Karl Lagerfeld, Boy Prince of Fashion...2

Karl Lagerfeld, Boy Prince of Fashion...2

By Vanessa Grigoriadis

When Gan and Slimane met Lagerfeld, six or seven years ago, he was extra-large, and in fashion circles there is no question that the new friendships—and what is whispered to be an obsession with Slimane—sparked Lagerfeld’s desire to lose weight. About six months after Gan introduced Slimane to Lagerfeld, Lagerfeld greeted Gan at his Paris studio in a Dior Homme tie. “The tie was unusually narrow for his width at the time,” says Gan. “He said, ‘Look! I’m wearing your friend’s tie!’ ” Six months later in Paris, Lagerfeld was wearing a Dior Homme jacket, and six months later it was the pants. “I have never felt an age differentiation with Karl—hanging out with him is like hanging out with a buddy,” says Gan, who is about 30 years his junior. “Now he shops for clothes the way some people shop for chocolates.”

Says Lagerfeld, “My only ambition in life is to wear size 28 jeans.”

At 14—or, you know, 19—Lagerfeld moved in with a family friend in Paris, a woman who had been his mother’s vendeuse at Molyneux. Two years later, in 1954, he entered a contest sponsored by the International Wool Secretariat and won the prize for a coat (Yves Saint Laurent won in the dress category). He began his career in the couture studios of Pierre Balmain, where he learned dress-making methods of the twenties and thirties before becoming the head designer of Patou. Fashion was a good job for him, his mother said—“It shows you have no pretension or ambition.” While Kenzo and Saint Laurent built empires, Lagerfeld remained under the radar, designing for Krizia and Charles Jourdan in the early sixties and Chloé and Fendi in the seventies. “Lagerfeld is not a designer, he’s a mercenary” is the famous kiss-off by Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent’s former business partner–majordomo–lover. In 1983, Lagerfeld was hired by Chanel’s corporate head, Alain Wertheimer, to reinvent the Chanel brand, moribund since Coco’s death in 1971. He promised to be modern. “Respect is not creative,” he told Wertheimer, according to Jane Kramer in Vogue. “Chanel is an institution, and you have to treat an institution like a whore—and then you get something out of her.”

In the same way that Lagerfeld’s collection for H&M made it safe for Stella McCartney and other high-fashion designers to go downmarket, his vast accomplishments at Chanel have set the standard for all the old European houses frantically trying to reinvigorate aging brands with a hot young designer—Alber Elbaz at Lanvin, Olivier Theyskens at Rochas. No other designer has been able to exploit a house’s legacy in quite the same way as Lagerfeld, and it has been said that Chanel, owned by the press-averse Wertheimer family, is the largest luxury company in the world, with annual revenues of more than $4 billion.

Fashion people will tell you about Lagerfeld’s “weird psychic connection” with Coco Chanel and how he “channeled Coco” to reinvent the brand, but Lagerfeld does not wear Chanel himself. “In Chanel, I look like my mother,” he says, grimacing. Like his mother, Coco Chanel was master of the grand pronouncement—“Luxury is not the opposite of poverty, but the opposite of vulgarity” was perhaps her most famous aphorism. Chanel, the fabled orphan-grisette-demimondaine-superstar, is credited with inventing modern style in the 1910s with simple, uncorseted dressing, giving rise to the little black dress, bouclé jacket, and later accoutrements like red lipstick, a perpetual tan, and Chanel No. 5. After surviving the scandal that she spent World War II at Paris’s Ritz with a Nazi boyfriend—“Really, a woman my age cannot be expected to look at his passport if she has a chance of a lover,” she explained—she staged a slow but solid comeback in the fifties, but her selfish nature and disappointment in love eventually got the better of her, and she died a bitter spinster.

Lagerfeld is determined to end his life differently. He says he will not participate in retrospectives of his work, create any foundations, write an autobiography, or keep archives. “I do not like funerals, and I do not want anyone to come to mine,” he says. “Do what you want with the ashes. Send them down the garbage chute.” Nevertheless, he seems to like talking about death an awful lot. The top book on his nightstand is Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which he declares, of course, divine. “I have finished it three times in less than a month!” he says. He bangs the table repeatedly as he begins to count off the age of death of his ancestors—two grandparents at 98 and 100; his father at almost 90; and his mother at 82, killed by her own fidelity to propriety. “The doctor told her she must stay in bed, but instead she got her hair done and when he arrived, crossed the room to greet him at the door, dying there,” he says. “Also I had a godfather who lived to 104, and his brother to 102, and their mother to 108. When my godfather died, he was totally normal, chic and everything. He got up early and dressed every day. After lunch he slept one hour and walked one hour afterwards.” He stops banging on the table, and leans back in his chair. “That is a long time they lived,” he says softly. “They saw a lot. I would like to see as much.”

