Being Karl Lagerfeld: What's it like being the most powerful man in fashion?

In an exclusive interview, Karl Lagerfeld talks to Susannah Frankel about iPads, Nietzsche and what he really said about those Royal Wedding outfits

Saturday 05 November 2011 01:00 GMT

Even by his own frenetic standards, Karl Lagerfeld has been a busy man recently. At the end of April, he provided a four-and-half hour commentary on the Royal Wedding for French state TV. "You don't want to know what he said," comments his London PR, although naturally, I do. In May, he set into motion the publication of the complete works of Friedrich Nietzsche, in the original German. A friend sent him a rare edition with the philosopher's handwritten notes included and Lagerfeld is reproducing it for the publishing company he owns, 7L, which is an imprint of Steidl.

On a somewhat lighter note, that same month Lagerfeld photographed his muse and creative collaborator, Amanda Harlech, and her great friend and a highly valued couture customer, Daphne Guinness, for a fashion editorial in the July issue of V Magazine. The two women 'exchanged personal styles' for the story and it's hard to imagine either of them doing so for anyone else. Harlech said later that Lagerfeld had told her on set that she looked like "a hausfrau" dressed in Guinness's look and resplendent in blonde hair piece. She took this in the good humour with which it was hopefully intended.

In June, Lagerfeld made another TV appearance, on Le Grand Journal, this time with Lady Gaga and resulting in a live, impromptu iPad photo session – a white-gold iPad photo session, if you please. The couturier later sent the songstress a Chanel carrier bag emblazoned with Crayola-coloured portraits of the two of them together, penned by his own hand. When she uploaded it on to her website, Lagerfeld says it received no less than 53 million hits. Not bad, considering that the work in question probably took no more than seconds to execute. Lagerfeld sketches continuously, brilliantly and at breakneck speed.

In August, he unveiled a 45-piece collection for the American department store, Macy's. Priced from $50 to $170, signature tweeds, leathers, little black dresses, T-shirts and fingerless gloves all made an appearance. No more a designer fashion snob than one to draw a line between high and low culture, Lagerfeld was famously the first designer to collaborate with Swedish high-street giant, H&M, back in 2004. That collection sold out worldwide in a matter of only hours and its designer has since argued that the accompanying advertising campaign, in which he was asked to appear, was the single significant factor that, after all these years, finally made him a household name.

Then, in October, Lagerfeld staged an exhibition at the Salon de la Photo at the Paris Expo, showcasing his own fashion photography as well as work by such luminaries as Richard Avedon, David Bailey, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Robert Mapplethorpe and Helmut Newton. He launched a women's fragrance – Kaleidoscope – under his own name, and shot the accompanying (kaleidoscopic) advertising campaign. Next came a label for a 2009 vintage bottle of red wine in celebration of the Chateau Rauzan-Ségla vineyard's 350th anniversary.

In the same time-frame, Lagerfeld designed two ready-to-wear collections shown in Milan for the Italian fur house, Fendi, and two more staged in Paris for Hogan. The first for the latter label was accompanied by a short film, the second by a 32-page book, comprising his sketches and photographs of models in the clothes.

And then, of course, there is his day job. As designer and couturier at the esteemed house of Chanel since 1983, Karl Lagerfeld is responsible for the creative direction of the single most successful fashion company in the world. Nobody knows exactly how much money Chanel makes. It is privately owned by the Wertheimer family and among the luxuries of independence is the right to keep any figures under wraps. Everyone assumes, however, that sales at Chanel – which include the proceeds of a lucrative haute couture business, ready-to-wear collections, pre-collections, money-spinning cosmetics and fragrance, not least Chanel No 5 – exceed all others. Lagerfeld showed Chanel women's ready-to-wear in March and October in Paris. He took his autumn Metiers d'Art collection, designed to uphold the workmanship of Chanel-owned ateliers including Lesage (specialist embroiderer), Desrues (costumes jeweller), Massaro (shoemaker), Maison Michel (milliner), Goossens (goldsmith), Lemarie (feather specialist) and Guillet (floral accessory specialist) to Istanbul in early May. Also in May, he unveiled Chanel Cruise in Saint Tropez. His autumn/winter haute couture collection for Chanel took place in the French capital again in July. Given that each of these involves the creation of upwards of 80 fully accessorised exits, not to mention the most elaborate and expensive mises-en-scènes in the business, this alone is no small feat.

