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

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.

“He looked like an Italian hustler,” said one contemporary. “He was very Milano . . . always too much.”

While he built his brand, Lagerfeld’s fashion career didn’t take off as quickly as that of Yves Saint Laurent. After unremarkable stations in the houses of Patou and Balmain – where Lagerfeld says he “learned what not to do” – the designer threw himself into the world of ready-to-wear fashion, then viewed as a poor relation to couture.

From 1964, at Chloé, founder Gaby Aghion helped Lagerfeld streamline and simplify his style – all with an eye on commercial success.

In 1965 he helped the five Fendi daughters rebrand the Italian company founded by their father, after convincing them that “bourgeois furs had no future”.

Though he has remained a freelance designer, the modern Lagerfeld myth is inextricably linked to his arrival, 30 years ago, at Chanel.

“People told me ‘don’t do it, it’s dead, kaput’. The reanimation of old brands came later,” said Lagerfeld in the documentary, his trademark runaway patter in German even faster than in French. “Since the death of Madame Chanel 12 years earlier the brand had cultivated a certain respect but cultivating respect is the road to ruin. Respect is not possible in fashion. In fashion you have to sell your own mother.”

According to Lagerfeld, Chanel owner Alain Wertheimer told him he didn’t like the company he had inherited and gave the designer a chance to turn it around but, if it didn’t work out, he was ready to sell. “They allowed me to have a contract to do what I want, where and when I want,” said Lagerfeld. “The result you can discuss with the accountant.”

On Lagerfeld’s watch, Chanel has expanded from a high-fashion house into a multinational selling jewellery, watches and cosmetics, and with 310 shops worldwide. Privately owned, it does not release precise figures, but 2010 revenue was in the region of €7 billion.

The Chanel transformation mirrors the rise of the global luxury industry and Lagerfeld’s mastery of this brave new world demonstrates how his business nose has always been as strong as his fashion sense.

Flashing forward three decades to the present, the documentary shows Lagerfeld launching a webshop for his eponymous brand. “People who cannot afford Karl at Chanel can buy here,” he said. “We are living in a world where all the old criteria of exclusivity are nonsense.”

Lagerfeld’s recent embrace of mass-market fashion is not as revolutionary as it seems. For decades Lagerfeld has designed – often anonymously – for German retail chains, while one of his earliest clients as a freelance designer was French supermarket chain Monoprix.

For more than three hours, German television viewers followed Lagerfeld’s life: fashion shows with volcano sets; meetings with the supermodels he helped create, Claudia Schiffer and Linda Evangelista; his Little Black Jacket touring exhibit seen by 1.5 million people; the walk-in wardrobe of a Chanel couture customer, lined with dresses costing more than €100,000 each.The level of perfection Lagerfeld demands is clear from the team that precedes him at all times, polishing the table he will use or vacuuming 100 times the carpet on which he will soon stand.

Suzy Menkes, fashion editor of the International Herald Tribune, gets a look-in, saying that, even if she doesn’t like everything he does, she would prefer Lagerfeld any day over “people who just coast along being boring”.

In his eight decades the only notable relationship Lagerfeld had was with Parisian dandy Jacques de Bascher, who died of an Aids-related illness in 1989.

Since then, Lagerfeld says he has lived “wonderfully” by himself. Older couples should concentrate on friendship with each other and pay third parties for physical affection, he suggests, without saying whether he follows his own advice.

While filmmaker Martina Neuen plays it safe with Lagerfeld, author Alicia Drake earned the wrath of King Karl for suggesting in her fascinating book The Beautiful Fall that “everything about him . . . was calculated to appear larger than life”.

She documented his voracious appetite for inspiration and praised his Chanel couture collections as some of the greatest in the history of the house. But she also analysed his calculating deployment of charm and less-flattering regular purges of friends from his inner circle. She explored the regular and dramatic changes to his physical appearance and image, each eclipsing the last, and documented the often hilarious inconsistencies in what she calls Lagerfeld’s “eccentric Wunderkind” version of his own life. What apparently annoyed Lagerfeld most of all was her description of his family’s “hard-earned middle class status”.

After decades cultivating a more glamorous myth, Lagerfeld launched a lawsuit claiming the book was an invasion of his privacy, demanding Drake pay damages and a fine and that the book be banned in France. Lagerfeld lost and the case only drew attention to the book.

Today Lagerfeld shows no signs of slowing down. Tirelessly anti-nostalgic and unsentimental, the designer remains a creative pop-culture sponge who never looks back, always looks forward. His maxim, with apologies to Audi: Vorsprung durch Fashion.

Lagerfeld: ‘One thing that nobody believes is that I have zero ego. I really love my job, and I am extremely lucky to have been able to carry it out under such incredible circumstances’

Fashion: ‘Fashion is there so that people can confirm their own self-confidence and feel secure and right’

The fashion business: ‘We make a product that no one needs . . . so you have to be able to make people want to ruin themselves for something although it is superfluous’

Supermodels: ‘For me these girls were like the generation of silent screen actresses’

Merkel: ‘She should have something designed specially for her special proportions but I hear she wants no advice’

Life: ‘Fate is fate, you have to deal with it . . . the meaning of life is life’

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