It was the day after a disastrous appearance on French television, and Karl Lagerfeld, German-born superman of fashion, was still bristling, fuming with rage.
“I almost walked off the set. I should have walked off the set,” he said as he talked with a visitor on the frozen grounds of the Chateau de Champs-sur-Marne, an imposing 18th-Century castle outside Paris where he was photographing a fashion spread for British Vogue. Shooting chateaux is one of Lagerfeld’s latest passions, something he does when he is not putting out 15 or more fashion collections a year for Chanel in Paris, Fendi in Rome and his own signature house, also in Paris; designing costumes for opera and theater; illustrating children’s books, or promoting his thriving American perfume business.
“Beautiful--beautiful. Go forward--forward,” he instructed Elena Christensen, a stunning Danish model with cascading dark-brown hair and laser-beam eyes, the latest star of the Karl Lagerfeld fashion label. Christensen was wearing only an embroidered Ottoman jacket, yellow tights and an ostrich-feather hat. She was naked under the short open jacket. It was about 20 degrees, and a bone-chilling wind whipped up the hill to where she was standing in the middle of a frozen fountain. A terrified, shivering, nearly hairless gray whippet whimpered at her side. The dog looked like it wanted to jump into Christensen’s arms, anything to keep its paws off the ice.
Lagerfeld, seemingly impervious to the cold, pushed his crew--men, women and dogs--hard. He was in what his staff calls the “Kaiser Karl” phase. His bad mood was the result of his appearance the night before on the live, late-night television talk show, “Bouillon de Culture.” He showed up at the studio with three of his top models, and just before the stylish entourage took the stage, host Bernard Pivot surprised Lagerfeld by airing a film about women’s naughty underwear. The feature showed a dozen amateur models, many jigglingly overweight, parading around in black-lace underwear, garters and stockings.
“I bring three of the most beautiful, most famous models in the world,” he muttered, his full lips in a pout, “and they do this thing with hideously ugly girls. Rue Saint Denis girls.” (Rue Saint Denis is a notoriously seedy Right Bank address for prostitutes on the low end of the price scale.)
It was already midafternoon at the Chateau de Champs-sur-Marne, and the crew had been working nonstop. Earlier during the shooting, one of Lagerfeld’s costume assistants fell on the ice and broke her hand. “I told her to be careful or someone would get hurt,” said Lagerfeld sternly. Despite woeful glances from his associates and the whippet, Lagerfeld showed no interest in breaking for lunch. One woman, part of the British Vogue contingent, tried to keep her mind off the cold by singing “Mr. Tambourine Man.” One of Lagerfeld’s top assistants, Eric “Mr. Right” Wright, a tall, lanky Californian, kept repeating the same anti-cold mantra, “I’m too old for this. I’m too old for this.”
Lagerfeld, wearing gloves and a black trench coat, eyes hidden by his ubiquitous dark glasses (“They are tinted, so everything looks better, especially people”), kept pushing his model farther out on the ice. “Go forward, walk more toward the center,” he shouted. Christensen proceeded gamely, hesitating only to express concern for the welfare of the dog.
Finally, Lagerfeld pulled back, a paternal tone in his voice. “But if you hear the ice start to crack,” he said, pausing for effect, “start running.” He smiled. For a minute, people forgot the cold and chuckled. Vintage Karl. One minute he is as humorless as a Prussian general. An instant later he is Monsieur Bonheur. “This is not really a sad business, you know,” he said with an engaging grin.
Karl Lagerfeld, 52, is probably best known as the man who saved the House of Chanel and made pony tails fashionable for middle-aged men. No other designer, with the possible exception of archrival Yves Saint Laurent, exerts as much influence over what people with lots of money wear. His impact on high fashion is as great in North America and Asia, particularly Japan, as it is in Europe. When his most recent Chanel collection was presented in March at the Louvre, the standing-room-only audience included several of the world’s leading designers, among them Oscar de la Renta, who came from New York to take note.