To describe Lagerfeld as a Renaissance man, then, would in no way do justice to either his hugely prolific output or indeed his versatility. Much has been made of this in the past, with journalists labouring incessantly to unpick it. Is Karl Lagerfeld's obsession with "doing" an attempt to ward off mortality – or at least avoid confronting it head-on? Is his apparently compulsive ingestion of modern – and indeed historic – culture a way of ensuring he may never be accused of being locked in an ivory tower? And does his need to surround himself with – and work alongside – bright, young, beautiful things somehow fill an emotional void?

The answers to those questions will almost certainly never been known. Or, as Lagerfeld himself puts it: "I personally have nothing to say, nothing to explain. I make such big efforts to forget things and I can't tell the story of my life because, thank God, I'm still living it. Non, non, non. I couldn't tell the truth." It seems only fair to respect that position. Some things are best left a mystery, after all. That Lagerfeld's media incarnation is a construct – a magnificent construct – is not in dispute. He is among the world's most intriguing and magical figures, a heady, fairytale fusion of King Midas and the Pied Piper with a touch of the Big Bad Wolf thrown in to make things more entertaining still. Why not let him be with that?

on a more pragmatic level, whatever the motivation behind his unprecedented levels of productivity and insatiable appetite for the present and the new, it is perhaps only to be expected that on the day we're due to meet, Karl Lagerfeld is late. It is no more than a fortnight after the spring/summer 2012 prêt-a-porter season has ended and only days before he disappears to shoot the advertising campaign that will launch Chanel's most recent collection in every glossy magazine next January. Tardiness, given his workload, is quite simply his prerogative. In fact, it will be a minor miracle if he shows up at all.

Chanel's Paris headquarters are located in two adjacent 18th-century buildings on the Rue Cambon, spread out over five floors above a street-level Chanel store. Japanese tourists queue up to photograph the window displays and more of every nationality mill around the merchandise inside. The Chanel offices, too, buzz with activity. Chanel-besuited buyers from the company's boutiques across the globe have arrived in force to choose from the huge collection that Lagerfeld has provided for them: different pieces work for different markets – from fashion forward to classic – and all of those involved are painstakingly trained to ensure they invest in the right pieces for their individual domains. A Chanel café has been set up on a mezzanine level for the duration, providing refreshments. And there we wait for the man himself to appear.

Four o'clock – the designated time for our meeting – comes and goes, as does five o'clock. It would be wise, I have been reliably informed, to pack an overnight bag, as M Lagerfeld has been known not to arrive until early evening. Frantic e-mails bounce between BlackBerrys to establish his whereabouts until... "Il est la! Il est la!" It is 5.30pm exactly and Lagerfeld is no more than 90 minutes behind schedule.

In fact, the salons in which Gabrielle Chanel, the house in question's namesake, based her business and made it one of the 20th century's phenomenal success stories, are currently undergoing refurbishment. The studio where the interview will take place on the top floor is a temporary one. Some things never change, however: now, as always, Lagerfeld has a sign that reads 'Mademoiselle', a decidedly camp flourish in honour of his predecessor, affixed to the door. Inside, he is flanked by the members of his team, including Virginie Viard, his elegant first assistant of many years.

Lagerfeld is dressed, as always, in a high-collared starched shirt (he has around a thousand of them, he has said, all made for him by Jermyn Street specialist, Hilditch & Key), a black tailored jacket, skinny black jeans and boots. His hair is pulled back into a ponytail and powdered a frosty white. On his hands he wears black leather fingerless gloves, studded with grommets engraved with the Chanel double C. And then there are the all-important finishing touches – the aviator sunglasses, the large buckled belt, the looped silver chains, the jewel-encrusted tie-pin and the heavy-metal rings.

His image is precise, monochromatic and linear to the point of photographic. It comes as something of a surprise, however, to find that in person he is animated – warm, even – quick on his feet and even quicker in his delivery. He has often attributed his staccato speech patterns to his mother who, like her son, was a restless spirit and insisted he got straight to the point when he talked to her or else she would walk away.

He says now: "She was exactly what I needed – exactly what was needed for a child with a head like this".

Accounts conflict as to whether Lagerfeld was born in Hamburg in 1933 or 1938. His father made a fortune manufacturing condensed milk and, as Hitler rose to power, moved his family to an isolated estate in the northern German countryside. Lagerfeld remembers that the first "real" books he read were Tolstoy's War & Peace and Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks, a precocious choice by any standards.

