It’s been nearly two weeks since Karl Lagerfeld sadly passed away. Luckily he left us with so many witty quotes, controversial opinions and an interesting life story. But who was this peculiar German fashion designer? Answering that question is not easy, but let me try to give you a glimpse of why this man was so interesting to so many people.
What is so great about Karl Lagerfeld, the man, the myth, the brand? I will be honest with you: I never cared about the look. I think he unified so many, often conflicting, traits in himself that people admire. He was flexible enough to stay successful in the ever-changing world of fashion but sufficiently principled to always stay true to himself (although he even changed his name from Lagerfeldt to Lagerfeld for promotion purposes). He was witty, delivering quote after quote in interviews that made headline after headline. There is even a word for his quotes in France that translates to ‘Karlisms’, some of which you can find here.
A Hanseat goes to Paris: Entrepreneur through and through
Karl Lagerfeld was deeply entrepreneurial: He left Hamburg for Paris in his late teens with his mother to become a fashion designer, a wish that was sparked by a Dior-show in Hamburg that he attended in 1950. A major kickstart for his career was him winning a coat design contest in 1954 – the same in which Yves Saint Laurent, his eternal nemesis, won in the evening dress category (both can be seen here). He then went on to train and work as a tailor for the fashion house Balmain. His goal there was simple: to become indispensable for the company. How did he achieve this? Well, his strategy was simple and very typically Lagerfeld: ‘I just took over the work of everyone else, too, so there was nothing left to do for them’.
Notice the word ‘just’ in here, which reflects his incredible and stereotypical German work ethic. The charm and self-confidence, however ,is due to the influence of his mother – no piece about Lagerfeld is complete without talking about his mother Elisabeth and her tremendous influence on him. Before meeting Karl’s father, a very successful businessman and widower, she was a lingerie saleswoman in Berlin. She was very direct with the young Karl but very liberal at the same time and her feisty behavior left a major impression on him. A school teacher supposedly once told Karl to cut his long hair after class. When the mother heard about it, she flung the teacher’s tie into his face asking ‘Are you still a Nazi?’ .
Karl was born before world war 2 into an hanseatic and exceedingly wealthy family – his father’s company had a large share of the German canned milk market (having his office next door to the fictional flat of Tonio Kroeger, protagonist of the famous book of the same name by Thomas Mann). But Karl made it on his own, in a very different line of work and also in a country that was understandably hostile towards Germans.
During the first half of his career, he was mostly known to fashion insiders, freelancing for various brands and being active behind the scenes. Only in the 1980s, already in his late forties, he finally got the chance to make himself immortal in the world of fashion as well as a household figure: in 1982 he became Creative Director at Chanel (a decisions his friends advised against) and almost single-handedly rejuvenated the brand, bringing it back to its old reputation, and even surpassing it. He was also the Creative Director for Chloé since 1963, for Fendi since 1965 and only in the late 1990s was he successful after his first attempt in the 1980s failed.
He was well known for his obsession with materials, often custom ordering them when what he wanted was not readily available. Despite his love for details he managed to dash out an astonishing 16 collections in his last 20 years. To give you a feeling of how impressive that is: for the eight Chanel collections alone, he designed around 120 pieces of clothing per year, averaging one every three days – and that was only half of the collections he did. ‘I like doing, not having done’ is how he commented questions regarding his tight schedule.
Karl Lagerfeld truly seemed to love what he did but never got arrogant about his craft. He gladly admitted that fashion design was applied art, not art, and that there is nothing bad about that. ‘In the end, we designers can only put things out but what ultimately turns into fashion is not in our hands.’, he said.
How can someone be so extravagant and humble at the same time? He always stressed that it is important to not take oneself too seriously, while at the same time insisting that you should stand up for yourself. ‘If you don’t stand up for yourself, only the others benefit’.
Watching an interview with Karl Lagerfeld offers more insight than many self-help books (and is far more entertaining, too). Somehow he was able to permanently condense witty insights into such highly quotable statements, all while talking at a speed that make Ben Shapiro look like a turtle. If Karl Lagerfeld was the protagonist of a novel, we would rightly criticize the author for bad writing, as such a weird, idiosyncratic, multi-faceted person surely would never exist in the real world.
One man, a thousand faces
As an icon of the fashion industry it is only understandable that some people thought him superficial, which could not be further from the truth: His private library of 300.000 books (his favorite was ‘The Sense of Beauty’ by George Santayana) probably helped him to gain the rhetorical skills for fending off any kind of attack or formulating one of his famous insults.
His love for books also led him to become a publisher, and to open up a bookstore in Paris. He was extremely well educated, though not formally, and once stated that he very much admires what Germans call ‘Privatgelehrter’: wealthy people who spend all their time on educating themselves out of pure curiosity. Another hint of his deep interest for education (and a Germany that is long gone) is that the first thing he did after the German wall fell was to go to Weimar in Eastern Germany and visit Goethe’s house.