In a demanding business that requires sinew as well as sensitivity, Lagerfeld is the rare combination of muscle and mind. His impressive intellect enables him to speak four languages fluently, track the latest trends in popular culture and maintain his passion for 17th- and 18th-Century literature and art. His physical stamina permits him to work simultaneously for three major design houses--an unprecedented feat--while constantly launching himself into new areas such as photography and furniture design. His great dream, he says, is to one day become a writer, a chronicler of his age like his hero, 17th-Century writer Saint-Simon, diarist of the court of Louis XIV. Lagerfeld is one of the few couturiers who is admired as much for his mind as his sketch pad. He is a much sought-after guest for talk shows and a dream dinner companion, although he grants that favor only to select friends.
Lagerfeld is his own creation--an 18th-Century dandy, complete with hair ribbon, bee-stung lips and trademark fan in hand. These are the latest of his affectations; previously, he experimented with a monocle and a beard. But his current image is now so symbolic that he has become its slave, he says. He is under contract by one of his companies to wear the pony tail, of which he has long since tired, and he hates carrying fans so much that he continually forgets them.
As he ages, Lagerfeld has begun to look more like a major league catcher than a fop--more Yogi Berra than Beau Brummell. His hair has gone gray. His chiseled cheekbones have melted into the facets of his cube-shaped head. His weight has increased to a stocky 180 to 190 pounds, packed onto a 5-foot-8 frame. “If I’m not a little overweight, I get tired,” he confided. “You have to make a choice between a very chic elegant body or being tough and fit. You either work or you don’t work.”
Lagerfeld’s phenomenal success has not necessarily made him happy--some of his friends contend that his dervish-like drive is his way of keeping his mind off tragedies and disappointments in his personal life--but it has made him rich. He is probably the highest-paid designer in the history of fashion, a self-described “one-man multinational corporation” who admits to making more than $5 million a year. “My drive is for doing,” he said. “I have no end in sight. I only like the way to the end.”
A handful of designers work for more than one fashion house. Gianfranco Ferre, for example, designs for his own successful Milan-based house and for Dior in Paris. Claude Montana works on his own line and does haute couture for Lanvin. But Lagerfeld designs for three. He also has a contract with a German company to design two collections a year that are produced without his name. While other designers produce four or five collections a year, Lagerfeld is responsible for at least 15.
It is Lagerfeld who initiated and propelled recent fashion trends that break down the barriers between classifications of clothing. His were among the first styles to mix sportswear with haute couture , dresswear with lingerie, blue jeans with classic jackets. In an average year, said his longtime assistant and press attache, Sophie de Langlade, Lagerfeld produces at least 2,500 designs, more than seven for each day of the year. “It is nothing for me,” Lagerfeld said, “to spend 20 hours at my desk working, not moving, not answering the telephone.”
This does not take into account all of his other activities. He has a huge perfume business in the United States, which is marketed by Elizabeth Arden. Arden officials said that revenue from Lagerfeld scents--Lagerfeld, KL Homme, KL and Chloe --totaled about $100 million in 1990. Last fall, Arden launched Lagerfeld Photo, which is expected to register $35 million in sales in its first year. And Lagerfeld is not just the name on the bottle.
“When I make a perfume,” he said, “I make the concept. I give the name. I work on the scent. I take the pictures, and I do the marketing. " For Lagerfeld Photo, he chose a “grapefruit-mandarin scent with leathery accents.”
“Karl knows business,” agreed Clare Cain, director of fragrances, marketing development, for Elizabeth Arden. “He’s not a flake or a figurehead like some of the other designers.”
Most recently, Lagerfeld designed the costumes for Puccini’s “La Rondine” for the Opera of Monte Carlo. He is currently illustrating a children’s book based on the “Emperor’s New Clothes,” by Hans Christian Andersen. And since 1987, he has produced all his own fashion photography.
