Fashion: The Kaiser is running late

... but he is in the mood for talking. Ian Phillips catches up with designer Karl Lagerfeld, who has just opened a new gallery, and found a new diet
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"I never look at the time," claims Karl Lagerfeld. After waiting for a meeting with him, you certainly wish he would. Our interview was originally scheduled for five o'clock. Mid-afternoon, I am at home, reading a profile of him in W magazine, which describes him as "notoriously tardy". The phone rings. It's his press officer. "Karl's running a little late. Come at 5.30pm."

When I arrive at his offices, I first take a look around his latest pet project - the Lagerfeld Gallery near Saint-Germain-des-Pres. Designed by his friend Andree Putman, it opened earlier this year and is a showcase for his numerous passions. Lagerfeld is the designer for Chanel and the Italian fur house Fendi. He also produces a small collection under his own name, and in the late Eighties, embarked on an extremely successful career as a photographer. So on the ground floor of the gallery, he exhibits his photos, sells books of them and stocks various accessories - the bags he designs for Fendi, the ties he has created for the British company Hilditch & Key, and perfumes which bear the Karl Lagerfeld label. In the basement, he sells clothes from Fendi and Karl Lagerfeld.

After I have thoroughly inspected every item on show, I am given a seat in the press office, offered coffee and kindly asked to wait ... and wait ... and wait. You feel like you are at a royal court, sitting there until it is time to be ushered in to meet the monarch. Only instead of the king being in his counting house counting out his money, "the Kaiser", as Lagerfeld is known, is in his atelier doing fittings. Minutes tick away. Hours pass.

It's almost 9pm when his press officer decides that we should move on to Lagerfeld's local cafe, La Palette, and wait for him there. Lagerfeld has a regular table there and claims that "it is one of the rare places in Paris which has retained its soul". As we head off, he pops his head out of his studio and shouts after us: "Make sure they've got bananas!" During our interview, he eats four of them - and nothing else. He is, he explains, on a diet. Today, he can eat only bananas. Tomorrow, only red meat and tomatoes.

When you do eventually get to talk to him, it is worth the wait. I had expected him to be rather daunting. After all, with his powdered pony- tailed hair, dark glasses and famous fan flapping in his hand, he does look rather like a high camp opera villain. Listen to his friends, however, and they paint a different picture.

"He is not at all aloof," insists Carla, one of the four Fendi sisters. "He doesn't have a whit of pretension," agrees Ingrid Sischy, the editor of Interview magazine. "In fact, he's allergic to it." And so it would seem. Although clearly cultivated, he does not try to impress. In the Seventies, for example, he knew Man Ray. However, when I ask him about the legendary photographer, he says, "He was very funny, but I can't say that I knew Man Ray. I only saw him 20 or 30 times. I hate people who go on about how they knew such-and-such a famous person."

Talk to those who know him well and, they will tell you that he can be either "extraordinary" or "absolutely dreadful". If he feels betrayed by a friend, he is capable of completely ostracising them. The latest case in point is that of his former right-hand man at Chanel, Gilles Dufour, who recently left the company after 15 years on what have been described as "very bad terms" with Lagerfeld.

Dressed in his customary dark glasses and dark suit, Lagerfeld is a motor mouth. He speaks at a phenomenal speed and is answers your questions before you have had a chance to complete them. His brain is on permanent fast- forward and that his tongue has trouble keeping up.

In mid-conversation, he suddenly stops and looks over at a party of elderly ladies on a neighbouring table. "They look pretty sloshed, don't they?" he quips, and it becomes evident that Lagerfeld is not averse to a gossip. He takes delight in confiding that several famous people we talk about are tres mechants (very nasty), though his digs are tempered with humour. Here is a good example of a Lagerfeld one-liner: when fellow designer Pierre Cardin banned the press from his fashion shows - at a time when most of the media had long since lost interest in Cardin's creations - Lagerfeld's reaction was: "That's like a woman without lovers asking for the Pill."

Lagerfeld was born on 10 September, 1938. His father was Swedish, the owner of condensed milk factories in Germany and France. His mother was German and little Karl was brought up in a hilly residential neighbourhood of Hamburg. One old friend remembers his mother as being "a rather harsh person, very strange and peculiar in her relationship with her son". From what Lagerfeld says, she sounds like a sadist.

His mother was an accomplished violinist, who studied with the composer Paul Hindemith. As a child, he would turn the pages of the music for her. If he made a mistake, he would be rewarded with a sharp kick. Lagerfeld had ambitions to become a pianist but his mother soon put a stop to them. While he was playing one day, she shut the lid on his fingers and told him he was no good. "Go and draw," she said. "It makes less noise!" Now he says that she was right. But he also admits that the great frustration of his life is not being able to play music and it is telling that the person he would most like to have been is composer Richard Strauss.

"My parents were very cultivated," he recalls, "but they were not interested in their children at all." Lagerfeld's sister was packed off to boarding school, while he was left to his own devices. He does not complain about his parents. "It was a very good method," he asserts. "I hate parents who are over-protective with their children."

He says that he never played with other children and hardly ever went to school. "There were so many screwed-up kids in Germany [after the war] that it was easy to skip classes," he says. Nevertheless, he did spend a great amount of time learning French - originally in order to understand his parents who spoke it around the house. "They would speak it so that I could not follow what they were saying," he recalls. From the age of eight, he would go to evening classes three hours a day, five days a week. Today, he is fluent in five languages. His father spoke nine.

