The New Yorker : In The Now ~ Where Lagerfeld Lives
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As a boy, Lagerfeld read precociously, including “Das Nibelungenlied” and the letters of Liselotte von der Pfalz, also known as the Princess Palatine, a member of the court of Louis XIV. At school, he was a good student, but friendless. “I was too exotic for where I was,” he told me. “I hated the company of other children. I wanted to be a grownup person, to be taken seriously. I hated the idea of childhood; I thought it was a moment of endless stupidity.” He was devoted to his mother, who seemed rarely to miss an opportunity to criticize him. He has said that he decided never to smoke cigarettes after his mother told him that his hands were exceptionally ugly and that smoking would only draw attention to them; she also told him that his stories were “so boring” that he should hurry up and tell them—he says this accounts for his rapid speech. Lagerfeld recounts these instances of maternal cruelty without self-pity and even defends his mother, saying that children’s stories are indeed boring. His mother was tough, he concedes, “but right for a boy with a head like this”—he throws his hands wide apart.
From an early age, he snipped pictures from fashion magazines and was “very critical” of the way his classmates dressed. But Lagerfeld’s devotion to fashion also has an intellectual dimension. He is fascinated by the manner in which clothes reflect the times and attitudes of their wearers. He mentions a project conceived by Albert Kahn, an eccentric banker who lived in Paris at the turn of the twentieth century. Kahn hoped to construct an “Archives of the Planet,” and to that end dispatched photographers and filmmakers around the world to document, essentially, everything. At one point, according to Lagerfeld, Kahn set up a movie camera on a Paris street corner, and every day for ten years filmed people walking by. “You see the houses, you see the cars—and there were few changes in ten years,” says Lagerfeld, who has viewed the footage. “The cars changed not that much. The architecture changed not at all. But the attitude of the people changed much more, in the way they walked, in the way they dressed. So don’t tell me fashion is not important.”
As a boy living in the country, Lagerfeld had little exposure to high fashion. He found a book on Paul Poiret, the French designer who, in 1906, created a line of unstructured clothes that liberated women from the corseted constraints of nineteenth-century dresses, but he did not attend a fashion show until he was in his early teens, after his family had moved back to Hamburg. There, in the early fifties, Lagerfeld saw a Christian Dior show and a Jacques Fath show. “I loved it—the mood, what it projected, the idea of a life,” he says. “Because I spent my childhood thinking that I was born too late, that I had missed all this fabulous life before the war, the ocean liners, the Orient Express.” Dreary postwar Hamburg was hardly the place to try to re-create such a life. “My idea was—and this is precise in my mind—‘Let’s get out of here,’ ” Lagerfeld says. His mother agreed, telling him, “Here, there is nothing for you to do. Germany is a dead country.”
Lagerfeld moved to Paris while still in his teens. After he had been there for two years, he saw an advertisement for an international design competition sponsored by an organization called the International Wool Secretariat; he submitted sketches and fabric samples and won in the coat category, for a long overcoat with a high neckline and a plunging V-shaped opening in the back. (Yves Saint Laurent, then seventeen, won for a cocktail dress, and the two became friends.) Lagerfeld was immediately hired as a junior assistant at Balmain, the haute-couture house. The work was gruelling; for three weeks after each collection, Lagerfeld and the other assistants spent days sketching embroideries, flowers, seams, and silhouettes for pattern makers and buyers (photocopiers did not yet exist). “I thought the backstage atmosphere was terrible,” Lagerfeld says. “But I said to myself, ‘You’re not here as an art critic, you’re here to learn, so shut up and look.’ ” After six months, he was made apprentice to Pierre Balmain. But after three years he left—“because I wasn’t born to be an assistant.” For three years, he worked as artistic director at the House of Patou, where he produced couture collections in the style of the label’s creator, Jean Patou. But by 1961 Lagerfeld had become impatient with designing formal, made-to-measure clothing for rich women. Couture, he says, “became very dowdy and very bourgeois and it was just not trendy.” Lagerfeld decided that the most innovative ideas in fashion were in ready-to-wear, a branch of the industry long disdained by serious designers. He quit Patou, and hired himself out as a freelance ready-to-wear designer.