He owns two castles in rural France, a grand apartment on rue de l’Universite in Paris, a house in Hamburg, an apartment in Rome and a $14-million villa in Monte Carlo. He has a Bentley for each of his several driveways. Yet no amount of wealth stops him from working. “Some people are born for the battlefield,” he sighed, “and I’m part of that group, I’m afraid.”
The battlefield of fashion is where the Kaiser Karl side of Lagerfeld emerges. Not only does he set the world’s style trends as fashion director at Chanel, but he is also the most powerful creator and destroyer of models’ careers in French fashion. In 1989, for example, he summarily dumped Chanel’s top model, Ines de la Fressange, a close friend around whom he had built the “Coco” perfume campaign, because she agreed, over his objections, to pose as the model for Marianne, symbol of the French Bicentennial. The dismissal resulted in a public feud between the two. “Marianne is the symbol of everything boring, bourgeois and provincial,” he said in an interview with a Paris newspaper. He described de la Fressange, one of the few top models with a university education, as a Pygmalion character with half-baked “leftist caviar” ideas. “I’m the one who made her,” Lagerfeld sniped.
This past winter, he became enraged when top model and Chanel-show regular, Brigitte Bardot look-alike Claudia Schiffer from Germany, refused to travel to Paris because of her fears of terrorism. Overnight, Schiffer was in the Lagerfeld doghouse. “She said she was afraid of the Arabs,” snorted Lagerfeld. “She was from Dusseldorf, and she is afraid of terrorists? There is no excuse for stupidity like that. All the American models came. It’s a shame because she was a girl I liked very much.”
When Schiffer fell from grace, the well-known, short-haired, newly blond Canadian model, Linda Evangelista, became Lagerfeld’s favorite. “The most famous of all--Linda Evangelista--was there,” he announced. In several conversations, Lagerfeld went out of his way to praise her beauty and talent.
To maintain his killing work schedule, Lagerfeld leads a rather ascetic life. Except for an occasional glass of white wine, he does not drink. He does not smoke or drink coffee. He seldom goes out socially, except at the side of Monaco’s Princess Caroline or one of his few other famous “muses.” He says he has never tried cocaine or any other drugs. “In a way, I’m a kind of Puritan,” he said. “I admit everything for everybody, but not for myself.”
Lagerfeld’s interests range from 17th-Century French literature to pop icon Madonna. He collects furniture, books, records, fans and houses. He likes Diet Cokes in paper cups “with lots of ice” and McDonald’s double cheeseburgers without the bun. He keeps up with politics. “I like Herr Genscher (Hans-Dietrich Genscher, German foreign minister) best. He is very brilliant, funny and mean.”
Lagerfeld’s business is so globally dispersed that he seldom stays in any one of his homes for more than three days. Identical wardrobes of his black, Japanese-designed (Matsuda) suits and English handmade shoes (John Lobb) are installed in his Paris, Rome and Hamburg closets. Guests are invited to his homes for lavish fetes and never see their host. “His work is his life,” said a close friend. “His family is the fashion family.”
Two recent deaths have made him even more of a loner. In September, 1989, his longtime friend and companion, Jacques de Bascher, died of complications from AIDS. De Bascher, a wealthy aristocrat who knew Lagerfeld from childhood, shared the designer’s broad cultural interests and helped him in his work. Lagerfeld had a separate apartment built for him in his Monte Carlo villa.
Then, last October, financier Stefano Casiraghi, husband of Princess Caroline, was killed in a speed boat race. “He was quite a good man--a divine person,” said Lagerfeld. But the biggest loss was his close friendship with Caroline. The accident shattered Caroline’s life, leaving her widowed with three young children. Since then, she and Lagerfeld rarely meet. The princess is too broken-hearted, he said.
The deaths, both with their Monte Carlo connections, have ruined the Cote d’Azur for Lagerfeld. “I have the most beautiful house there,” he said, “but I couldn’t care less. I still go there--but only to take photos because the light is good.” When he talks about his private life, a flicker of sadness shows, although most emotions are hidden behind his dark glasses. “I try to forget these things,” he said, “but my personal life never interferes with my work, thank God.”
