Kaiser Karl: getting to the roots of the man behind the Lagerfeld name
Thanks to his tireless creativity and self-promotion, Karl Lagerfeld has become a giant of modern fashion. But few realise the significance of his German roots
Karl Lagerfeld attending the Lagerfeld store opening on September 4th in Munich. Photograph: Nadine Rupp/Getty Images Karl Lagerfeld attends the opening of the Karl Lagerfeld store in Munich. Photograph: Nadine Rupp/Getty Images for Schoeller & von Rehlingen
If you believe Karl Lagerfeld, the Karl Lagerfeld legend predates even Karl Lagerfeld. The designer likes to relate a story of how a fortune teller told his mother her son would be a big wheel in the church, possibly a bishop.
Whether or not the story is true is irrelevant. Instead it illustrates how Lagerfeld, with tireless creativity and self-promotion, became a giant of modern fashion and long-standing primate of the church of Chanel. After six decades he is the last of his generation still standing in the fashion business and, with the retirement of Pope Benedict, Lagerfeld is possibly the most influential German man in the world.
To mark his birthday – 78th or 80th, depending on who you believe – German television station Vox devoted last Saturday night’s schedule to a fly-on-the-wall documentary that was filmed over 18 months. The designer gave his blessing to the project and allowed rare access to the worlds he inhabits, from haute couture to fast fashion, and from Lagerfeld as photographer to international jet-setter.
Though her film, Fashion as Religion, lacks critical distance and might as well have been called The Gospel According to Karl, filmmaker Martina Neuen still found fascinating glimpses into a life of glamorous contradiction.
Lagerfeld is rarely thought of internationally as German, but Neuen suggests his homeland remains an intrinsic part of his character, from his high-collared aesthetic that channels 19th-century aristocrat Count Harry Kessler, to his northern German industriousness. “In his work ethic I find he is very German,” says Neuen.
Lagerfeld was born in September 1933 – he claims 1935 – and spent the first year of his life in a villa overlooking the Elbe in Hamburg’s wealthy suburb of Blankenese. His father, Otto, was a self-made man, first with his own import-export company and later as general manager of an American condensed milk brand in Germany called Glücksklee. A year after Karl’s birth, Otto moved his family to Bad Bramstedt, 40km (25 miles) outside Hamburg.
As a youth Lagerfeld’s lack of interest in either sport or girls combined with his well-maintained clothes and luxurious hair – this in the era of Hitler Youth uniforms and tight haircuts – only amplified his outsider and loner status. Lagerfeld says he devoted his days after school to drawing and daydreaming.
Asked at a work event at his father’s factory if he wanted a beer, the 18-year-old Lagerfeld reportedly replied: “I only drink champagne.”
He said later of his formative years: “I had the feeling: ‘It doesn’t matter what you do – you’re compelling!’ I thought I was sacrosanct – wasted on dismal postwar Germany.”
The door to the fashion world opened in 1954 when his design for a coat won one category at the International Wool Secretariat. The winner of first and third prizes in the dress category was Yves Saint Laurent.
With a characteristic mix of self-effacing exaggeration, Lagerfeld told the German documentary it was “complete coincidence” that his design was picked “from 200,000 entries”. Other reports put the total number of entries at 6,000.
After his win, Lagerfeld moved to Paris where he cruised around in a cream Mercedes convertible – financed by his father, along with the rest of his life – and began to stitch together his greatest creation: the Lagerfeld myth. The ingredients: self-generated gossip that he was an heir to an industrial fortune, and an outrageous appearance of bronzed, muscular physique, high-heeled leather ankle boots, big black hair and pouting lips.