THE MAS­TER Karl Lager­feld talks about his life’s work. By JUS­TINE PI­CARDIE

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Over the past 35 years, KARL LAGER­FELD has re­vi­talised the house of Chanel while stay­ing true to its founder’s orig­i­nal vi­sion. Now, the leg­endary de­signer opens up to JUS­TINE PI­CARDIE about his dis­ci­plinar­ian mother, his train­ing as a cou­turier in 1950s Paris and why he hates old dresses but wel­comes ghosts into his home

IN THE TWO DECADES since I first met Karl Lager­feld, he has al­ways re­fused to be pinned down about the de­tails of his past, or what he might be plan­ning for the fu­ture. “I feel no re­morse and no re­grets,” he de­clared on one oc­ca­sion. “i have am­ne­sia when it comes to the past.” On an­other, he re­marked: “The last thing I’d do is de­fine my­self. to­mor­row I could be the op­po­site of what I am to­day.”

even so, dur­ing those and other en­coun­ters, Lager­feld has al­ways seemed to me to be en­tirely him­self: witty, per­cep­tive, sharp as a knife, yet more of­ten than not, un­ex­pect­edly kind. But if he is, as he chooses to be, in­de­fin­able, then per­haps the wis­est course is to de­scribe him as I find him, on this most re­cent meet­ing, which takes place in his cre­ative stu­dio at Chanel, on rue Cam­bon. It’s a Fri­day evening, and the build­ing is un­usu­ally quiet, dur­ing a brief limbo be­tween two ma­jor shows (a beau­ti­fully ele­giac A/W 2018 col­lec­tion that I’d seen the pre­vi­ous month, and a more light-hearted cruise pre­sen­ta­tion, the de­tails of which Lager­feld had been fi­nal­is­ing that af­ter­noon).

In all but one re­spect, he looks ex­actly the same as al­ways — regal in a high-col­lared starched white shirt, jet-black jeans, tai­lored black jacket, freshly pow­dered white hair — ex­cept his mono­chrome uni­form has been soft­ened by a silver beard. It gives him an un­ex­pect­edly gen­tle as­pect; so much so that I have to stop my­self reach­ing out to stroke it. I won­der aloud if his beloved cat, Choupette, likes her owner hav­ing whiskers that are the same colour as her fur. “Yes!” Karl says, de­light­edly. “The one thing she doesn’t like is when I sleep and I turn my back on her — she gets fu­ri­ous.”

Choupette and Karl sleep to­gether, nat­u­rally, as be­fits a pair of close com­pan­ions, in a bed of white linen and an­tique lace. “If she gets hun­gry, she wakes up first and goes to the kitchen,” he ex­plains, “and if there’s noth­ing there, she comes back and wakes me up by jump­ing on me.and some­times in the mid­dle of the night, she wants to play. She runs all over me and her lit­tle teeth bite me through the light sum­mer cash­mere blan­ket.” “You’re go­ing to end up look­ing more and more alike,” I say. “Yes, like an old cou­ple,” he replies with a smile, show­ing me pic­tures of Choupette on his iphone. “She’s like a sen­ti­men­tal per­son. She’s very funny — when I’m read­ing a news­pa­per, she reads it with me. She eats on the ta­ble too, not on the floor. If the food is on the floor, she won’t touch it. She’s very hu­man … I some­times think she’s my mother’s rein­car­na­tion.”

Aha, Karl’s mother, Elisabeth, an in­trigu­ing woman about whom I al­ways want to dis­cover more, par­tic­u­larly given his aver­sion to dis­cussing his child­hood. to­day, how­ever, he is a lit­tle more forth­com­ing than usual.the sec­ond wife of Otto Lager­feld (a pros­per­ous Ger­man busi­ness­man who ran an evap­o­rated-milk com­pany), Elisabeth was clearly a pow­er­ful in­flu­ence on her only son. Karl pro­nounces her to have been “per­fect”, though when­ever he has de­scribed her par­ent­ing to me, it sounds ut­terly ter­ri­fy­ing: bang­ing the pi­ano lid on her son’s fin­gers when he was prac­tis­ing, and or­der­ing him to draw in­stead, be­cause “it makes less noise”; ridi­cul­ing him at ev­ery pos­si­ble op­por­tu­nity (telling him that his hands were ugly, his nos­trils too wide, his hair ab­surd). Such was her last­ing au­thor­ity that he con­tin­ues to wear fin­ger­less gloves in pub­lic, in or­der to cover up his of­fend­ing hands.yet for all that, she ap­pears to have had com­plete con­fi­dence in Karl’s abil­ity to take care of him­self; and his en­su­ing self-dis­ci­pline — he has never smoked or taken drugs or overindulged in al­co­hol — has served him well in a long ca­reer that has far out­lasted that of his more frag­ile con­tem­po­rary Yves Saint Lau­rent (who os­cil­lated be­tween he­do­nism and de­pres­sion).

As a teenager, Karl asked his par­ents if he could leave their home in Ger­many and study in Paris in­stead. “peo­ple said to my mother,‘ he will get lost,’ and my mother said, ‘there are peo­ple who get lost, and my son is the kind of per­son who will not be lost.’” She was proved right when Karl found him­self a job as an as­sis­tant at the haute cou­ture house of Bal­main, hav­ing won a prize in a 1954 fashion com­pe­ti­tion, spon­sored by the In­ter­na­tional Wool Sec­re­tariat, with a de­sign for a coat. (Saint Lau­rent was also awarded a prize that same year, and the two boys be­came friends as they em­barked on their ca­reers.)

When I ask Karl what Pierre Bal­main was like, he says: “com­plex, snob­bish, not very nice at all — but I loved watch­ing him work”. It was dur­ing his ap­pren­tice­ship that he honed a par­tic­u­lar tal­ent for illustration. “i learnt in the most bor­ing way in the world — when I was at Bal­main, we didn’t have pho­to­copiers, so we had to sketch ev­ery dress … One was obliged to work from the day after the col­lec­tion for three weeks un­til two in the morn­ing, sketch­ing ev­ery­thing, be­cause those sketches were sent to the clients. that’s why in my sketches you can see ev­ery tech­ni­cal de­tail.”

Th­ese il­lus­tra­tions con­tinue to un­der­lie all that he pro­duces to­day, for Fendi, as well as Chanel and his epony­mous la­bel — although he de­scribes the lat­ter as “more like a car­toon of me”. Aside from the ev­i­dence they of­fer of his prac­ti­cal ex­per­tise, the sketches also pos­sess an evoca­tive sense of life; far more so, I say to him, than is some­times ap­par­ent in an old dress.

“Yes, I hate old dresses,” he replies. “I look at vin­tage pieces and think, This is the most de­press­ing thing in the world.” Yet while he is al­ways look­ing ahead — to the next show and fu­ture in­spi­ra­tion — he re­mains an alert trans­la­tor of the codes of past cou­turi­ers, in­clud­ing Gabrielle Chanel her­self. When Karl be­came cre­ative direc­tor of Chanel in 1983, the brand had changed very lit­tle since the death of its founder in 1971, and was verg­ing on the mori­bund. His ge­nius was to breathe new life into her iconic cre­ations — the lit­tle black dresses, tweed jack­ets and pearls, which re­main syn­ony­mous with Chanel — with­out be­ing overly rev­er­en­tial. In do­ing so, he has made the la­bel ever more suc­cess­ful; in­deed, when the com­pany re­leased its fi­nan­cial fig­ures in June, for the first time in its 108-year

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