As a child, he wanted to become an illustrator or a caricaturist. The main goal of his youth, however, was simply to get away from Hamburg as swiftly as possible. "It's not that I was unhappy there, but I found it boring. And as my parents were away on trips most of the time, what was there for me there?" At the age of 14, with the financial support of his parents, he moved on his own to Paris, went to high school and lived in a "hotel for diplomats' sons".

Fashion, he says, was always an interest. "What people wore always interested me, even before I knew it was called `fashion'. At the age of 16, he submitted a sketch for a prestigious competition organised by the International Wool Secretariat and walked away with the first prize for a coat design. A certain Yves Saint Laurent won the dress prize. Lagerfeld was soon hired as a design assistant by Pierre Balmain and in 1958, became the chief haute-couture designer for Jean Patou. In 1963, he became a freelance designer for several ready-to-wear labels. In 1964, he signed his first collection for Chloe (he would stay there until 1984 and then return from 1992 to 1996). In 1965, he began to design the collections for the Italian fur house, Fendi, and continues to do so.

He is own "Karl Lagerfeld" label, which he set up in 1984, has never been wildly successful. Last year, his backers decided to pull the plug on the clothing division. Lagerfeld has now taken it under his own wing and is producing a small collection under his own name. "Do you regret that your own house has never-?" I start to ask him. Before I can finish my question, he has butted in. "I have no regrets. I have so many other things which are so successful that it would be quite grotesque to have regrets!"

The brusqueness of his reply suggests that it may well be a sore point. Similarly, when I mention the fact that he is no longer doing Chloe (he was replaced as the label's designer by Stella McCartney last year), he is slightly tetchy. "That's no great loss!" he says. "It was not much fun anyway." He presents a hard shell to the world but, according to Andree Putman, "He is terribly hurt by criticism."

Lagerfeld's greatest success has, of course, been the revival of the House of Chanel. He became the artistic director in 1983 and once more made the Chanel suit an absolute must for wealthy women. He rejuvenated the label by mixing in street-style references (the average age of the house's couture clients is now less than 30), teaming the famous Chanel tweed jacket with denim mini-skirts and mixing in motorbike gear with silk gowns. Yves Saint Laurent may have been his sworn enemy for decades, but when asked recently which other designers' work he liked, he replied that "Karl Lagerfeld has succeeded with Chanel. I don't like the others." Yet, not everyone approves. British fashion historian Colin McDowell once claimed that Lagerfeld has "marched with jackboots through the understated philosophy of fashion of Coco Chanel".

Rather surprisingly, Lagerfeld himself is not that interested in talking about fashion. His answers on the subject are short and betray a sense of ennui. When asked what he thinks about the current state of fashion, he simply replies: "I am not a fashion critic, so I'm only interested in what I do." When pushed, however, he will admit that the designers he most admires are Japan's Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons, "because they are the furthest opposed to me".

He claims that, in career terms, he has never been ambitious and that he has only really been interested in work for the past 20 years. "When you're young, you like to have fun," he declares, "and I wasted almost 10 years being young." Indeed, in the past, he has partied with the likes of Andy Warhol and the fashion illustrator Antonio.

These days, Lagerfeld's workload seems to leave him little time for socialising. For Chanel, Fendi and Karl Lagerfeld, he produces a total of eight collections a year. He started taking photographs for the press kits and advertisements for Chanel but has now had several books of his work published and done editorial shoots for magazines including US Vogue, Vanity Fair, Glamour, the New York Times and Interview. "To work with, there's no one better, asserts Interview's Sischy. "He's an extraordinarily multi-faceted photographer. Very often, photography is divided up into guys that understand the craft and the techniques, and then those who really know how to make a picture. He's got all of it at once."

Lagerfeld is also passionate about architecture. The Japanese minimalist architect Tadao Ando is currently working on an 8,000 square-metre house for Lagerfeld neat Biarritz. His next big project, he says, will be a library, in which he can unite his huge collection of books (230,000, at the last count). He buys them in bulk and admits that they are an obsession. He gets up early every morning to read and prefers biographies, French and German classics and American poetry (he is a great fan of Emily Dickinson). He is considering publishing contemporary poets and is also planning to open a bookstore on Paris's Left Bank. "I have realised that I buy so many books that with the reduction publishers offer to booksellers, I can afford to pay two or three employees to run a bookshop."

Lagerfeld also has a large collection of 18th-century German Expressionist paintings. He is not certain that he will keep them. "I'll just hold on to one of them and sell all the others," he declares. "At the moment, I am in a period where I want to get rid of lots of things."

The same is true of his houses. He has recently sold several, including the one he spent millions renovating in Hamburg. He decorated it in the Neoclassical style popular in Germany from 1910 to 1925. He says his mother would often reminisce about the period and her influence clearly still looms large. "I am very into the Germany of the Twenties," he says. But no sooner had the house been completed than he decided to sell it. "I had tried to recreate a certain idea of Germany which no longer exists," he says. "Then, I realised I no longer had anything to do with Hamburg."

The story is typical Lagerfeld. He spends an immense amount of time and energy on projects which, once completed, he loses all interest in. He is constantly redecorating his other residences and what motivates him, he says, is faire pour faire - the act of doing.

In a recent interview, Lagerfeld admitted that he no longer has any goals in life and in the end, it all seems rather pointless - one collection after another, one photo shoot after another and one redecorating job after another. Since his long-term boyfriend Jacques de Bascher died, he has buried himself increasingly in his work. Projects, it would seem, now take precedence over relationships and the world is denied a glimpse of the real Karl Lagerfeld behind his sunglasses and fan

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