With his immaculate taste for fabrics and designs, Karl Lagerfeld has not only conquered the fashion world, but also became one of the most influential dressmakers who managed to turn a profit on haute couture. After supermarket runway and bringing Chanel to Texas and Dubai, he’s in the search for new Cara Delevingne
It’s mid-June and London has that summer glow combined with a few drops of rain that carefully fall on the pavement of Regent Street. I am standing in the front of Karl Lagerfeld store, his largest European boutique to date and I am not sure how, but that scenery immediately reminded me of Chanel ready-to-wear 2010 fall collection, which had a rather unusual accessory in the Grand Palais in Paris that March: a giant iceberg brought from Sweden!
With intense cul-de-sac expression, edged black suit and sharp white shirt as his biggest protégé, perky polyglot Karl Lagerfeld has a rather beguiling personality. As the french writer and editor Patrick Mauries said in the foreword for the book of quotes “The World According to Karl”: “To meet Karl Lagerfeld, or even simply see him on screen, is to know his incredible presence of mind.” And it was his ‘irregular’ attitude (once seen in Coco Chanel herself) that brought him to one of the largest labels in the world back in 1983.
Karl was born in 1933 (or in 1935, the world is still confused over his birth) in pre-war Hamburg as Karl Otto Lagerfeldt (he removed the letter ‘t’ from his surname because, as he wrote in his book “The Karl Lagerfeld Diet, this way “it sounds more commercial”) to a wealthy German father and Swedish mother, who was into lingerie designs. Dubbed as pretentious, mystique, and misunderstood, the eye for the perfect cut in clothing and accessories he inherited from his mother, who he mentions pretty often in his interviews.
When he was 14, Karl emigrated to Paris to finish his secondary school at the Lycée Montaigne, where he majored in drawing and history. His breakthrough happened through Pierre Balmain who hired him as an assistant after Lagerfeld won the design competition in 1955 in the coats category. After three successful years at Balmain, he worked with Jean Patou where he designed his first two haute couture collections. Lagerfeld began to freelance for the French fashion house Chloé in 1964, designing a few pieces each season. He first started designing furs after joining Fendi. A decade after Coco Chanel died, Lagerfeld was invited to join Chanel in 1983. Not long ago after that he finally decided to launch his own Karl Lagerfeld label, for which he says that “channels intellectual sexiness.” Now the head designer of both Chanel and Fendi, and his own label, his influence on fashion is reaching unparalleled heights. While Chanel and Fendi are supremely luxurious and expensive, Karl Lagerfeld’s own label takes a more light-hearted approach to getting dressed. The prices are lower but the quality remains.
There is not a slightest doubt that Karl changed the general view of fashion, especially at the beginning of his solo career, when his collections didn’t quite please the audience. At the end of the 50s and the beginning of the 60s the press and the public criticised him and his pieces. Whether it was a wide-cut short or a low-cut long black dress, he was l’enfant terrible of the post-war era. Nowadays however, Karl’s eye for trends is equal to photographer’s eye for frames: everything is in its right place. No wonder he is both, a successful fashion designer and a successful photographer.
Lately however, Lagerfeld’s glory and fame don’t go alone. Almost as famous as her owner, his cat, a pet and a muse, Choupette is an Internet star. Given to Lagerfeld by the French model Baptiste Giabiconi in 2011, Choupette hit the stardom when her Twitter account started. Choupette has two maids, a driver and a doctor who does her manicure. According to Lagerfeld, she doesn’t meow or purr. She does everything with eyes. Two maids spend hours together with her and do her beauty jobs, especially her hair. “She loves playing with unordinary toys, like pieces of wood, paper or even shopping bags”, said Lagerfeld to Harpers Bazaar. Choupette even travels with style in her personalized Louis Vuitton travelling case, presented to Lagerfeld by Bernard Arnault.
Having a famous cat as a muse had a positive impact on Karl as his influence on the fashion world is climbing. At the age of 80 he remains one of few designers who focuses on simplicity and gives everything to a nice-cut white shirt and black jacket: “One is never underdressed or overdressed with a little black dress or a little black jacket.” He clearly enjoys every minute of designing, and he often reminds us of that.
