Karl Lagerfeld: Inside His Passionate Life of Fashion, Celebrity, and Choupette
The iconic face of Chanel has died. Karl Lagerfeld's life is a study in determinedly pursuing a singular path and passions—and toying mischievously with the fame that came with it.
"I’m very much down to earth, just not this earth," Karl Lagerfeld once said.
Lagerfeld, who has died at age 85, was ever quotable and saying outrageous things was a specialty. It was a way of keeping the world both fascinated and at bay simultaneously. Lagerfeld knew how he looked, how he sounded, and called himself a "cartoon." That cartoon was both performance and shield.
He knew the world of celebrity and the game of modern fame, swam in it when he needed to, and also lived well away from it. As Lagerfeld—who at the time of his death was the creative director for Chanel and Fendi as well as his own brand—said, “I am like a caricature of myself, and I like that. It is like a mask. And for me, the Carnival of Venice lasts all year long.”
He ensured his cat Choupette—who originally belonged to his onetime muse Baptiste Giabiconi—became a social media star, the two pictured together like Bond villain and pet. Lagerfeld even wrote a book about her (Choupette: The Private Life of a High-Flying Fashion Cat) and revealed she had two maids, so she was never lonely.
The question for many social media users on Tuesday was, what next for Choupette, and would she and Sebastien Jondeau, Lagerfeld's security guard, assistant, confidant, and now fashion designer in his own right, be inheriting much of the designer's fortune? "I don't have limits—not as far as protecting him," Jondeau once said of Lagerfeld.
The fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg told The Daily Beast: "Karl Lagerfeld was a very intelligent, talented designer who truly captured the zeitgeist of the time. His curiosity and appetite for books was insatiable, his wit irresistible, and his unique way of being present yet detached kept him in an aura of mystery. He became a legend and will be very missed."
Chanel announced Tuesday morning that Virginie Viard will be Lagerfeld's successor. She has worked for the house since 1987, when she joined as an intern, and as director of Chanel's Fashion Creation Studio worked closely with Lagerfeld, even moving to the label Chloe with him for a period in the ’90s. The show will go on, entrusted to the person closest to Lagerfeld professionally and creatively.
Of Lagerfeld, Alain Wertheimer, Chanel's CEO, said, "Thanks to his creative genius, generosity, and exceptional intuition, Karl Lagerfeld was ahead of his time, which widely contributed to the House of Chanel's success throughout the world. Today, not only have I lost a friend, but we have all lost an extraordinary creative mind to whom I gave carte blanche in the early ’80s to reinvent the brand."
For a famous person and public figure, Lagerfeld was rigorous about his own space and solitude. His creative life, surrounded by many people had known for many years, was its own cocoon.
This self-sealing Lagerfeld-world had its limitations; he was not open to the arguments of #MeToo.
He told Numéro that models complaining about being groped should "join a nunnery," and of actresses' holding their alleged abusers to account, he said, "What shocks me most in all of this are the starlets who have taken 20 years to remember what happened. Not to mention the fact there are no prosecution witnesses. That said I cannot stand Mr (Harvey) Weinstein..."
"Fashion people are fashion, they are not politics," he told WSJ Magazine in 2017. "I knew Trump before, when he was not in politics. I'm not American, but he's a democratically elected president of America, so people have to deal with it... Mrs Trump is a very nice woman and pretty handsome. Good body, no? And this Ivanka is quite cute, no?"
Lagerfeld also shot Claudia Schiffer in blackface, and made up to look Asian, as part of a Dom Perignon ad campaign.
Lagerfeld was the epitome of what people consider fashion designers to be: sharply spoken, eccentrically dressed by everyday standards in his sunglasses and slim Dior Homme suits (even after Hedi Slimane had departed the label) and starched collars, and white, ponytailed hair: chicly terrifying rather than terrifyingly chic.
He lived in his own world; the only rules he subscribed to were self-generated and patrolled.
He told a 2014 documentary, titled with his name, directed by Gero von Boehm, "It amazes me I can't cross the street without drawing a crowd. Every day someone sends me a picture, a caricature, a sketch, or a doll. It's phenomenal really. It's very strange and has its advantages and disadvantages. You can't go out on the street without people following you everywhere, but you can't pick and choose I suppose."
Lagerfeld was asked if he was hiding behind his sunglasses so as not to be observed.
"I don't want everyone to be able to see my facial expressions. Near-sighted people often have somewhat sad-looking eyes, like a puppy that's hoping to get adopted. You have to take your glasses off… for two to three hours for that to fade. That pitiful look: that's not the impression I want to give, that's not me."