Although Lagerfeld says he has only a primitive sense of religion, he admits to being very superstitious, “something I learned from the peasants back in Germany.” He had a fortune teller who advised him on his career. She told him, for example, never to marry or have children. His superstition tells him that if he stops working, it might all go away. He tries not to concentrate on the past but on the next job. He hates shows; he only likes preparing for them. “The minute I have a good day,” he said, “I have a fear that the next one won’t be so good.”
There are two dominant figures in contemporary French fashion--Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld. Despite Lagerfeld’s huge influence, Saint Laurent is more famous. But Lagerfeld denies feeling competitive, though he can’t help criticizing Saint Laurent: “He has a very strange ego problem that I don’t have.”
“In the judgment of fashion history, and in spite of his ebullient talents, Lagerfeld risks playing Salieri to Saint Laurent’s Mozart,” Suzy Menkes, fashion writer for the International Herald Tribune, wrote last year.
In contrast to Kaiser Karl, Saint Laurent is the very picture of sensitivity and fragility. According to his companion and business partner, Pierre Berge, Saint Laurent has had several nervous breakdowns. After finishing each collection, he retreats to his hideaway in Marrakech, or to his chateau in the French countryside. Although only 54 years old, he leans heavily on a cane like a man decades older.
The popular myth is that Saint Laurent is dying for his art, that creation will eventually kill him. After each show, his faithful clients, the world’s wealthiest women and most famous actresses, hold their breath to see if he will make an appearance. As the well-dressed crowd filters out of the show, the talk is about “Dear Yves” and “Poor Yves.” There is a feeling that when Saint Laurent breathes his last breath, so will haute couture.
“In my opinion,” said Berge, “haute couture is in its final years. The time of the great designers is over. When people like Saint Laurent and Givenchy (Hubert de Givenchy, now 63 years old) are no longer here, I can’t see who will continue this work.”
Lagerfeld responds with typical bluntness. “Berge has to say that because Yves is in such unbelievably bad condition physically,” he said. “ Couture will exist as long as someone can afford to buy the dresses,” which cost from $2,000 to $50,000 each. “There are still a few houses that have a clientele. Chanel is one. But when I took over (in 1983), it had none.”
Both Saint Laurent and Lagerfeld got their start in the fashion business in the same way. Both won the International Wool Secretariat contest for fashion designers. Saint Laurent, a middle-class boy from French colonial Algeria, won the contest for dresses with a cocktail gown. Lagerfeld, a rich boy whose Swedish-German father owned the European licenses for Carnation condensed milk, won the contest for coats.
Subsequently, Saint Laurent was hired by Christian Dior. When Dior died in 1957, Saint Laurent became the house’s head designer. In 1961, he broke with Dior and began selling clothes under his own name. Last year, Yves Saint Laurent had more than $600 million in sales. Lagerfeld was hired as an assistant to fashion designer Pierre Balmain, an opulent designer favored by Katharine Hepburn, Gina Lollobrigida, Sophia Loren and other stars. He spent five years at the Jean Patou fashion house. Then, in 1964, he began his long association with Chloe, a ready-to-wear business where he developed his first perfume. Under Lagerfeld, Chloe became known for producing haute couture -quality clothes at lower prices.
It was the beginning of the so-called “luxury ready-to-wear” market that is the base of contemporary fashion. Also in 1964, he was hired as designer for the Fendi House, which produces fur coats, perfume and accessories. In 1983, Lagerfeld became house designer for Chanel. The next year he created his signature collection.
Saint Laurent’s fame came early. By 1960, he was already the master of his own fashion house, backed by Atlanta financier J. Mack Robinson.
Lagerfeld had to wait nearly 25 years before his fame rivaled Saint Laurent’s. Lagerfeld was in the vanguard of the shift to deluxe ready-to-wear designs, but it was his immensely successful restoration of the House of Chanel that set up the great rivalry--and excitement--that marks French fashion today.
