Fabulous fashion creations aside, ‘Kaiser’ Karl Lagerfeld – who has been at the creative helm of Chanel since 1983 and has been designing for Fendi since 1965 – has gained notoriety for his candid critical assassinations of public figures. With his acerbic interjections he’s effortlessly pulverizing, be it Adele (“a little too fat”), Pippa Middleton (“She should only show her back”) or the late Andy Warhol (“I shouldn’t say this, but physically he was quite repulsive”). But his critical eye is also ever trained on himself.
Mischievous and forthcoming in interviews, the octogenarian designer will as willingly disclose his personal style strategies and standards as his shortcomings; who else would refer to their natural hair shade as “a little pee-pee yellow” or their sunglasses as their “burka”? An interview with Lagerfeld in the inaugural issue of M Magazine, for instance, saw him share his aversion to flip-flops, his view on socks (“I like socks, but only up to the knee. I hate nothing more than when men cross their legs, and you see hairy legs, socks and pants – the worst. The worst!”), his style staples since a child (“shirts, high collars, ties and bow ties”) and appreciation of the arm-lengthening appeal of gloves: “You know what it means in French to have a long arm? It means you are influential.”
“I am like a caricature of myself, and I like that. It is like a mask. And for me the Carnival of Venice lasts all year long,” he once said of his signature anachronistic suited-and-booted look, that of an 18th-Century aristocrat time-warped into the 21st Century. There’s the powdered ponytail – he’s had the same ’do since 1976, whitened daily with clouds of Klorane dry shampoo – and ensemble of crisp white, high-collared shirts by Hilditch & Key with black tailored jacket and jeans, punctuated with a tie, shades, fingerless gloves (from historic French manufacturer Causse) and custom-made black crocodile boots by Massaro. Not forgetting the ornate brooches and jangling fingerloads of rings à la Henry VIII, with designs ranging from chunky silver Chrome Hearts creations to exquisite vintage Gothic and Art Deco designs from Paris jeweller Lydia Courteille. However, since smoking bans have come into place, the clean-living designer – who may favour rock’n’roll garb but has never indulged in drink, drugs or cigarettes himself – has stored away his collection of fans with which, during his nightclubbing days in the ’70s and ’80s, he used to waft smoke away.
So fixed is Lagerfeld’s key silhouette, it gives the impression that he wears the same outfit every day, yet panning shots of his bulging clothing racks in the Rodolphe Marconi’s 2007 documentary Lagerfeld Confidential prove otherwise. A self-confessed “shirt freak” who’s captured in his dressing room rifling through a drawer of unfolded stiff white collars and fingering bowls of rings, Lagerfeld constantly updates his look with new elements, be it striped shirts with matching wide ties or Dior jackets with tails. He combines classics with cult contemporary designers, such as Haider Ackermann and Sacai, occasionally breaking up his silhouette with a gold Dior baseball jacket, say, or even a duffel coat.
Lagerfeld once said, “I am a fashion person, and fashion is not only about clothes – it’s about all kinds of change,” and he certainly experimented with a few looks in his youth. “I did everything! Not too big in the shoulders because I had the feeling I looked like a midget. But I did the hippie look, with chains and things like this, fur capes, high boots, Renoma suits with large lapels... I did everything, of course!” he told M magazine. Photographic evidence includes the Antonio Lopez shot of him posing in a mankini-style bathing suit in the ’70s, Adonis-like with his buff physique and dripping wet curly locks.
A great admirer of the advertising world, Lagerfeld – who photographs all of Chanel’s campaigns himself – is a brilliant marketer: he is one pulling the strings behind his own image. He sported simpler iterations of today’s silhouette decades ago but, over the past few years, has taken it to such stylised heights that he would easily stand out in a football stadium. Alongside collaborations galore – from Diet Coke to Steiff teddy bears – stamped with his iconic profile, a focused push on his signature clothing line, Lagerfeld Collection, saw the opening of a new flagship store on London’s Regent Street earlier this month, pedalling accessories such as shades, starched white collars and leather mittens in his image.