"But I am a fashion designer, there's no need to discuss serious literature. The point is, I was beyond pleased with myself – beyond – so I think I needed a little downer. I didn't play with other children. I couldn't have cared less. I hardly went to school. I learnt everything at home. By the time I was six I could speak German, English and French, because I asked for the teachers. My problem as a child was that I was bored to death, because I wanted to be a grown-up person. My childhood was endless – from eight to 18 felt like hundreds of years. Today, parents are too much on their children's backs. They're over-caring. Non. Children should be in the corner. I was always in the corner, reading or sketching. But I wanted to be there. That's all I ever wanted to do."

Back in the present, and Karl Lagerfeld, for the moment, has two iPods in front of him, an A4 block of white paper and a pencil. He holds an iPad in his hand.

"I use it mostly for sketching. I'm very good at it. I discovered a technique. It's like engraving. Really not bad. There is no Photoshop. You have to know how to sketch. It's not something done with the help of computers. I hate computer sketches because they're all the same. They have no personality. If you want to see how it works... Voila! [Click.] This is the brush. [Click.] This is how thick you want the line. [Click.] And then here are the colours. [Click.] You want red, maybe? [Click.] He sketches a line with his fingernail... Unbelievable, no? It's better with the special pen and I'm not going to keep it because it's nothing. And so then you do this. [Click.] And this. [Click.] And it disappears. I have iPads in every room. Look, here's Lady Gaga dressed as a man.I shot her like that..."

He says that he is drawn to pop's most famous protagonist for her personality more than her music. "She's a great person. A very clever girl. She's a concert pianist. She is well brought up. She's an Upper West Side girl with real learning. She's not just an idiot from nowhere."

There are too many of those to name and the distinct impression is that it would be demeaning to spend too much time discussing them. But Lagerfeld does say: "There are so many third-rate people now who are more famous than people who should be famous, but sometimes people who could or should be famous are very boring, too."

And here he is – only moments in and despite his press department's protestations – on the subject of the Royal Wedding; he may have been frustrated as a young boy but he retains a childlike sense of the mischievous. "I wasn't mean," he says of his commentary of the day. "Non. But I'm not blind. The men in England, they get away better with that kind of look than the women. Much better. It's like in Monaco. They're dressed for a ceremony and it's very becoming. But the women, when they go into bright colours, strange hats, bad proportions, short skirts, big legs and all that, then it's more difficult. Do you speak French? I'll send you the tape."

In truth, as Lagerfeld's star has risen to ever more stratospheric heights, his opinions on others have softened somewhat. In the 1970s and early 1980s, when in Paris he was best known as designer at Chloé – although then as now he worked on many more collections anonymously – his serpent tongue was legendary. This continued until the early Noughties, with everyone from Yves Saint Laurent to Claudia Schiffer on the receiving end of his seemingly indefatigable jibes. Today, though, he is more patrician in his views, ready to compliment fashion designers Hedi Slimane, Haider Ackermann, Alexander McQueen's Sarah Burton, the designer Marc Newson and others on what he sees as their considerable talents. And Lagerfeld has good reason to be magnanimous. The transformation of Chanel from moribund status label to a French luxury goods behemoth that towers above all others under his creative directorship is fashion's Holy Grail. In his post-modern ability to not only create collections from inception to store but also project both his own image and that of the project he is working on at any given time, Lagerfeld is the predecessor of Tom Ford (at Gucci), John Galliano (at Dior) and, perhaps most significantly, Marc Jacobs (at Louis Vuitton), to name but a few. And his ability to do his job brilliantly, season after season, year after year and even decade after decade is unparalleled. While other designers rise and fall with alarming regularity, Lagerfeld, if anything, just gets better and better. His recent collections for Chanel in particular have been among his finest – if not his finest – to date.

"I'm not a journalist," he says, neatly quashing any hint of adulation. "I don't see it that way. You know, I have a few flight hours so I have the technical knowledge needed to go ahead. I don't advance in the dark. I advance in a well-lit past to get to the next point. I'm talking professionally. The rest? I prefer things blurred. Over is over."

for the record, Lagerfeld first arrived in Paris as a teenager and trained as a couturier in the traditional manner, working as an apprentice for Pierre Balmain and later designing for Jean Patou before launching himself as a freelance ready-to-wear designer in the 1960s, just as that discipline was to take off. Again, this demonstrated considerable foresight as, at this point, the seeds were planted for designer fashion to grow into the financial power house that it is today.

Lagerfeld plays down his ability to shift between one fashion house and another, and between different disciplines, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

"Apparently that's how it is, but don't expect me to say it. That would be horrible. For me, Chanel is a normal language," he argues, referring to the cardigan jackets, quilted handbags, gilt chains and little black dresses that are among the house signatures. "I never mix it up. Fendi is completely different, and so are the collections I do for myself. They have not one point in common. In fact, I have no personality, or I have three, depending on how you look at it. And I love that there's no overlap.