Chanel’s reputation was built by its legendary founder, Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel, who dominated fashion for more than 50 years, until her death in 1971, by creating clothes for the modern woman. Chanel’s coats, for example, had pockets where women could put cigarettes, keys, money and other symbols of independence. A smoker herself, she is said to have picked the legendary Chanel No. 5 scent because it went well with the smell of cigarette smoke. Chanel also introduced trousers for women, pleated skirts, pill-box hats and the “little black dress.”
If only Coco Chanel could be brought down from the great atelier in fashion heaven to see what Karl Lagerfeld is doing in her name: Women in sheer black blouses with black silk camellias--the floral symbol of her fashion house--as pasties. Models wearing formal evening gowns topped with black-leather motorcycle jackets. One black evening dress cut to look like a surfer’s wet suit. A model in a traditional Chanel suit wearing . . . velvet Mickey Mouse ears?
Not to mention a few of the other outrageous sight gags in his fall/winter collection: jeans under black le smoking jackets. Golden chains dripping from belts, draped in countless strands around necks and waists or worn as dog-collar necklaces with trailing chain leashes. Cashmere “jogging-suit” leisure outfits with the name CHANELsplashed across the back in script formed by strings of plastic pearls. And all presented to the throbbing beat of American soul, rock and rap.
It isn’t hard to imagine the look of naked horror that would cross the elegant visage of the resurrected Mlle. Chanel if she were to witness the spectacle--a parody of all she built in her reign as the queen of French fashion. Chanel felt the dress should never steal the show from the woman who wore it. “Dress shabbily,” she said, “and they notice the dress. Dress impeccably, and they notice the woman.” Chanel used to watch her collections from a vantage point on the mirrored staircase between the second and third floors of her store. She could see her models, but no one could see her. How would she react to dandy Karl strutting out on the runway to receive the wild applause? “Judging from the applause,” wrote Menkes after the show, “nothing succeeds like excess.”
Lagerfeld’s genius at Chanel was to take the cherished traditions--Coco’s camellias, her gold chains--and exaggerate them almost to the point of mockery. He created blouses of fabric printed with Chanel No. 5 bottles. He took the boxy traditional Chanel purses and recast them in the shape of French baguettes, and then reduced them to the size of bracelet charms.
His first collections at Chanel received mixed reviews. The French press in particular didn’t like the designer toying with the sacrosanct traditions of “Mademoiselle.” American fashion writer Holly Brubach joined in the Lagerfeld bashing. “You can’t help but wonder whether the people at Chanel got the wrong man for the job,” Brubach wrote in the Atlantic in 1984. “After two collections, he still hasn’t figured out how to make a mark on the Chanel style without defacing it.”
But something had to be done--when Lagerfeld was hired to take over Chanel in 1983, the company’s fashion business had dwindled almost to nothing. “Before Karl,” said Chanel’s general manager of public relations, Marie-Louise de Clermont-Tonnerre, “perfume accounted for about 90% of Chanel’s business.”
Under his creative management, Chanel doubled its business. His success in the marketplace, particularly in the United States, was followed by more-favorable reviews. People began to see the method behind his madness. Lagerfeld was not mocking Chanel; he was enshrining her--using rock music and television-age themes to burn her trademarks into a much larger market.
The parodied symbols of Chanel stimulated a profitable Japanese market, where name brands and labels are very important. Two years ago, the Chanel brand had become so popular that, to control crowds, Chanel officials limited the number of handbags that tourists visiting the home store in Paris could buy. Although the same items are available at boutiques in Japan at only a slightly higher price, there appeared to be something mystical about buying them in Chanel’s original shop, on the rue Cambon.
