“We had to make a press kit with images from the collection and, unfortunately, no proposal was satisfactory, so I thought that maybe the person best suited to perfectly carry out my request was me. No sooner said than done. I liked it and went to the next step: an advertising campaign.” This led to “Chanel. Le Campagne di Karl Lagerfeld” (L’Ippocampo Edizioni), an anthology of all the glossy worlds imagined by the German fashion designer for Chanel over a period of 31 years. He created this phantasmal universe in the bat of an eye, without ever looking back. “A la recherche du temps perdu, on perd son temps,” warns the evergreen Karl. “If you lie sprawled on the unmade bed of your past, you’re finished.” So he is always standing, in a rush between a collection, a fitting, a shoot. For us, however, he stops to talk about the book – but only for a bit because he warns us: “I hate analyzing emotions!” – and to evoke its worlds, a combination of fashion and photography.
You remind me of that character in ‘Blade Runner’ when he says, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe...” Correction: I’ve had a glimpse! I’m nearsighted: I only see what I want to see and I work without a real plan in the beginning. When I decide to shoot a campaign, I don’t know what I’ll do or how it will be: it depends on the model, the collection, the location, etc. They are the pieces of a puzzle that I don’t want to analyze because they always change. Nor do I want to define myself through a genre repeated ad infinitum, like some photographers who I won’t mention: my style depends on the moment I take the picture. Thirty-one years of advertising campaigns: what has changed? Everything: the girls, fashion, society... but I don’t like to explain: I work instinctively. I’m discovering this book with you. I never look at the things I’ve done.
And in terms of fashion, what’s new today?
Fashion is always about revivals. It’s the women who change and that’s a mercy because otherwise there would be no fashion!
Tell us about it.
The outfit adapts to a woman’s style and each period has its different types of woman, but we can only say this with hindsight. I imagine the modern version of the Chanel woman, but then I do many other things, because otherwise I isolate myself from the world. I insist: don’t you find it boring to see the same silhouettes every 15 years? Ah! but I don’t see anything! I admit, though, that I’m tired of the ‘80s. In fact, when they talk to me about it, I always say that I wasn’t born yet.
So who are the designers to watch?
Marine Serre, Jacquemus... and I also like Virgil Abloh. Yesterday he wrote me a letter to thank me for having spoken well of him. I’ve known him for some time because we made Chanel jackets for him. In the letter he said he saw Pharrell (Williams) in a sweater, and asked if he could have the same one... He’s so sweet!
You also shoot many films: is it easy to move from a static image to a moving one?
Yes, because I imagine a fashion photo like a film still. There’s always a cinematic touch in my photos. I have so many references in mind that I don’t even need to try to remember what inspired me. It’s all here: I’m a walking Google... (he laughs). In my films I do everything, even the dialogues. Now I’m about to make one with Penelope (Cruz): I already have the whole script in mind. The funny thing is that Penelope thinks she has an accent, so she asked me to shoot a silent film. Well, it will be a tribute to the ‘20s and to Coco Chanel, who was a real charmer. Penelope is perfect for the role: she’s the queen of charm.
I’ve known her for 15 years and I’m very fond of her. I am a loyal type: I like to see the people I’d love to work with again. Plus, I have absolutely no sense of hierarchy; I need everyone because I only know how to do two things in life: draw and speak. For the rest... help!
Do you ever have doubts?
Maybe I should... but no, never! The doubt is only at the beginning when I reflect on an idea, but as soon as I start doing it there is no more room for hesitation. Not just for me, but for my team: if you start doubting, everyone depending on you will start to flounder. Fashion must be light, more improvised, more air du
temps, less conceptualized! What photographers and their works never tire you?
Lots! Penn, Avedon, Newton, Bourdin, Steichen, Stieglitz, Casebere, Louise Dahl-Wolf... Among contemporaries I admire Meisel. He constantly changes and never stops. I’m very sad that he refuses to make books. I’ve been great friends with some of these photographers. My mother was very fond of Guy Bourdin, and she often lent him her castle to take pictures, until he set fire to a room one day... so then he came to me. I loved Bourdin but also Newton. Those were other times, when photos were retouched by hand. Bourdin would work for a full day on a photo. Newton had not the assistant: he shot alone with an old camera and a plastic bag for holding the film rolls. It makes me think of another photographer with whom I’m great friends: Annie Leibovitz. I love her work and I love her as a person. We often disagree: I love arguing with her! Just a few days ago she was supposed to do a portrait of me commissioned by Anna (Wintour) at my house, in my studio, where only close friends enter. I told her Annie, okay, but come alone, without an assistant, as we’ve done in the past. You do everything – rolls and lights – yourself: she wasn’t thrilled about the idea. But it was fun.
Today you just need an iPhone and everyone is a photographer...
But people shoot without really looking... everything is in the frame. I don’t retouch the photos, but I pay great attention to the cropping. I crop them all. Photography focuses on graphic elements, but few people have a graphic vision. In this sense, the sea of images that submerges us does not matter. The good photos always emerge. Lately I’ve been interested in abstract photography and I love portraits.
Will we see yours?
I’ve taken quite a few, but for my private collection, and I don’t show them. The charm – and the mystery – of a successful portrait is the miracle of an encounter. The camera simply serves to capture that moment of beauty in the metaphysical sense.
What is the secret of your longevity?
There is no recipe: my joy in life is not having lost my spontaneity or my ability to be surprised. It is a great fortune not to be blasé. Plus, I also know how to be an opportunist and I can navigate all the waters. I do what I love, but I am also interested in everything that I don’t love. I want to see and know everything. When you create your worlds, do you immediately find the right tone and look?
I’d say that I always feel in tune with my time. Is it perception? Intuition? I don’t know and I can’t explain it. One day Helmut Newton told me that, in the beginning, my work was very personal, but then over time it became too tied to the fashion trends of the moment. I replied, “Helmut! Have you forgotten our job? We create fashion!” • original text page 510