Everything about Karl Lagerfeld is dramatic, from his four-inch, stiff white collar and belt buckle encrusted with diamonds, to his startling erudition on European literature of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, which he reads in four different languages. He doesn't do anything as banal as translated books. Serious literature, serious treasures and serious houses aside, he owns 70 iPods and 2,400 shirts (mostly white), dusts his ponytail every morning with white powdered shampoo, and is as instantly recognisable worldwide as Mick Jagger or the Queen. He is widely considered to be fashion's king.
His workload is Herculean. He designs for Chanel, Fendi and his own label, and has a one-off collection for H&M, as well as photographing fashion for magazines, publishing poetry, making art and owning a bookshop. He is so famous that there are now Karl Lagerfeld lead toy soldiers for sale. Recently, he had to cancel a trip to Brazil because the government decided that the cost of providing his security would be too great. Last month, however, he braved Beijing for the first-ever catwalk show on the Great Wall of China for Fendi; this month he hits London for the first time with the Chanel Maison d'Art collection. At 68, his curiosity, creativity and energy are in full swing.
For 50 years, he has been a designer revolutionising fashion, injecting style, humour, irreverence and youthfulness into a business that was once famously fusty and straitjacketed. Five years ago, he mesmerised the fashion world with his extraordinary physical transformation, losing 92lb (six stone eight, which is more than some fashion models weigh) to become so slim that he could slip into Dior Homme suits and skinny Diesel jeans. His book, The Karl Lagerfeld Diet, became an international bestseller.
He is the Houdini of the fashion world, escaping expectation and predictability. By lampooning the Chanel suit – adding oversized Cs, shrinking the jacket, and introducing micro-skirts and bling accessories – he turned tradition on its head and put traditionalists into a spin. They felt that he had modernised too far; time proved them wrong.
Anyway, Lagerfeld couldn't care less what other people think, and his truths can be hard and unpalatable. "I take a physical pleasure in revenge, often in a vicious way," he explains, sitting on a green wooden bench in a public park outside the Grand Palais after his Paris show for Chanel. It is a moment of stillness and quiet after a frantic hour-and-a-half of interviews in four languages to 27 different television stations. A posse of Chanel assistants and bodyguards, all chic in black, fans out in the gardens. There is a minor panic when a dustcart parks opposite him; the hapless street-sweeper wants to clean up around him until his guards threaten to get heavy. The diamonds in Lagerfeld's Chrome Hearts rings glitter as he gesticulates with his strong hands encased in fingerless black biker-gloves.
Payback fascinates him. "I know revenge is mean and horrible, but I see no reason why I should not do something back if somebody has done something bad to me. When people think it is all forgotten, I pull the chair away – maybe 10 years later." By his own admission, he is not a man to cross. "This is a good thing – it warns people, 'Do not be nasty to me, as in later circumstances I can be nastier to you. They do not even know it is me who in the end kills them. I am very dangerous for that. Do not touch me – I will most definitely touch you."
But he can also be funny, particularly about himself. Of his own cartoonised dress formula, with its 18th-century silhouette and everything in black or white, he says: "I am Charlie Chaplin for everyday life. He was like that on screen – I am in real life." His mystique is intangible; he will share many outward intimacies but few inner ones.
Who does he love most in his life? "That is the question I don't answer." Who are his close friends? "I am not a name-dropper so I cannot answer that question in any way." The unmentionable friends include Amanda Harlech (below left) and various Jaggers, Casiraghis and so on. The other day he was at a small dinner in St Tropez hosted by the Bernard Arnaults for the Tony Blairs. "Tony Blair is funny and she is the serious one, no? He was very light, cheerful, fun. They are into religion now, no? I cannot say more. I will otherwise not be invited," he says, laughing.
In fact, Lagerfeld does great gossip, just not for public digestion. Introspection and moodiness are not his thing. As soon as a fashion collection is over, he is on to the next one, without even a single glance back. He does not do psychoanalysis and would never talk to a shrink. "If you are honest with yourself, you know the questions and the answers. I do not need an analyst because I know the answers. I found a letter from Lou Andreas-Salomé, the first woman to work with Freud, to her lover [Rainer Maria] Rilke. She said, 'Never do it [psychoanalysis] – it inhibits creativity.'"