Under Lagerfeld, Chanel also expanded its ready-to-wear fashion collections. For decades, the company, owned by the Wertheimer family of France, conducted all its business from the shop. When Lagerfeld joined Chanel, there were 19 Chanel boutiques elsewhere in the world. Riding his promotional and creative energy, the Wertheimers now have 58 boutiques worldwide. According to the French association of ready-to-wear companies, 37% of the nation’s $1-billion-a-year industry last year came from Japan, contrasted with 18% from the United States.
Because Chanel is a family-owned, privately held company, its financial details are not publicly disclosed. However, industry analysts estimate that last year, Chanel did more than $700 million in business worldwide, placing it at the top among French companies and in the same league with some of the most successful American houses such as Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein. “When we hired Karl, it was considered controversial because he was thought of as an iconoclast,” said Clermont-Tonnerre, “but it has been a complete financial and fashion success for us.”
Some critics contend that Lagerfeld needed Chanel as much as the struggling fashion house needed him. The discipline of the Chanel tradition helped harness his intellectual energy. “Karl Lagerfeld works like a firefly, he flits from one thing to another,” said one friend. “He needed the Chanel base to use as a springboard for his ideas.”
Lagerfeld says juggling so many projects is easy. At Chanel he is an actor playing a part. At Fendi, he is an Italian actor playing himself. At Karl Lagerfeld, he is himself. His most recent collection for his own house was an ode to the “Goldfinger” James Bond movie. Lagerfeld, a master of modern fabric technology, “painted” his models into gold and silver body suits made of ultralight synthetic materials. Using the metallic body stocking as a base, he draped them in sheer evening dresses of black chiffon.
Lagerfeld’s ability to switch roles between fashion houses is so evolved that he often works in both of his Paris studios--at Chanel and at the more modest Lagerfeld studio on the Avenue des Champs-Elysees--on the same afternoon. He has a separate staff at each atelier, so only he moves from one studio to the other.
Before each collection’s coming-out presentation, such as for the ready-to-wear lines in March, Lagerfeld presides over an essayage (fitting) session. Sketches that he made sometimes months before are paraded before him as clothing on a studio model. He makes comments on the dress, recommends buttons and alternate fabrics, orders adjustments in color and sometimes even radical changes in design.
“Hold it, I have an idea,” interjected Lagerfeld during a fitting at his Champs-Elysees studio, located above a movie theater and an abandoned Iraqi Air ticket office. At Lagerfeld’s command, a model wearing a black evening dress with three-quarters-length sleeves froze in her tracks. Lagerfeld instructed his main seamstress--the premier d’atelier-- to clip the sleeves off at the shoulders. Then he instructed her to trim some of the material off the sleeves and re-attach them to the dress with black ribbons, leaving bare skin on the upper part of the model’s arms.
“Voila!” said Lagerfeld, to the applause of his studio staff, “flying sleeves! I’ve never done that before.” When the dress was displayed a few weeks later, it was one of the crowd’s favorites.
At Chanel, where the fitting is done in the same room where Chanel conducted her fittings for nearly 50 years, the atmosphere is light and creatively charged. Lagerfeld conducts interviews or chats with one of his “muses"--rich or titled women with privileged access to the inner sanctum--as he reviews the collection.
Obviously, Lagerfeld has taken wild liberties with the Chanel tradition. But the key to his success is that he has been able to mock Chanel without destroying her.
There is a line that he will not cross. Although it may be exaggerated nearly every design has some reference to a Chanel trademark. At the studio on the rue Cambon, the ghost of Coco Chanel is always present. When a dress or coat doesn’t fit with the tradition, Lagerfeld or his top assistant, Gilles Dufour, will say, “No, that’s not Chanel!” and the idea is killed.
If only a minor adjustment is needed, Lagerfeld will say, “We need to Chanel-ize that.” A cloth camellia or a black-ribbon bow is added. Nothing leaves the room that has not been “Chanel-ized.”
The crew has created a verb to match the practice. “It goes,” Dufour said, “je Chanelise, tu Chanelises, il Chanelise, nous Chanelisons. . . .”