He was soon producing collections simultaneously for French, Italian, English, and German companies, including Chloé (where he became head designer), Krizia, Ballantyne, Cadette, Charles Jourdan, and Mario Valentino, where he was received as an exciting new talent, with a knack for capturing cultural trends and obsessions in his designs. Drake quotes Anne-Marie Muñoz, a fashion assistant who was a friend of Lagerfeld’s at the time: “He designed shoes, bags, hair combs, blouses, pens, tables.… He was always flicking through books, passionate about a subject, interested, surrounded by paper.” Lagerfeld also created wardrobes for movies, opera, and the theatre. In 1967, he added to his list of clients Fendi, a handbag and fur company based in Rome. “They hired him to do the fur,” Joan Juliet Buck, a writer and the former editor of French
who at the time was a close friend, says. “And he throws out these unbelievable challenges: let’s line fur in fur, let’s knit fur, let’s tear fur up, let’s make holes in fur, let’s paint on fur, let’s paint on shearling. I remember when gold felt-tipped pens came out, suddenly everything in the Fendi collection had gold curlicues on it, as if he were indulging the pleasure of scribbling on clothes.’ ”
Two decades before it became de rigueur for designers to do so, Lagerfeld haunted flea markets and thrift shops for vintage dresses, dismantling them in order to learn the secrets of their construction and design. He studied books on Madeleine Vionnet and the other pioneers of fashion from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and he translated this knowledge into his work, pairing historical references with contemporary trends. Lagerfeld became a fixation of the fashion press, which chronicled his life and style, noting the changes in his home décor, and his habit of dressing in Edwardian collars and ascots, and wearing a monocle. When he moved into the house on the Rue de l’Université, in 1977, he did not use electricity in some of the rooms but lit them with candles. Buck visited him there. “It was extraordinarily beautiful,” she says. “I slept in this bedroom with a
lit à la polonaise
, with a semicircular canopy—very high, with ostrich feathers on top. Next to that room was his study, and he slept in this tiny little room that had the actual lacquer furniture that had belonged to Mme. de Pompadour.”
Lagerfeld was a conspicuous presence at parties in Paris and New York in the seventies, but he maintained a detached attitude, passing on the drugs and alcohol in which his colleagues indulged. “I observed it like an inside outsider,” he says of the seventies bacchanal. “I have nothing against it, but I have one instinct stronger than any other thing in life, and that is the instinct for survival.” In the early seventies, however, Lagerfeld fell in love with a witty and mischievous French aristocrat named Jacques de Bascher. Lagerfeld supported him financially, but they never lived together, and friends say that the union was—as Lagerfeld has always insisted—platonic, based on shared affinities for literature, clothing, and style. (De Bascher once told a journalist that Lagerfeld’s sole loves were Coca-Cola and chocolate cake.) When de Bascher died of AIDS, in 1989, Lagerfeld was inconsolable; he sobbed when discussing him with a reporter for
in 1992. In his diet book, he says that his weight gain, which began in the late nineteen-eighties, was due to his despair over de Bascher’s illness and death. Today, however, Lagerfeld insists that he is above such attachments, adopting the attitude he expressed in a conversation with
in 1975, in which he said, “I never fall in love. I am just in love with my job.” In this way, Lagerfeld seems to be modelling himself on another prolific creator with a sense of the Zeitgeist, Andy Warhol. The two were friends; in the early seventies, Warhol cast Lagerfeld as an aristocratic German Lothario in a film called “L’Amour.” “Not a masterpiece,” says Lagerfeld, who discourages comparisons between himself and Warhol. “First of all, I’m better groomed. And, also, he pushed people. I never push people. There was something more perverted in his mind than in mine.”
By the early nineteen-eighties, Lagerfeld had become one of the world’s most respected and successful designers, though outside the fashion industry his name was not widely known, because, unlike other young designers, such as Pierre Cardin and Saint Laurent, he did not have his own label. “When people were shoving their names on everything, he said, ‘I don’t care about that,’ ” Joan Juliet Buck says. “He didn’t believe in building his own empire. He liked the gun-for-hire thing.” In 1982, Alain Wertheimer, the chairman of Chanel, approached Lagerfeld about designing for the label.
Coco Chanel had died eleven years earlier, and sales had declined sharply. By 1982, the label was little more than a perfume company with some clothing boutiques. The iconic Chanel suit—a tight-shouldered, boxy tweed jacket and matching knee-length skirt—was seen as a dowdy throwback for, as Buck put it, “middle-aged lady politicians in the provinces.” Lagerfeld’s friends advised him not to accept Wertheimer’s offer. “Everybody said, ‘Don’t touch it, it’s dead, it will never come back,’ ” Lagerfeld says. “But by then I thought it was a challenge.” The job involved designing not only the Chanel ready-to-wear line but also the haute couture—an area in which Lagerfeld had not worked for twenty years. But he sensed that the culture was changing. “Ready-to-wear had become like a kind of fake couture,” he says. “So I said, ‘Let’s do the real stuff.’ ”
But the “real stuff” had also changed. “Before, fashion was easy, in a way,” Lagerfeld says. “There was the couture collection—people were inspired by that, they copied it, and that was the fashion in the world. Now fashion comes from the street, from other designers, from ready-to-wear, so high fashion has to be the fashion of the moment.” With these precepts in mind, Lagerfeld remade Chanel by acknowledging the brand’s history but treating it with irreverence. He lampooned the Chanel suit, shrinking it into a micromini and a midriff-baring jacket; covering it with oversize double-C logos; and pairing it on the runway with quilted running shoes, sequinned hot pants, and giant neck chains inspired by rappers. In doing so, he erased any hint of bourgeois fustiness and created among the young, trendy, and moneyed a mania for the label.
Love is what you want.
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