As to his own iconic look, Lagerfeld is amused – almost as if talking of someone else. "The silhouette always looks the same," he explains, adding wryly, "I rarely wear pink." Beneath the austerity lies bemusement and gentle mockery of life. And insatiable curiosity. "I like to know, but not always to share, that information. I am not a lecturer."
Ask him straight and he will tell it straight. "You know the old New Yorker cartoon in which a patient says to a doctor, 'I feel banal', and the doctor says, 'You are banal'? That is a feeling I have never had. I have no inner trauma. I try to analyse through conversation." He is enticingly contradictory. "I found out very quickly that I was a very superficial person who likes what is on the outside – and by that I mean clothes." But
superficial is actually the last thing Lagerfeld is, as a man with a library of 150,000-plus books who adores the poetry of Emily Dickinson and can explain the point of an architect such as Peter Behrens, mentor to Gropius and Le Corbusier. His passion for history is reflected in his dress, which mixes contemporary Dior jackets with Diesel jeans. His white collars, he suggests, have echoes of Walther Rathenau, an early 20th-century German industrialist, model for a character in Robert Musil's novel The Man without Qualities.
His life is multilayered; he is questing and always curious. He shrugs, unfolding another layer of the conundrum that is Karl Lagerfeld: "I still like to give that image of superficiality. I do not want to be serious. I like to say stupid things and I like to behave as if I was a silly, superficial person because nothing is more boring than an intellectual, a heavy message. I am not a message-giver." Heaven help those who try to be intellectually pretentious or precocious with him. "I like to meet people who are the opposite of me. I like intellectual stimulation but do not use that word because I hate intellectuals as they are so often not informed. My favourite game is with people who push me on subjects they do not know very much about. I say, 'I am here to be interviewed, not lectured'."
"Then you get them, Karl," interjects Amanda Harlech, his clever, beautiful and playful muse, listening, laughing, and gleeful at their shared fun in puncturing pretension.
This month he comes to London for his first Chanel show here. He says that he likes the way the English dress. "They are more daring and unusual. It makes it more interesting." As does their humour: "They are quite funny. The French, when they are concerned about something, are certainly not."
And the Germans? After all, Lagerfeld is from Hamburg. "They do not even know what it [humour] is. One of the reasons I do not live in Germany is the lack of humour. I love the early magazines – before the First World War – which were daring and funny and prepared to be preposterous." After laughter, tears. When was the last time he cried? "When I had dust in my eye or soap from the bathtub," he sidesteps elegantly. He does not needlessly open his heart. "People who tell everything appal me." Wit is Lagerfeld's deflecting armour and fuel.
With a clear conscience, he sleeps long and easy. In fact, in a long white nightdress in an elegant hôtel particulier in Paris with no bedroom curtains. Seven hours, like clockwork. He reads two pages in bed before the book falls on his face: "I then read in the early morning." He is woken by light and hunger. He eats precisely at 8am, 1pm and 8pm, only drinks Coca-Cola Zero, never smokes or does drugs, and – despite being the most powerful man in fashion – does not take himself too seriously.
So what can provoke revenge in Lagerfeld? "Lies, stupidity, and when people abuse trust." And blood bonds are what he creates with his fashion teams, who would walk across hot coals for him. Yet despite his vice-like control on his work (he even shoots all the Chanel, Fendi and his own-label campaigns: "I can do in two hours what takes someone else three days, and I have no day rate!"), there is calm and assurance at Chanel on the day before his spring/summer collection show. He sits at a desk as the models parade before him and Lady Harlech, whose love of surprises, poetry, beauty and culture meshes with his. "What do you think, Amanda?" he calls as the model steps before them.
"Too bourgeois," states Karl as more accessories to make it all zing are taken from trays of chains, earrings, clips and belts. "The heel is too low. Too-tiny feet for tall girls is horrible." Lily Donaldson and Natalia Vodianova are greeted, kissed and repackaged to get the right look. He is courteous, charming, gentle and yet incisive.