Lagerfeld's Chanel (which he joined in 1983, ten years after Coco Chanel's death), was at the forefront—alongside his friend and competitor Yves Saint-Laurent—of customizing modern fashion brands. Here was an instantly recognizable interplay of name and image. The Chanel that Lagerfeld created featured a distinctive and defining parade of customized belts, boxy jackets, its items holding the brand's distinctive lettering. He was a strong supporter of using fur.
The fashion journalist Suzy Menkes, who knew Lagerfeld for many years, last interviewed him for Vogue in 2018. She found he had acquired a beard and had had his various homes redesigned for his 300,000 books and dear Choupette.
"I never thought that I would fall in love with a little cat like this," he said. "But I think it is very funny and I cannot imagine another life because I don't want it. I'm envious of nothing."
At the time of his death, he was designing eight collections at Chanel, five at Fendi, and two of his own brand. He said his Chanel contract was until 2045. The obsession with youth was "a kind of racism," he added.
"I have a lifelong contract and I am enchanted. My work conditions are fabulous," he said. He flew by private plane. "I'm commercial, but not for commercial flights. I hate all the 'arms up' at the airport. I don't want to be touched. I can hardly support it with my hairdresser."
When Menkes asked about working for Fendi since 1965, and how that felt, Lagerfeld said, "I don't overact with emotions. "Fashion is about change—and I like change."
When it came to work, he said, "I do it like I breathe. I wake up in the middle of the night and have an idea. I put it on a card I have next to my bed, and I make the sketches in the morning before I forget it."
In conversation, he switched between his native German, French, and English.
"I am a citizen of Europe," he told Menkes. "I'm not French, and I never intend to become French, because I like to be a stranger. I'm a stranger in Germany and a stranger here. I never wanted to be part of something I could not get away from, I love to be an outsider. I'm part of nothing, no milieu. I am totally free in that sense of the word."
Lagerfeld told her he wanted to have a superficial image. "I don't want to look serious. You can be serious, but you mustn't show it." In all the years she had known him, Menkes wrote, "I still don't know which of his different personas is the real Karl."
This self-made, self-contained, detached, and driven striver was born and raised outside Hamburg. He was born Karl Otto Lagerfeldt in 1933 (the “T” got chopped off because Lagerfeld sounded "more commercial").
His mother was "charming and devilish," he told Menkes, prone to saying things to her son like, "Make an effort. I'm not six—you are." She threw his diary away, claiming, "There is no reason for people to know that you are that stupid."
He didn't want to be a child, he wanted to be an adult. His father, born in 1880 ("from another planet, no?") was sweet and kind, but the young Karl was "a slave" to his mother.
She had been an excellent violinist, Lagerfeld said in the 2014 documentary, and he had played the piano until one day she closed the lid on his fingers, saying, "You have no talent whatsoever. Why don't you draw instead? That's not so noisy."
Lagerfeld had a privileged childhood—his father had made his fortune in condensed milk, and the son once told W he had asked his mother for a valet when he turned 4.
He hated being a child and having his parents' friends turn their backs on him because he was young. He got along with children as an adult because he knew what they disliked, he said.
As his key to the adult world, young Karl learned the English and French his parents spoke as a barrier to him understanding them. He drew and read, but didn't like games, or cards, or gambling. "I'm playful, but I don't play," he said.
His mother was wonderful, Lagerfeld said, but "it's horrible when parents hover over their children." His father "only cared about condensed milk and having 57 percent of the market." In the 2014 documentary, he draws a beautiful sketch of his mother and her fine features in profile. She also had white hair, "but not like mine," said Lagerfeld. "I have to powder my hair to make it look white."
As a boy, he started drawing caricatures, which as an adult he drew for German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine. Lagerfeld said he had expressed himself in images because he did not have a "way with words"—which, as his litany of quotes showed, was nonsense.
Creativity was a necessary effort and exertion, Lagerfeld said. "Sometimes that means working with your wastebasket." About 90 percent of his work ended up in the bin, and he didn't save it. Some believed in archives, he did not. "I only care about what's next. Whatever I did in the past is fine, but I don't hang on to it."
In the documentary, Lagerfeld's gloved hands draw quick, beautiful sketches of himself as a child and young man.
He stopped wearing short pants as soon as he could because he found them degrading. He didn't want to look like the other children. He had long, "mahogany" hair, wore a bow tie, white shirt, and black jacket. His mother told him his nostrils were too big, and they should "call someone in to sew curtains for him." His hair color made him look like an old chest of drawers, she added.
"My lips were so red, the teacher once wiped them with a tissue convinced I was wearing lipstick. I wasn't." His mother was outraged, and complained that the teacher "was totally out of line." His classmates remember him always sketching, just as he has done all his life. Lagerfeld remembered telling himself, aged 5 or 6, "One day I will be famous."
