Dandy makes splash in his shal­low pool

The World Ac­cord­ing to Karl: The Wit and Wis­dom of Karl Lager­feld

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Dun­can Fal­low­ell The Spec­ta­tor

Edited by Jean-Christophe Napias and San­drine Gul­benkian Thames & Hud­son, 176pp, $29.95 (HB)

EV­ERY fash­ion era has its mon­ster and in ours it’s Karl Lager­feld, a man who has so emp­tied him­self on to the out­side that there is no longer any mem­brane be­tween what he is, what he does and what he looks like: a macabre dandy for the elec­tronic age, a Zen busi­ness­man as ef­fec­tive as Andy Warhol or Michael Jack­son or David Bowie in prop­a­gat­ing prod­uct and per­sona as one.

‘‘ I en­joy the lux­ury of be­ing at the cen­tre of this com­plete universe that’s mine,’’ he says with the con­cen­trated gen­eros­ity of a nar­cis­sist who wants to thrill the whole world to make it his pool.

The eter­nal dark glasses may sug­gest oth­er­wise — that here is some­one with a con­cealed in­ner life — but he af­fects to deny it (‘‘With me there’s noth­ing be­low the sur­face, but it’s quite a sur­face’’), so pre­sum­ably the shades are just for the pool’s re­flected glare.

His out­ra­geously unattrac­tive ap­pear­ance is a pre­cip­i­ta­tion of tem­per­a­ment and a promotional tool for the col­lec­tions he de­signs for Chanel. This me­dia cos­tume be­came fixed a long time ago into that of a sado-masochis­tic ghoul out of the Brothers Grimm, re-imag­ined by an ex­pres­sion­ist cineaste: ‘‘ I like the idea of crazi­ness with dis­ci­pline.’’

To top it off he wears — the nerve of the man — that pen­dant of ul­ti­mate aw­ful­ness, a grey pony­tail (‘‘You have to do things one is not sup­posed to do’’). For Paris’s most suc­cess­ful cou­turier to come up with a per­sonal im­age so taste­less and brit­tle is an un­usual kind of bravura, ren­der­ing him uniquely recog­nis­able, even in sil­hou­ette.

It is also ar­mour of course. Lager­feld sounds pho­bic — ‘‘ I don’t like be­ing watched at all’’ — and you would ex­pect him to re­main silent for fear of ex­po­sure; af­ter all, Warhol con­fined him­self to ‘‘ Oh re­ally’’, Bowie rarely speaks off the cuff and Michael Jack­son whis­pered coyly at the earth.

But it turns out Lager­feld has a mer­cu­rial, some­times dev­as­tat­ing way with words. I first be­came aware of it in Rodolphe Mar­coni’s 2007 doc­u­men­tary film Lager­feld Con­fi­den­tial. Years ago I was of­fered an in­ter­view with Lager­feld and turned it down for in­tel­lec­tu­ally snob­bish rea­sons. I hugely re­gret­ted that af­ter see­ing the film; for in it Lager­feld’s men­tal agility was ex­cep­tional and very en­ter­tain­ing, es­pe­cially his knack of re­cast­ing an ac­cu­sa­tion and throw­ing it back as a small glit­ter­ing ball. He also was re­vealed as a pas­sion­ate reader and col­lec­tor of books.

The World Ac­cord­ing to Karl at­tempts to cap­ture his rip­pling mind but is less suc­cess­ful than was the film. Lager­feld’s tongue works best in ac­tion; de­prived of con­text and in­to­na­tion, the bounce is lost. Also, the ed­i­tors don’t have enough of th­ese re­marks and they have to be stretched to make a vol­ume that has be­come a de­sign ob­ject in black, cream and white with many un­planted spa­ces.

Yet some­thing of Lager­feld’s sur­pris­ing essence may be found here. Apho­ris­tic phi­los­o­phy is a Ger­man spe­cialty, de­vel­oped by Ge­org Christoph Licht­en­berg and Ni­et­zsche, and it’s merry to see Ham­burg-born Lager­feld as their un­like­li­est off­shoot.

He says ‘‘ I never fall in love’’ and ‘‘ I’ve gone be­yond ego’’, lay­ing claim to the dandy’s ni­hilism, which con­fers a cruel free­dom of op­er­a­tion. He em­bod­ies a very con­tem­po­rary form of suc­cess, em­pir­i­cal but ruth­less: ‘‘ When peo­ple think it’s all for­got­ten I pull the chair away — maybe 10 years later.’’

He is an as­cetic with a dash of the sur­real: ‘‘ I want to be chic coat-hanger.’’ He works hard, but life is a game, and un­fair too: ‘‘ Lux­ury is free­dom of spirit . . . I can say what I want be­cause I’m a free Euro­pean.’’

Much of this book is ter­ri­bly self-ref­er­en­tial (‘‘I never drink any­thing hot’’), but Lager­feld’s el­lip­ti­cal self-mock­ery is also on show: ‘‘ I don’t mind be­ing a mon­ster, but there are lim­its.’’ As Ten­nessee Wil­liams wrote in Sweet Bird of Youth: ‘‘ Mon­sters don’t die early; they hang on long. Aw­fully long.’’ But Karl has an an­swer even for that: ‘‘ Ev­ery­one knows I’m 100 years old — so it doesn’t mat­ter.’’ In fact he’s 80, so must be sit­ting on a ton of ex­pe­ri­ence. But alas: I will never write my mem­oirs. Be­cause I have noth­ing to say . . . I don’t re­mem­ber any­thing. My trick is to burn ev­ery­thing and start again from zero . . . I’m a pro­fes­sional killer . . . My life is sci­ence fic­tion.

Karl Lager­feld’s me­dia cos­tume is that of a sado-masochis­tic ghoul

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