‘Labelfeld not Lagerfeld’
“Lagerfeld is the celebrity that the fashion industry has spawned,” wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion journalist Robin Givhan in a scathing 2012 Newsweek article, in which she claimed he is “overrated”. For Givhan, Lagerfeld’s public persona became even more “self-consciously nurtured” following his dramatic 90lb (40kg) weight loss at the turn of the millennium, which saw a streamlining of his look into a “costume of skinny Diesel jeans, tight-fitting Dior Homme suits, and fingerless gloves”. “His is a different sort of promotion than that of designers who have posed in their own advertising campaigns – naked or otherwise. They are hawking a product, albeit personally and provocatively. Lagerfeld is the merchandise,” she wrote.
The designer – who a year earlier told CNN’s Alina Cho, “I’m a walking label. My name is Labelfeld not Lagerfeld” – shrugged off the piece by slating Newsweek editor Tina Brown and dismissing the magazine. Lagerfeld, who grew up in rural northern Germany, was schooled by a much more ferocious challenger in the form of his equally acerbic mother, Elisabeth Lagerfeldt, whom he idolised. Indeed, a gold-embroidered black velvet Tyrolean suit was his favourite outfit as a child; when he speaks of his privileged childhood, the designer – who asked his mother for a valet at the age of four – gives the impression that he climbed out of the womb dictating the nappies he wanted to wear.
Yet some of his style mannerisms could also be linked to a willingness to please Mama. At 14, Lagerfeld was told by his mother, “If you smoke, you show the hands, and as yours are not beautiful… you should not”; is it coincidence that he likes to cover his hands with armour-like gloves and rings? Or that, having spoken of his mother’s beautiful white hair, he powders his own locks a shade of snow – then leaves them uncovered? “I love hats, in a way, but when I was a child, I’d wear Tyrolean hats, and my mother... said to me, ‘You shouldn’t wear hats. You look like an old dyke’,” Lagerfeld told M Magazine. “Do you say such things to children? She was quite funny, no?”
Lagerfeld, who is not one for psychoanalysis, claims to “have no human feelings,” yet emotions have certainly played their part in his appearance. It was the loss of “the man he calls the love of his life”, Parisian dandy Jacques de Bascher (to Aids, in 1989) that led him to pile on the pounds in the ’90s, according to a 2007 profile in New York Magazine. Another of the designer’s famously Oscar Wilde-style utterings is “my only ambition in life is to wear size 28 jeans”; he now favours ultra-slim designs by Dior Homme.
Lagerfeld likes to move with the times and abhors sartorial sloppiness so, in his twilight years, he favours functionality. “It’s the same thing for men and women: a white shirt, a jean and a jacket – whatever it is, a blazer, whatever – these are the three basic things, with a t-shirt. That is what everybody needs, and there’s not even a gender problem,” he says, as he interviews himself, in a video for Net-a-Porter magazine. “I’m not going to say ‘What you need is a cocktail dress’ – there aren’t so many cocktails in life any more.”
Yet Lagerfeld still lives a princely existence, albeit one founded on hard graft rather than air-kissing, one of his many intriguing contradictions. For all his encyclopaedic historical references, his outlook remains modern and pragmatic. He loves to be surrounded by 1,000 people but also savours his solitary moments, such as his morning ritual of reading, daydreaming and sketching in his 17th-Century style Hilditch & Key nightshirt. To take advantage of both publicity and ‘me-time’, , Lagerfeld – who has compared himself to a marionette – has honed a protective armour for his household name. Like an ornate old castle gate or a beetle’s carapace, his elegant ensembles reveal only glimpses of his flesh and are by no means windows to the soul −and that is how he likes it.
When asked, at the end of Lagerfeld Confidential, if there’s anybody who knows the real him, the designer responds, “It’s a difficult question, as I have played so much on constructing a certain image of myself that I think it’s pretty much impossible, and that is my wish – even for those that I love deeply, I want it to remain impossible.”
“I do not want to be a reality in the lives of others,” he continues. “I want to be like an apparition, that appears and then disappears.”