As a young man, Lagerfeld trained his eye at Hamburg's Kunsthalle museum, particularly inspired by Manet, Renoir, and Toulouse-Lautrec. He left Hamburg for Paris in 1950, becoming an assistant to Pierre Balmain and Jean Patou. People warned Lagerfeld's mother he would lose himself, aged 17, in the big city. But his mother said Lagerfeld knew exactly what he wanted.
Paris at the time, he said, was "like a friendly village." In 1954, aged 20, he won a prestigious fashion prize with Saint-Laurent taking third prize. They became good friends and rivals. All was well between the two until 1978, Lagerfeld said, when St. Laurent began talking "about the past and Proust."
In the ’60s, Lagerfeld worked at Fendi and Chloe. He haunted record shops and bookstores, became friends with Marlene Dietrich, and became a devotee of the “Total Look,” meaning a unified dress-and-accessories look, which became fashionable in the late ’60s. In the ’70s, he sported a luxuriant beard and wore precisely pinned cravats.
His stewardship of Chanel erased the brand’s staid image forever. Today "everyone" is breathing new life into old brands, he said, but not in 1983 when Lagerfeld took charge of the storied brand, making the Wertheimers very rich.
“Respect is not creative... Chanel is an institution, and you have to treat an institution like a whore—and then you get something out of her,” Lagerfeld told New York magazine. “What I do Coco would have hated,” he said in another interview. “The label has an image and it's up to me to update it. I do what she never did. I had to find my mark. I had to go from what Chanel was to what it should be, could be, what it had been to something else.”
"For me, money is something you throw out of the window, then it comes back in through the door," said Lagerfeld. His muse, Inès de la Fressange, said in her Lagerfeld had created a "brand ambassador," she involved in every aspect of crafting looks.
"I am always doing too many things," he said. "I really shouldn't make any appointments. 24 hours in the day is not enough." He might do 2 hours of sketching and throw the results away. Keeping an eye on the clock would make him even more hysterical than he already was, he said. He was "never satisfied or happy."
However, he did not subscribe to the vision of the tortured artist.
“Please don't say I work hard," he told The Independent. "Nobody is forced to do this job and if they don't like it, they should do another one. If it's too much, do something else. But don't start doing it and then say, 'Aaaah, it's too much' ... Then, suddenly, they become artists. They are too weak. Too fragile. Non. We have to be tough. We cannot talk about our suffering. People buy dresses to be happy, not to hear about somebody who suffered over a piece of taffeta.”
In 2014 he transformed Paris' Grand Palais into a shopping center for that autumn/winter's line, with 500 Chanel-branded products like eggs and bananas, and Lagerfeld himself piloting a blue shopping cart. Consumerism, he said, was the culture of our age, which we had to adapt to as "the times won't adapt to us. If you don't like it, you're depassé."
Of fashion shows, Lagerfeld said, "I'm a kind of fashion nymphomaniac who never gets an orgasm." "Sweatpants," he said, "are a sign of defeat. "You lost control of your life so you bought some sweatpants."
As the fashion crowd partied hard around him in the ’70s and ’80s, Lagerfeld did not, saying in 2014, "I am puritan at heart, very much so—probably a self-preservation instinct or something like that. I'm hopelessly strait-laced. I've never drunk alcohol or smoked or took drugs. I've always been a bit of an outsider. That's why it's been easier for me to survive than for some others."
Lagerfeld was asked if his former partner, Jacques de Bascher, who died of AIDS in 1989, had been the love of his life.
"Yes, but it was not like that. or I wouldn't be here today. It was AIDS that killed him after all. He was much (18 years) younger than me. We were like father and son. That's what's unusual about the story. I admire self-destructive people, but I'm not a rescuer. Everyone is master of their own fate. Someone once said, the most important thing is not to save yourself but to lose yourself, but that's not for me."
Lagerfeld was asked if he took care of de Bascher when he was sick. "Yes, of course. I am not a cold-hearted someone who just thinks of himself—quite the opposite. The more at peace you are with yourself, the better you can take care of others."
"It was impossible to bear," Lagerfeld said of his partner's death. The ’80s, he told Menkes, were "still a nightmare I prefer to forget." After de Bascher's death, Lagerfeld began to gain weight. Then, starting in 2000, he lost almost 90 pounds in 30 months. His motivation was to look good in clothes, he said. He had gained some of the weight back, "because I don't want to look like death warmed over." His discipline was to be able to fit into a Dior (European) size 48. "I lost 200 lbs to wear suits by Hedi Slimane," he once said. "My only ambition in life... is to wear size 28 jeans."
