• Industry

Lagerfeld Revisited

In the month of May, his work will be celebrated at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute.

Golden Globe-winning director Sofia Coppola, top models Claudia Schiffer, Linda Evangelista, Carla Bruni, designers Tom Ford, Ralph Lauren, Silvia Venturini Fendi, Valentino, Giorgio Armani and editor-in-chief Anna Wintour have written loving tributes in the recent edition of Vogue. And his beloved cat, Choupette (a top influencer, with her own agent) got a personal invitation and will walk the red carpet as the star of the Met Ball on May 1.


Welcome to Karl Lagerfeld’s legacy and his very private world, soon to be portrayed in a documentary, a TV series, a feature film starring Golden Globe winner Jared Leto, and a book recently published: “Paradise Now: The Extraordinary Life of Karl Lagerfeld” by his longtime friend and confidant William Middleton, the former bureau chief and fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar in Paris.

“Karl never wanted an exhibition and he never wanted a book about his life when he was alive,” Middleton revealed about his last meeting with Lagerfeld recently, talking with the members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association in an interview about his friendship with the designer and his 5-year-long journey to write his biography.

But how does he remember the first time he met Lagerfeld? What was his takeaway and what were his first impressions of him?

“The first meeting was in January 1995. I write about it a little in the book, because it was when I was a journalist and I went to do what were called previews. We were the first: Women’s Wear Daily was the only daily newspaper of women’s fashion business. So, it had a super-important position in the lives of Paris designers and designers all over the world. And part of my job was to go to these designers a week, 10 days before they presented their collections, to be the first, to see what they were going to show and to discuss the collection with them.

“And so, the first time I met him was then, in the studio at Chanel. And the first thing that struck me is, it’s 10 days before a big fashion show. And there was such a kind of buzz in the studio. I’m not sure that I’d ever even been to Chanel before. And the house at that point, so much smaller than it is today. You took a little elevator up and you went to the studio and there were a dozen people in there who worked in the studio. Then there were models coming in from the back. There were members of the atelier, and Karl was there at this desk that was a semicircular desk.

“At that point he’s wearing black shapeless Japanese suits. And he has the sunglasses, the fan at that point. And the first thing that struck me is how he had this quality that not a lot of people have where he greets you, he shakes your hand, he looks at you, and it’s like no one else is there. He’s completely focused on the person that he’s talking with. And it’s such a rare and, I think beautiful, quality that you could feel.

“So, one of the first things I felt was that he was much warmer than I expected because he had seemed a little terrifying to me and a little harsh. And I mentioned this in the book as well, that after I got to know him a little better, I said, ‘I’ve rarely seen anyone who has a public image that’s so scary almost and difficult. But when you get to know them, you find out that they can actually be much warmer and kind, and almost touching.’ And he said, ‘Better that than the opposite.’ So those were my first impressions.”

It was common knowledge that Lagerfeld had been born in 1933 but he notoriously subtracted five years from his age and insisted that his birth date was 1938. Some would suspect he did it for vanity, but Middleton got to the bottom of it asking a German publisher who had worked with Lagerfeld. “I was ashamed that I was born in the same year that the Nazis came to power and began the persecution of the Jewish people,” Lagerfeld told him: by changing the date to 1938 he would have been a very young child during World War II and thus didn’t have to face the issue of remembering it, while if he had been his real age of 10 or 12, he would not be able to avoid it.

“I felt like that was really moving,” commented Middleton. “Karl came to Paris very young, he studied, and in 1954 he won Best Coat for a coat dress at a design competition, got a job at Pierre Balmain and that put him on the map. He felt that he really knew the city the moment he arrived at age 18. He said somewhere, ‘When I got off the train, I felt at home.’”

Before heading up Chanel, Lagerfeld worked decades for Chloe and Fendi. Nevertheless, his appointment to Chanel in 1983 created quite an uproar: a German designer at a top French house? “People were shocked, but by then Karl was perceived as a major factor in the world of fashion and media, and it was obvious they had to pick him, ” Middleton says. “His friends discouraged him – ‘Why do you want to do that?’ It was like grandmothers were wearing Chanel when Coco Chanel died.”

Lagerfeld knew he was taking a huge risk, facing a bankrupt company. But, according to Middleton, he sensed that “there was something interesting to be done with this old house to make it modern. He studied Chanel, dissected it, and decided what are the elements of Chanel that he can use to make this modern. And that’s what he did from that first show in January 1993 until he died. He continued to play with the vocabulary of Chanel and continually reinvented it to make it fresh and modern.”

As much as he loved fashion, Lagerfeld also loved cinema. When he came to Paris, he commented that the city was like a French film. And in his last 20 to 30 years, he increasingly became a driving force on the Hollywood red carpet, having dressed everybody from Marion Cotillard, Penélope Cruz, Blake Lively, Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, Kristen Stewart, Beyoncé, Victoria Beckham, Lady Gaga, Keira Knightley, Diane Kruger, Gwyneth Paltrow to Kim Kardashian, some of them remembering him in the book with personal stories, much love, appreciation and, sometimes, tears in their eyes. “He often connected what was going on in his life to a cinematic moment. And he was a photographer, and also directed short films,” adds Middleton.

Lagerfeld managed to turn Chanel into an 11 billion dollar industrial giant, but did he die as a billionaire? According to Middleton, a friend of Lagerfeld’s said after he passed: “Please! If you gave Karl a billion dollars in the morning, he’d have spent it by the afternoon.” Lagerfeld lived in a very big way, and also was extremely generous with the people in his world.

A famous story records his inviting his seamstresses to lunch at his house and giving them Chanel purses. Then there was a woman of a certain age who was given a bright red bag and someone noted to Lagerfeld that it might be a little too racy for her. Karl came back with a black purse, and gave it to the woman, saying she should have them both. Despite his sometimes bitchy comments as a public figure, he was quite warm and extremely faithful to the people who worked for him. As a security guard at the entrance to Chanel noted to Middleton: “I just loved him. And everyone in the house loved him.”

Lagerfeld was larger than life, and definitely larger than fashion. “Karl is more important in terms of his complete connection with the culture of his time. He knew everything about everything that was going on in cinema and art, and music and design, and theater. And so, the idea was to get a sense of his fierce engagement with the culture of his time. That’s part of the extraordinary life of Karl Lagerfeld.”

And why is the book called “Paradise Now?” Middleton acknowledges, “It comes from an interview Karl gave to a French journalist where he was asking him how he wants to be remembered. And Karl said: ‘Posterity, I don’t care. I won’t be around to take advantage of it. Today is what matters.’ And he added it in English: ‘Paradise now.’”