Often criticized over contemptuous comments towards plump women and how none would want to see them in the fashion world, Lagerfeld is always surrounded by young people, and he tends to preserve that. Book of his quotes, “The World According to Karl” reveals a lot of controversies and sharp sides of his personality, especially those surrounded with beauty: “I hate looking at ugliness”, being one of the strongest.
I guess Karl wouldn’t be Karl if he is not surrounded by the tale of controversy. The Islamic community went furious in 1994 when he embroidered the phrases from the Koran onto dresses in his spring collection. At that time Chanel had to hire a bodyguard for Claudia Schiffer to protect her from fundamentalists. It is quite often that he criticise ones around him, especially people in the fashion industry. “When you hear designers complaining about the challenge of their profession, you have to say: don’t get carried away, it’s only dresses.”
His Diet Coke is his mental and psychical protégé as he never eats. “I know how to open a fridge, but I don’t know how to cook”, unveils his book of the quotes. In 2001 he lost approximately 42 kg in 13 months, because, as he said he wanted to wear clothes designed by Hedi Slimane “which were modelled by very, very slim boys—and not men my age—it required me to lose at least 40 kg.” Dr. Jean-Claude Houdret designed the diet especially for him and in 2004 Karl published a diet book called “The Karl Lagerfeld Diet”.
In March this year Regent Street in London delivered a new baby, a personalized Karl Lagerfeld store, his largest European boutique to date. While in the store everywhere you look you either see his face or a glance of his posture. Besides men’s and women’s ready-to-wear items and accessories, the store also offers removable collars (one of Karl’s style signatures) and tokidoki dolls of Karl and, naturally, Choupette.
He likes to shock the world once in a while. For Chanel AW2014/15 collection, Lagerfeld has chosen a rather unusual environment: a supermarket! It was a purpose built Chanel superstore in the Grand Palais in Paris which survived a fashion riot in a choreographic mode. The runway included shopping trolleys, kitchen goods with the Chanel sign on them, such as ketchup, detergent and potato chips. The zoom of the collection were tweed tracksuits and holographic trainers. The critics dubbed the runway as one of his greatest thought-out performances to date.
Known for courting controversy by referencing local customs in hyperbolic fashion, after bringing Chanel rodeo in the heart of Texas, Dallas, as part of Chanel’s latest Metiers d’Art show, Lagerfeld set Chanel’s Resort 2015 collection on an island in Dubai in mid-May. He created a desert spectacle, a Chanel’s oasis (which took two months to construct!) at dusk in a gold-and-glass structure, with a roof supported by artificial palms, on a man-made island from which you can see all the futuristic skylines of Dubai. “We built everything — toilets included,” Lagerfeld noted. “I think those islands in the middle of nowhere are quite poetic. It’s kind of an Oriental Atlantis,” said Lagerfeld to the press prior to runway.
At the moment Lagerfeld is searching for the next Cara Delevingne. #WALKWITHKARL has been set up by Ford Models and the Karl himself to find a new runway star. In an incredible double coup, the winner will walk for both Chanel and Fendi’s SS15 shows – two of the most high profile slots on the Fashion Week schedule. The designer and photographer will also shoot his winner for an exclusive editorial in “V” magazine.
Karl Lagerfeld’s success has happened both because and in spite of the numerous critics and controversies that surrounded him for years. However, the custodian of the house of Chanel is a person who likes to judge and not only others, but himself as well. “I always see myself next to me. Two of us, with one making fun of the other who sees things clearly”, says the book of his quotes.
His biography line doesn’t exist. For him, you need to live your autobiography, not write it. However, if he ever decides to write one, I am more than sure it will be sold in endless number of copies.
He might be a controversial character, a persona who might have been in the front row for Billy Wilder’s film noirs in the end of the 40s. He might also be a misunderstood figure, a caricature of himself, as he reminds us often enough. However, despite of his puritanism, egoism and harsh personality, Karl will remain a “Labelfeld”, one of the strongest living human labels of the crossroad of 20th and 21st century.