There’s an unexpected moment towards the end of a 1988 documentary on the photographer Horst P. Horst, when Karl Lagerfeld appears just as the credits start rolling. Talking at his usual fast clip, he describes a trip to New York in the early ’80s in search of the photographer’s archives within the dusty confines of a publishing company’s basement. By the time he’d sat down for the interview in 1986, three years had passed since his arrival at the house of Chanel. Like most couture houses at the time, Mademoiselle had never kept an archive and Karl was on a quest to build an albeit fictional one in his head, from her heyday in the 1920s and ’30s.
So he turned to Horst, a fellow German, who like him had infiltrated the selective world of the Paris haute couture and settled in as an observer. With an inquisitive mind and a voracious appetite for books on art, decoration, history and philosophy, Karl was already familiar with Horst’s life and work. In the 1930s he’d photographed the society women of the day in Chanel’s creations, in addition to capturing an iconic image of the couturier lounging on an off-white Bergère armchair in her private apartment at 31 rue Cambon. That fleeting clip in a now forgotten documentary, was telling for its insight into the inner workings of Karl’s mind.
His genius lay in his ability to absorb all the lives he’d watched and read about into his dreams, and to reimagine them as entire collections. Much has been written about his aptitude for languages, shifting seamlessly between German, French, English and Italian; his appetite for collecting furniture in the style of Memphis, Louis XV, Jean-Michel Frank and Eileen Gray; as well as the underground library he built to house 250,000 volumes at his home in Biarritz. Yet, what’s much harder to pin down is the mind of a designer who didn’t define one era, but several. Having participated in fashion’s metamorphosis from post-war couture dowager, to youth-quake obsessed ready-to-wear and the corporatisation of the industry, he’d seen it all and outlasted most of his contemporaries.
Karl Lagerfeld spring/summer 1988. Buddy Bartelsen/Ullstein Bild via Getty Images
Although he loathed nostalgia, he had an encyclopedic knowledge of fashion history, one that he effortlessly mined throughout his career to propose new collections for the many labels he designed for such as Krizia, Charles Jourdan, Chloé, Fendi and of course, Chanel. His ability to produce multiple collections over decades was down to his discipline and status within the fashion industry as a free agent. Ironically, one of his greatest accomplishments was that he’d never built a grand fashion house under his name on the scale of Saint Laurent. Instead of answering to staff and investors, he called the shots and funneled his many talents into designing and photography.
But getting to that point was a journey filled with a cast of characters, for Karl’s other talent was a knack for assembling the right people around him at the right time. He would cross paths with the fashion world the moment he arrived in Paris from Hamburg at the age of 14 in 1952. There, under the pretext of continuing his education, he initially lived in the home of his mother’s vendeuse at Molyneux, when she frequented the couture house in the 1930s. Two years later he entered a contest sponsored by the International Wool Secretariat and won the prize for his coat design. Amongst the jurors was Pierre Balmain, who snapped up the 17-year-old and put him to work in his studio.
It was in the gruelling atmosphere of the couture ateliers where Karl acquired a knowledge of dressmaking that very few designers have today. By the age of 20, Karl had become the designer at the house of Jean Patou. Within its ateliers he learned sophisticated 1920s sewing techniques from elderly fitters and seamstresses who had learned their craft from women who’d worked in couture during the late 1800s. This is all to say that Karl’s head wasn’t only packed with references to artists and poets, but also a technical know-how that came through in his precise sketches for each dress he designed, complete with detailed notes.
By the time he agreed to come to Chanel in 1983, he’d already been courted for several years by its owner, the Wertheimer family. Originally perfume manufacturers who’d invested in Mademoiselle’s iconic fragrance, No. 5, in the early 1920s, the Wertheimers convinced Chanel to reopen her house and make a remarkable comeback in 1954 with her now iconic suit. But when she died aged 87 in 1971, the house was barely staying afloat while catering to an ageing clientele. Karl would yank it into relevancy by taking an irreverent approach to reinterpreting the house codes; so much so, that by the early 1990s there were waiting lists for Chanel suits in its boutiques across the world.
Over the years he brought many talents to Chanel to get the job done. A late night visit to his studio on the eve of a couture show during the ’90s would have found him conducting fittings from behind a desk heaped with trays of costume jewellery, camellias and quilted bags. It’s from that vantage point that he’d direct his trusted right hand, Gilles Dufour, as well as his accessories designer, Victoire de Castellane. When models Linda Evangelista, Kristen McMenamy, Marpessa or Gisele Zelauy came out to be inspected, Paquito Sala was on hand to shorten a hem or tighten a waistline following Karl’s instructions.
An expert tailor and legendary name amongst longtime couture clients, Karl had kept his eye on Monsieur Sala ever since he’d met him at Balmain in 1954. Not long after Pierre Balmain passed away in 1982, he hired the master tailor to work with him at Chanel. Like Horst before them, both men were outsiders in an insular world that was just beginning to open up. When asked about being a German designer in a very French couture establishment, Karl once noted, “I like to be a stranger wherever I go, because I like this position of detachment. I want to be nobody.” Although one could argue that he was definitely ‘somebody’ when he passed away at the age of 85 last month, Karl’s greatest legacy may have been his ability to build a successful career on his own terms, one that remains relevant to generations of creatives.
From the March 2019 issue of Harper's BAZAAR Arabia.
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