To pull all that off, you of course have to be very disciplined. Karl Lagerfeld was not always that thin, he just one day decided that he wanted to be. Notice the word ‘just’ again? He makes it look so simple.
Fun fact: There was also a time before he turned chubby – this is what Karl Lagerfeld looked in his (probably late) 30s.
Losing the love of his life
Karl Lagerfeld was absolutely compassionate and devoting, once someone found a way to his heart. During the last weeks of his 18 year long relationship with Jacques de Bascher, one of France’s last playboys, he visited him every day in the hospital – de Bascher was losing the fight against AIDS. Karl often even slept on the floor to stay by his side. Their relationship was more akin to that of father and son, though Karl revered de Bascher’s sense of style, his lust for self-destruction and his French culture.
For several years, Jacques even had an ongoing affair with Yves Saint Laurent, Paris second great designer of the post-war period and a rival as well as a friend of Karl. Their friendship ended because of this, but the relationship between Karl and Jacques continued until his death in 1989. Allegedly it was Karl’s final wish that his ashes will be mixed with those of his mother and Jacques.
Karl never had any relationship after that, and even with Jacques, he supposedly never had sex (the AIDS death of de Bascher seems to prove this), he just felt a deep affectionate connection to him. Karl supposedly did not care: ‘If people could separate that [love and sex], they would be happier’. It is undeniable that Karl Lagerfeld was not a superficial fashion designer that only cared about fancy parties. In fact, he almost never went out in the last 20 years of his life but rather stayed at home – despite being in exceptionally good mental and physical health – and read, often several books in parallel – despite being in exceptionally good mental and physical health in his old age.
Of course Karl Lagerfeld was not without flaws: he was a control-freak, so much that he even supposedly wrote a five page manual with instructions for his employees on what to do in the case of his death. And you don’t have to be an insider to know that the fashion world would not be what it is without gossip and harsh verbal disputes: Karl Lagerfeld often expressed his negative opinions quite openly and allegedly went much further behind cameras.
As much as he was headstrong, he cared for the people he liked: With most of his staff, he worked for many years or even decades. His secretary, driver and bodyguard Sébastien Jondeau even posed as a model for several collections.
Full of surprises
Karl Lagerfeld perfected the art of not caring about what other people think. Often, old people complain about every single new trend. Karl did not. He loved Apple products for their design and utility, allegedly owned 300 iPods, and later on used iPads for his photography. Asked by an interviewer about why he favors those products, implying that a legendary designer of his age should stand above such things, Karl just responded: ‘Why? Don’t you like them? Do you know any products that look better?’. Weirdly, he did not use computers, still drew every single design by hand and sent out handwritten letter.
Besides designing, he branched out into photography and even drew caricatures for major newspapers. He was extremely knowledgeable and great insights but never bothered to annoy anyone with them, unless he was asked. Exceptions are when he criticized controversial problems like the recent rise of antisemitism in Germany.
Though he lived his entire adult life in France, he liked to criticize bureaucrats (‘They sit around and do nothing’), the postal service (‘They missed the internet train and now they complain and want money.’) or cars (‘They are ugly, nobody wants to drive them. Or do you?’). What I admire the most about him however that things he deemed bad never made him bitter or resentful in any way: he disliked a great many things but rarely spent more than two sentences giving his opinion – often with a funny but piercing comment – and that was it. Instead, he just focused on what he liked.
A quiet end
After Lagerfeld was absent at the finale of a Chanel show in January,, rumours about his health circulated louder than ever before. Although the official reason stated that was recovering from a cold, Karl did not appear in public anymore – he was a man of dignity and surely did not want to be seen in such a fragile state. His wish of always staying dignified was even part of his iconic look: he never went without dark glasses because he thought that short-sighted men like him look like cute dogs wanting to be adopted. There was probably nothing Karl Lagerfeld despised more than being pitied or appearing undignified, which is also reflected in his behavior during the last days and even after his death, as there was no big, public ceremony.
You can see a person’s status in the cultural world in what or who people compare that person to. Karl Lagerfeld, though, was never referenced, compared or contrasted to anyone, he was a myth in and of himself. The famous football coach Jose Mourinho once said about world class midfielder Mesut Özil ‘There is no copy of him, not even a bad one’ – these words fit Karl Lagerfeld just as well, probably even better.
He was deeply convinced that we have to adapt to the time, not the other way around. ‘As soon as you go into the direction of respect and homage,’ he said about brands ‘it will all be over soon.’ He always had his eyes directed towards the future – hating reminiscing about the past so much he did not even visit an exhibition about his fashion designs – and deeply believed that the world belongs to the living. Despite this advice I say: Karl, you are already missed!
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Image: Wikimedia Commons