To understand what Karl Lagerfeld has meant to fashion, you have to understand his relationship to Coco Chanel.
When Coco Chanel died, it didn’t seem possible that anyone could fill her black-toe–capped ballerina flats. The power of her fashion revolution had lain not only in her elegant, freeing designs, but in Coco — the person. Or rather, the “persona” — the theatrical character that Chanel had created for herself when she morphed from an uneducated peasant orphan named Gabrielle into an epoch-defining socialite billionaire (by today’s standards) nicknamed Coco.
“Coco” was the avatar of a new age: an independent, sexually liberated, athletic adventuress, friend of the rich and powerful, seen everywhere clad in her own creations. We still know that character: slim figure, bobbed hair, bouclé skirt suit, little straw hat. And we know what it represents: chic, freedom, youthful French elegance. Women who bought Chanel were striving to capture a little of that exciting, modern aura. Chanel understood: “Everyone in the street is dressed like me,” she said.
So how did a brand so dependent on one woman’s personal myth survive her death? It found a new leader who also understood mythology — Karl Lagerfeld. When Lagerfeld, who had never met Coco, took the reins of the Maison Chanel in 1983, she had been gone for 12 years, and the brand was suffering. They were still churning out the old skirt-suits, but only older women were buying them. All the sexy allure had vanished. There was no single compelling Chanel personality to emulate.
Lagerfeld, like Coco, understood the power of an iconic persona. He was a classic dandy, a man who styled both himself and his life as artworks, carefully constructing every exquisite detail: refining his look down into a regular uniform of a high-collared white shirt, black suits, powdered ponytail, shades, and silver skull rings; showing little emotion, cultivating almost no personal relationships. But however mythic Karl’s persona, he could not be Coco. First, of course, he was not a woman. Second, his look was not what he was designing. Unlike Coco he was not a walking advertisement for the brand. No customers would want to emulate Karl.
Lagerfeld’s solution was ingenious: He set himself up as a “channeler” of Coco — a kind of mystic medium through which the spirit of Chanel would pass, be filtered and reinterpreted, and then emerge rejuvenated. He expressly used the word “channel” in his discussion of his approach.
Once while researching my Chanel biography in the Maison Chanel archives, I came upon a cache of fascinating pastel drawings done by Lagerfeld. In each one, he had drawn himself in conversation with Coco Chanel, both costumed in different period outfits from the 18th century onward. In one, for example, Chanel looked like Marie Antoinette and Karl like Louis XVI in high curled wig and waistcoat. They looked at each other in profile, and in each drawing, Lagerfeld had made them look like identical twins. The meaning was clear: Karl imagined himself a kind of reincarnated Coco, sent by her from the beyond to translate her for a new era. (I pleaded with the staff to let me reproduce those weird and beautiful drawings in my book, to no avail.)
Lagerfeld shuffled the deck of Chanel’s motifs — the ribbons, the pearls, the suits, the bows, the CCs, all of it, and then played his own game. The results, for 35 years, were always recognizably “Chanel,” but younger, hipper, and some might say, less woman-friendly, less comfortable, less freeing. Put on an original Chanel jacket and you feel like you’ve stepped into a silken hug. Your arms glide smoothly into the perfect armholes (one of Coco’s obsessions); you stand tall, back and shoulders light. It feels like love. Put on a Lagerfeld jacket and note the difference: In the mirror you might look better: figure more defined, vibe more modern. But inwardly, you will feel worse. Unless you are Gigi Hadid, you will feel modern fashion’s — and Karl’s — disregard for women’s flesh. You will be constrained instead of liberated.
But this hardly mattered. The amazing thing about Lagerfeld is that not only did his reinterpretations of Chanel keep up the brand’s dazzle and elite allure for decades, his persona did, too. Karl invented for himself a persona and image as instantly recognizable, even caricature-able as Coco’s own. A unique feat in fashion. (No one else comes close, although I think John Galliano and Alessandro Michele have tried.) Karl and Coco both created personal silhouettes that compare only perhaps to Charlie Chaplin’s in iconicity. But Chaplin wore his bowler, mustache, and cane only in his films. Coco and Karl never took off their costumes. This is sheer branding genius (or narcissistic personality disorder — or both).
While we may not have yearned to be Lagerfeld in the way so many felt about Coco, something about his dandified, eternally consistent image felt Chanel-like, felt similarly alluring. It elicited desire, a wish to know more, a covetous fascination.
The “Karl” myth, like Coco’s, seemed to evoke a world of impossible privilege, self-contained freedom, European glamour, and — especially — mystery. Chanel was famous for keeping the details of her past a secret, and for telling ever-changing fictional stories about her youth. Lagerfeld, although from a far less humble background, similarly preferred to avoid divulging personal information, or even seeming to have personal information.
And his aloofness was like performance art. I experienced it myself. I tried to interview Lagerfeld countless times for my book on Chanel, only to be rebuffed at every turn by his protective phalanx of staff. Finally, out of frustration, I positioned myself at the bookstore he owned in Paris, 7L, where I knew he spent time. One day, I knew he was there, in a back room — I could hear his voice and espy a corner of his black leather jacket. I heard others address him by name. So I asked a salesperson if I could speak for a moment to Monsieur Lagerfeld. I was told with a straight face that he was not there. Before I could protest, the salesman gave me a peculiar look that seemed to say, “You and I both know he is right there, about three feet away, but for you he simply is not there.” Such is the essence of persona-based haute couture, which Lagerfeld understood perfectly: It creates a mythic image meant to be pursued. Only the inner sanctum, the elite few, ever get to capture it and get sprinkled with its magic glamour dust. Perhaps that is what Karl always put in his hair.