"It's not that other people aren't very good, but they're maybe not as good at the image thing. But there is no recipe. It's only discipline. It's very simple. I think it works. I'm not my own Dr Freud. I just do it, you see. Doing for doing. There are no real rules, so don't ask me how. In fact, I'm not even a serious person."

His speech is peppered with elliptical statements such as these, all of which do a fine job of deflecting any real attempt at interpretation.

"I think of everything and nothing, you know."

"I don't ask myself this sort of question."

"I think I am a much more superficial person than you imagine."

"If you ask me the sense of life, the sense of life is life, it's not that bad."

And so forth.

He is happy to talk about the aforementioned Nietzsche project for 7L.

"I'm publishing 12 volumes because somebody sent me them. They found them in the middle of nowhere. It's all his work, with his personal remarks written in the margins and on the sleeve. But he's not my favourite. My favourite is Spinoza. Bon."

Equally forthcoming are his views on diet. Having dropped a good third of his bodyweight, in 2002 he published a bestselling book on the subject.

"I made a diet and my doctor made money that way. We sold nearly a million copies. I never touch sugar, cheese, bread... It was a very good, healthy thing, the best move in my life, I think, but it's totally effortless. I only like what I'm allowed to like. I'm beyond temptation. There is no weakness. When I see tons of food in the studio, for us and for everybody, for me it's as if this stuff was made out of plastic. The idea doesn't even enter my mind that a human being could put that into their mouth. I'm like the animals in the forest. They don't touch what they cannot eat."

His dietary regime is made easier, it almost goes without saying, because he has his own cook. Rather than pour forth on the idiosyncracies of his lifestyle, Lagerfeld prefers to sketch his living environment, bluntly commentating on any extravagance as if it were the most natural thing in the world. He picks up a pencil and starts drawing.

"I always work at home in the morning," he says, illustrating his words as he speaks. "Here is my bed. It's not that big. And here I am. And around me there are books, books, books. I read 10 of them at the same time. My favourite, I have told you, is Spinoza but I have superficial books too, and magazines, I read all magazines, people magazines, fashion magazines. Stuff your brain. Stuff your brain with knowledge. I want to know everything. I want to see everything.

"Bon. Here's my street [drawing a map]. Look. Here is the Seine. Here is Quai Voltaire. Here's one house. [He draws it.] I sleep there. I go here. [He draws a second house nearby.] It's a town house where I go for lunch and everything. I cross the street. [He draws another house.] I have a huge office here and then I go here [and another] to my photo studio. And here [he pens a fifth and final residence] I have a guest house because I don't want people in my home."

Lagerfeld is not for a second fazed by how extravagant such a way of living may seem. "Today in France people want to come across as politically correct but that is the absolute opposite of the French spirit. It's boring. Be politically correct. Give to charity. But people don't have to know. Very often when I go somewhere people come up to me and say: 'You know, I'm taking care of humanitarian work'. I say: 'Why? You don't like animals?' Serious people have to do those things but they don't talk about it. You can be serious. Of course you can be serious. But it mustn't show too much."

The trappings of fame are a small price to pay for the comfort of his everyday existence. And now in his seventies, Karl Lagerfeld is immensely famous. "It's just like this: one day, I want to go out without a bodyguard to my framer which is not far from my studio, so I put on a bonnet and on the corner of my street this person says to me, in French [he adopts the voice of a taunting schoolgirl]: 'Alors, on se déguise?'. Even my voice is easy to recognise. When someone calls and they've made a wrong number they recognise the voice. This happens very often. They say: 'You have a voice like Mr Lagerfeld'." He laughs now, only too aware of how ridiculous this might seem.

It's approaching 7pm and Lagerfeld's entourage are looking at their watches nervously. As our meeting comes to a close, we return once more to the subject of his work.

"Please don't say I work hard. Nobody is forced to do this job and if they don't like it, they should do another one. If it's too much, do something else. But don't start doing it and then say, 'Aaaah, it's too much'. Because a lot of people depend on it. What we do at Chanel, thousands of people work on these things; these things are sold in hundreds and hundreds of shops all over the world. People like the big machine, and the money the big machine involves, but the effort... Then, suddenly, they become artists. They are too weak. Too fragile. Non. We have to be tough. We cannot talk about our suffering. People buy dresses to be happy, not to hear about somebody who suffered over a piece of taffeta. Me, I like to make an effort. I like nothing better than concrete reality. I'm a very down-to-earth person, but it is my job to make that earth more pleasant."

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