The Mercurial, Obsessive Life of Karl Lagerfeld
Following his death on February 19th, the media has been aflame with both eulogies and dissections of Karl Lagerfeld’s life, work and quotations. For a fashion designer, he was world-famous—possibly the most renowned of any—a particularly remarkable feat considering he gained this fame as a “designer for hire.” Unstoppably prolific, Karl Lagerfeld singlehandedly made Chloé a brand known worldwide for its originality, took Fendi from being a small Roman luxury furrier to a global fur sensation, and revived the corpse of the house of Chanel. Throughout his career Lagerfeld would become enamored with eras or concepts, delve deeply within them in his designs and therefore influence larger trends in fashion, and then become bored with them and move on. As his friend Joan Juliet Buck wrote, “He was mercurial, consistent in his curiosity, new passions, and perpetual motion, all of which were to keep boredom at bay.” Karl lived this reinvention holistically—not just designing thematic collections, but also using these themes to mold his friendships and homes.
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Karl’s passions and predilections first came to the foray in the mid-1960s when he began designing for the French ready-to-wear house, Chloé; the new Roman house, Tiziani; and the Fendi’s fur line. As an assistant designer previously at the couture houses of Jean Patou and Pierre Balmain, his own tastes had been sublimated into the house styles but he found pret-a-porter freeing, telling WWD in October 1966: “But couture bored me so much!... it is a degrading job…and I couldn’t bear to go every day at the same place. Rtw is modern, gay, alive and young, that’s what attracted me.” Called an “instigator of the Art Deco revival of the 1960’s,” Karl began plumbing the 1920s and 1930s for stylistic influence in 1968. At the time Art Deco was so far out of fashion that his designs looked almost as “out-there” as the Space Age ones shown by Cardin, and Lagerfeld was able to fill his apartment with very important Art Deco furniture and collectibles that he picked up for pennies at flea markets. His interest in Art Deco fashion was really about the free movement inherent within it—“the freedom of smooth fabrics, flowing lines, clinging crepes, unlined coats”—all of which was in harsh contrast to the thickly lined and structured garments of the couture as well as stiff mod clothes. With his designs for Chloé and Krizia starting to shift the eye, other designers also began to look to the era—creating a complete change in silhouette to a much longer, leaner line by the early 1970s—by which time he was delving deep into the sportive chic of the 1940s.
Also fascinated with contemporary art, Lagerfeld collected new artists (Tom Wesselman, Richard Lindner, Allen Jones) and found ways to incorporate their Pop Art sensibility into a mix with his 1925 Art Deco-style prints and kitsch ‘40s, ‘50s and late ‘30s styles. He described these textiles in 1971 as “the worst I can think of—like trashy, raunchy and tacky—but in the best taste of today”—and in many ways they were influenced by his burgeoning friendships with Antonio Lopez, Juan Ramos (who both moved to Paris in late 1969) and their cohorts. Memorably chronicled in Alicia Drake’s fantastic The Beautiful Fall, Lagerfeld latched on to their inimitable American energy, fed off of it, channeled it into dresses, and then moved on from them by 1972. He even starred in an Andy Warhol film—L’Amour—alongside Antonio’s models and good friends, Donna Jordan and Jane Forth. Working with Warhol allowed Lagerfeld to “observe [him] close-up, to watch and analyze his masterful manipulation of image, reality and people.” Using what he had learned, in the few years following Lagerfeld began to craft his image into something unmistakable and unforgettable—the caricature of Karl that he was until his death.
After ten years of collecting Art Deco, Lagerfeld woke up one morning and, “Suddenly, I had the impression I was living in a movie set.” He passed all 169-pieces on to an auction house in 1975 (netting him more than $200,000), and set his sights on the 18th-century. Karl bought a chateau in Brittany and moved into a perfectly restored 18th-century Parisian triplex, complete with only one electric light (in the kitchen) and a bed that had belonged to Madame de Pompadour. He grew out his hair into a catogan (a short ponytail) and his Chloé collections began to encapsulate his “idea of 20th-century role-playing in 18th-century fantasies.” While Lagerfeld’s Chloé shepherdesses (Spring/Summer 1975) and Casanova styles (Fall/Winter 1977) were less influential then Yves Saint Laurent’s own historically minded collections (“Opéras - Ballets russes” in 1976, most famously), for Lagerfeld these themes were how he lived his life, not just a concept to be copied from books and reproduced on the catwalk.
