all you had to do was decorate it. One early ’00s night in Paris, during couture season, when we were talking about what Valentino would show the next day, he quickly sketched some looks from the collection in front of me on a dare.

Part of his genius was how he wove all the elements of his life into his work and his conversation, particularly at Chanel, without ever seeming to go backward. (That was also true of Alaïa, and that may be why their fashion continued to delight and engage young audiences.) Karl, who went through houses as quickly as he did phases of collecting art and furniture — Memphis, Wiener Werkstatte, Louis XV, Eileen Gray — once declared, “I don’t want to be in Berlin in 1910. I don’t want the ’20s. I want now. I want as little as possible. That means divine beds, some writing tables, TV screens, and books and books and books to read.” At the time, he had more than 100,000 books in a special-built library in Biarritz. He eventually sold that house.

But I understood what he meant. He had this amazing ability to separate, at least mentally, the trappings of his life — which included some rather over-the-top vehicles, like a Hummer and an armor-plated BMW — from the daily routine that began with him waking up early and sketching in bed. As customers of Chanel knew from his earliest collections, when he shockingly showed leggings with the famous cardigan jacket or shredded black tulle skirts for a kind of post-punk look or created accessories that riffed on the (then) novelty of cell phones, he was always looking ahead. The press’s reaction to some early Chanel shows could be quite prim, but given the energy and scope of the brand today — the fact that his spring 2019 collection, presented on a re-created beach, included jeans and cute sportswear, as well as suits — he clearly knew what he was doing, and where the world was going.

Among his favorite possessions was a Polaroid of a youngish Karl taken by his friend, Helmut Newton. It shows him peering into a telescope on the Côte d’Azur, with the inscription: “Little Karl, the clairvoyant, who brings the future to us.”

What I will miss most, though, aside from his savoir faire and gift for gab, was his sanguine nature. He remained positive and interested until the end of his life, and if he complained about the “fashion system” or the lack of fresh ideas or the other stuff that fashion people nowadays yench about, I never heard him. In fact, I feel quite sure that Karl the clairvoyant would dispute that he was “the last” and throw off those words like an unwanted laurel.

But it doesn’t mean that I will not miss him.

Karl Lagerfeld Did the Work