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