For all of this historic plundering, Lagerfeld was anti-nostalgia—or as he told the Los Angeles Times in 1974, “nostalgia is over.” He refused to replicate exactly antique garments (unlike his nemesis Yves Saint Laurent or his later compatriot in historic passion, Vivienne Westwood), but instead attempted to glean from them a mood, an atmosphere, which he would then translate into the contemporary life through the use of new techniques, technologies or materials (just think of technological advances he became known for at Fendi). This allowed him to truly lighten up the feel and look of high fashion clothing.
Karl’s tendency to choose a concept or a historical era to immerse himself in for a season or a few years and then abruptly change for another, very different one, was well known and written about by the late 1970s. To the New York Times he explained, “Fashion is something you can’t command. Suddenly it is time for a change, whether you like it or not. If you don’t do it, somebody else will.” Motivated by a need to always stay one step ahead of his competitors, Karl was quick to jump from idea to idea, silhouette to silhouette, as soon as he saw copies appear in other collections. He always wanted to be the influencer, not the influenced. In an article published after his death Buck reflected: “Once everything was in place, from muses to holiday houses, he had to fire the stars, strike the set, and start again; from Antonio and Juan to Anna Piaggi to Ines de la Fressange to Amanda Harlech, from a rented house in St. Tropez to a chateau in Brittany to a palatial villa above Monte Carlo to a timbered house by the sea in Biarritz. His friends and his surroundings were his mood boards, there to inspire and delight him until they no longer did, and he turned elsewhere for a new jolt.”
Years before he was hired as Creative Director for Chanel, Lagerfeld remarked, “I am not one of those people who feel they have established their look and want to go on redoing it. I’m not ready for that. Chanel didn’t keep remaking her suit until she was in her 80’s. Before that, her dresses weren’t the same all the time.” By that time though, Chanel had fallen into a rut—in her last years and the decade following her death in 1971 the brand sent out a never-ending parade of tweed suits of slightly varying shade and braid. The Chanel suit was the uniform of casual gentility—a look now more associated with old dowagers at the country club than any of the rash modernism of Coco Chanel’s youth. At Chanel he was tasked with something seemingly impossible: to maintain the character of the codified Chanel look and make it modern. The reception to his first collection was mixed, but all critics agreed that he was creating what “Chanel would have done, were she alive in the Eighties: suits still familiar but more vigorous, braver, as befits our less-gentle time.” Once more safely ensconced in the brand, within a few seasons Karl began to truly take advantage of the resources available in haute couture and started to transition Chanel’s eveningwear into a maximalist, extravagant fantasy far from Coco’s more simple tastes. The success was undeniable—soon Lagerfeld was also put in charge of Chanel’s ready-to-wear and all other aspects of the brand.
From that time on Lagerfeld would cycle through styles and themes within Chanel—always maintaining the house signatures but escalating and de-escalating grandeur at will, while also bestowing models with platitudes and making them into stars then ditching them overnight for the next big thing. The aforementioned Ines de la Fressange was signed to an exclusive contract with Chanel in 1983—in 1986 Lagerfeld told the Los Angeles Times, “I could not do Chanel without Ines. Who would inspire me?” yet she was discarded suddenly in 1989. Unsurprisingly he also became bored with his homes around the same time. The Monte Carlo modern apartment that Lagerfeld had completely outfitted with Memphis’ iconoclastic home furnishings in 1983 was all sold at auction in 1991. His 18th-century furniture was sold by Christie’s in 2000, soon to be forgotten in his obsession with computers and technology (he memorably had a collection of over 100 iPods stocked with music)—next he moved into an all-white and steel Parisian space that he called “a spaceship for the city.”
For the last decade Lagerfeld has used Coco Chanel’s life as a way of dipping into and out of obsessions—choosing a trip she went on or a friendship she had as the basis for a resort collection, throwing himself into research, producing the show in a special location, and quickly moving on to the next. In her own eccentricities of life Lagerfeld has been reflecting back his own—speeding up the process through which he has remade his life, friendships, home and design styles over and over again.
Karl Lagerfeld’s life and career was one built on constant evolution: “Lagerfeld’s idea is not to form strong attachments to places and things. He relishes variety. ‘I change to stay myself,’ he says.” Perhaps most tellingly, Andree Putnam—the interior decorator and longtime collaborator on some of Lagerfeld’s homes and Chanel boutiques—once said of him: “Each one of Karl’s apartments is a perfect and closed universe, but a sincere one. His apartments have been a series of successive sincerities. He goes to the end of an obsession for each place: and then he gets rid of stuff.” Extended to cover all aspects of Lagerfeld’s life, it is possible to see how a sincere (at first) yet compulsive curiosity was the beacon through which his creativity blossomed.