It is 26 years since he took over the creative controls at Chanel, and he has almost single-handedly restored it to a position where it commands £4bn in revenues: "Chanel was dead and everyone said don't touch it. Now, of course, everyone is reviving brands." He darts and moves about like a dancer, seldom still. He sketches afresh when clothes on a model are not working, and his assistants scurry to fix them. He knows what he's looking for: "I always knew what I wanted. As a child, I wanted Austrian lederhosen. I always wanted to be different from other people. I hated children. I was born with a pad of paper and a pencil in my hand. I was looking at images before I could read."
Born in Hamburg, he was the son of a successful milk-powder manufacturer and a mother who adored him. "My mother and I were the only ones with dark hair. I could do whatever I wanted as a child, so I had long hair." She gave him a sense of almost godlike assurance. "One day we met one of the teachers, who asked if I could have my hair cut. You know what my mother did? She took the tie off the man and threw it in his face and said, 'Why? Are you still a Nazi?'. I will never forget that, throwing the tie in his face. It made me feel I was right."
At this point, he dashes off again to attend to a model. It is countdown to his catwalk show at the Grand Palais, and his mind is whirring. Lily Donaldson appears. "Chic. So chic, the famous Lily. I like the silver shoes. I want them higher. Make a little Cinderella job." And so the show goes on. Jefferson Hack, founder of Dazed & Confused magazine, comes in at 5pm to pay homage, followed by Grace Coddington from American Vogue. No other designer seems to inspire such adulation.
The day after the show, the Lagerfeld entourage comes to a halt in the grungy basement of the Grand Palais amid graffiti-covered walls and derelict cellars. He is stopped in his tracks by the sight of 20 black electric cables, all laid out like a snaking liquorice abstract form. His camera is brought to him. A butler with the Coke Zero on a silver tray still hovers, and everyone else gets out of camera range as Karl clicks. "It is beautiful, no?" And, of course, everyone agrees, because he is king and because he is right. Earlier, he had swayed to the music being prepared on one of his iPods. His own CD compilation includes Super Furry Animals and The Fiery Furnaces, as well as Stravinsky – "Rock music killed what they call contemporary [classical] music."
Pretension is his bugbear: "The danger is when designers think they are artists." He stresses that Chanel and Balenciaga didn't have exhibitions during their lives: "They made dresses for people, which was the purpose of their job." For him, there are three moments of excitement that need to work separately and together in fashion: the sketch, the fitting, and it all coming together in a collection. "Like cooking, you have to put the ingredients together and sometimes it does not work, and if you do not feel the excitement you should begin the whole process again."
He does not feel he is a rocket scientist. He knows they are, in the end, just dresses. And as to feeling sentimental towards what he has just achieved after a show, he simply shrugs: "I have no human reactions. It is a job and then another job. I have the mentality of a professional killer. I am never sentimental." No fear? "I try to avoid the idea of failure. I always expect the worst – so I often find surprises. The secret is that I can laugh about myself – but fear can be interesting, too, no?" What about people fearing you? "I do not see it like that. Sometimes they do, though. Perhaps the way I look and the way I behave – maybe I look a little too sure of myself. I do not ask questions as to how I am perceived by other people. I may be scary to some people but not to me. I know what is behind the black glasses."
Incidentally, he never wears glasses at home. He is short-sighted and hates the squinty night-mouse look that short-sighted people have when they take off their glasses.
Lagerfeld is a man of supreme sophistication, charm and power. And supreme taste. Taste to dictate the zeitgeist. He talks the talk and walks the walk. He massacres hypocrisy and cant. Take charity: "I'm all for making out a cheque and shutting up. I am tired of this charity display by rich people who try to get money out of other people's pockets to make themselves feel good. Look at Lily Safra – she writes the cheque and she shuts up. That is the way."
Generous himself, he has given away cars, jewels and houses. He's also a big charity-giver but won't talk about it, reverting to humour: "I often give to rich people. I say to them, 'You can't only make gifts to the poor. You have to spoil the rich ones because they love to be spoiled'."
Even though Karl Lagerfeld has a tongue that can soothe as well as lash, he is also a man of supreme politeness and decorum. "You have to be gentle – I hate everything rude. I can be the rudest person in the world but I never start it. My speciality, as I have said, is mean revenge combined with unlimited patience."
Geordie Greig/Tatler©The Condé Nast Publications LtdThe full version of this article appears in the December issue of 'Tatler', on sale now