The Lagerfeld quotes are an endlessly rich mine. However, the ugliest of his sharp words inevitably caused controversy. In 2017, he was accused of anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant rhetoric when he attacked Chancellor Angela Merkel for welcoming too many migrants to Germany.
“One cannot—even if there are decades between them—kill millions of Jews so you can bring millions of their worst enemies in their place,” the designer said. “I know someone in Germany who took a young Syrian and after four days said, ‘The greatest thing Germany invented was the Holocaust.’”
This was in sharp contrast to his criticism of John Galliano, when the designer was accused of anti-Semitism a few years previously. “The image has gone around the world," Lagerfeld said. "It’s a horrible image for fashion, because they think that every designer and everything in fashion is like this. This is what makes me crazy in that story."
"No one wants to see curvy women on the runway," he opined of the demand for a variety of body shapes to be shown in fashion. “The hole in social security, it’s also [because of] all the diseases caught by people who are too fat," he opined.
“Kate Middleton has a nice silhouette," he ventured. "I like that kind of woman, I like romantic beauties. On the other hand, the sister struggles. I don't like the sister's face. She should only show her back.”
And yet, while he was an exacting boss, Lagerfeld could also be kind. The fashion designer Anna Mason recalled her excitement working alongside him when she was 23 in 1994.
Mason told The Daily Beast she did a series of internships with Lagerfeld as a scholarship-winning fashion student at London's Royal College of Art.
"I remember going to his amazing atelier, and seeing for the first time Diptyque candles and macaroons from Fauchon. He was a polymath, a hundred ideas would come at once from him. His attitude was to try everything, and then if it didn't work, throw it out and try something else. His energy was something else."
Lagerfeld would turn to Mason, and ask for her opinion in front of high-powered fashion editors like Anna Wintour, André Leon Talley, and Elizabeth Tilberis. "He would say, 'Anna, I think you go to Fendi and make Fendi trendy for me.'" One of her velvet suits from British charity shop Oxfam inspired a mini-collection; one of her blouses inspired further Lagerfeld creations.
"He was brilliant and had only brilliant people around him, and made you step up," recalled Mason. "It was hard work, serious work, a lot of pressure, exciting and frivolous all at the same time. He was encouraging, he wanted to know what you thought. He would pat my hand and say, 'Anna, come sit next to me.' He was occupied with fashion and creation and getting the best from people. He was very formidable too. You didn't put a foot wrong in front of Karl. He was very kind and very funny."
Lagerfeld loaned 12 pairs of shoes he had designed to Mason for her student show, and also attended it. "He came up afterwards and said he had loved it: 'It was very pink and cream and beige and cafe au lait.' The whole experience was quite insane. He was really like all the things you imagined. He didn't like too much intimacy. He flinched once when I hugged and kissed him, and I realize I would never hug or kiss him again."
Mason remains inspired by Lagerfeld's endless experimentation, and deep immersion in fashion, "which is what he loved to do. I remember that time so fondly. It was so intense, but he was never scary and only encouraging and kind. I only wish I could have seen him again."
Despite the multi-million, very corporate stakes around him and his work, a determined impishness remained around Lagerfeld to the end of his life.
“She has two maids, and the driver takes care of her too. She has an attitude like a princess,” he told Harper's Bazaar of Choupette. "She goes in the kitchen and sits in front of the food. She doesn't like to eat on the floor, so I have to put the food on the table. Her dishes are by Goyard. She has one for water, one for her little croquette, and one for her pâté. You have to serve everything, and she makes a choice."
Lagerfeld didn't want to run his own company and have employees be directly dependent on him. Freedom meant people dropping by rather than having meetings. He didn't want the "chatter" of people justifying their salaries. He designed hotels, cars, helicopters, pianos, and lived for the moment he said.
“I certainly didn't want to have children myself, because it's too much responsibility. I hate responsibility—that's why I don't want to own my business," Lagerfeld said.
Lagerfeld was adamant that he preferred to look forward rather than back when it came to his own work. "I live for today, paradise now, otherwise you can't do a job like this," he said in 2014. "If you're complacent and wallow around in rags, it doesn't work. If you always think you should be doing something else, you might as well kill yourself. Memories always seem rosier, but you can’t live off memories. I'm glad for what I have done in my life, but I have no desire to relive it."
He was rarely tired, working and alert all hours. He was happiest at home, with his books and drawing paper. "Why should I stop working?" he once said. "If I do, I'll die and it'll be all finished."
"I don't have one personality," Lagerfeld said in 2014. "I have three. It's very amusing really. When I write in German and I'm asked to translate into French, it ends up completely different. I have three different mentalities. I don't translate my own writing. It would bore me to death and I would never say the same thing."
So, he was not translatable, Lagerfeld was asked.
"No, and not replaceable," he replied, with a hint of a smile.