Paris in the wintertime, raw and windy. Lagerfeld is no longer leasing his eighteenth-century hotel particulier, site of countless galas and unforgettable private dinners. Now he lives in a long, narrow, glassed-in apartment on Quai Voltaire—“like a space in the hospital for early-born babies,” he says—that he has furnished with postmillennial furniture by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec and Marc Newson. He does not want to be owned by things, he says. In the past decade and a half, he has sold off his eighteenth-century-furniture collection ($21.7 million), his collection of the Italian postmodern design group Memphis ($280,000), and Art Deco pieces ($4 million), as well as the château in Brittany where his mother and De Bascher are buried. “In the future, I want only apartments like hotel suites,” he says. “I want to be light. I want nothing.” The riots are going on, and Lagerfeld doesn’t want to talk about them. Paris is dreary, mired in the past. “Now they make the ugliest sixties building landmarked,” he says. “The Chanel building on Avenue Montaigne is the ugliest building in the world, all I want is to see it go, but they do nothing. You never hide against progress, because then you will be lost.”

The Chanel-headquarters building on Rue Cambon is a bit mired in the past as well, although Lagerfeld had the salon renovated in 2002. The modernist beauty of the ground-floor boutique, filled with happy Asian and American customers, disappears in the offices, where thin girls in pedal pushers sit at cramped desks, pounding on keyboards. “They do not wear these pants in America yet?” asks an assistant, laughing. “In a few months, they will.” Another sign of olden times: a butler, whose entire job seems to be carrying a platter that holds a crystal goblet filled with Pepsi Max expressly for Karl.

Lagerfeld is fitting his Paris–New York collection, a new line that he has added to Chanel’s five collections a year because he knows the Chanel customer can bear it, that they will buy almost anything he sells (in the boutique, a cloth coat was priced at 36,814 euros, and there was only one left). The mannequins cabines, young girls with bodies more terrifying than Nicole Richie’s, put on dresses behind filmy curtains as Lagerfeld makes tiny adjustments. Devendra Banhart, an American neo-folk singer Lagerfeld has taken under his wing, hangs around waiting to be fitted in a suit he will wear to perform in the show. “How about if I wear just my underwear?” he asks.

“Oh-ho!” says Lagerfeld.

Chanel’s high-energy Belgian accessories designer dashes about wearing multiple scarves and belts and fake earrings from the collection, trying to get Lagerfeld’s attention. “Look at these!” she says, shaking to make things jingle. “How beautiful!”

“J’adore!” exclaims Lagerfeld. “If you go out to a nightclub like this, the ladies will go crazy for it. Très jolie, très New York.”

Throwing on three rhinestone bracelets and sticking her hands into a white fur muff, she vamps across the room. “I look great,” she says. “I resemble—”

“You resemble an American!” he says.

She puffs out her cheeks. “When do we eat?” she asks.

“Oh, la!” laughs Lagerfeld.

Lagerfeld rarely shows up at Chanel before late afternoon, and it is eight when he begins taking the photos for the collection’s press packet in Mademoiselle’s old flat, preserved as she left it on the office’s top floor—the Coromandel screens, Oriental tables, the quilted suede sofa, a silver box lined in gold (a gift from one of her lovers, the Duke of Westminster). The models in their forties-era New York looks parade through Coco’s suites, and the shoot extends for hours, far past midnight, and afterward Lagerfeld insists on writing captions for each shot with Chanel’s Parisian publicist. “Please tell him that captions are not modern,” she begs me.

Lagerfeld summons the butler for his Pepsi Max and waits for his camera to be reloaded. “Marc Jacobs and all, they will have to wait,” he declares from the couch, sitting down for the first time all night. “This is not an easy job, because I have the understanding about Chanel and couture design that nobody has anymore. I have the training that nobody else has. This job is not free.” He takes a sip from his goblet. “I am not going anywhere.”

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Published : September 17, 2006_The New York Times