My Unguarded Conversations With Karl Lagerfeld
It was about a decade ago, one morning in Paris in the days before a Chanel show, that I found myself in Karl Lagerfeld’s atelier observing a process that is known in the house as the “accessorization.” It’s a strange term, one that I’ve heard nowhere else in fashion, and yet it has been such a specific ritual in the world of Lagerfeld that anyone who ever entered his orbit would recognize its significance. For days before each show, Lagerfeld would review the proposed looks of his collection and determine how the bags, shoes, hats, broaches, and pearls would be worn with each one, all while greeting a rotating cast of journalists, the courtiers to the couturier. “Chic, no?” he might say, or if he didn’t like it, “C’est un peu bizarre.”
I say I found myself in this meeting because I hadn’t actually been invited. As a fashion reporter for The New York Times then, I had tagged along with Cathy Horyn, the paper’s chief fashion critic. An invitation to one of these sessions was, in fact, a rare badge of honor reserved for the most esteemed critics, granted (or sometimes revoked) based on one’s standing in his favor. Though I had met and interviewed the iconic designer on many occasions by then, I wasn’t really certain he would recognize me, or for that matter would even know who I was, given that I had only ever seen him wearing his signature dark sunglasses. As it turned out, he stood up from the piles of sketches at his desk and greeted me right away, telling a dirty joke so unbelievably raunchy that I blush to this day thinking about it.
That is probably the one quality among many that I recall most fondly about Lagerfeld, who died on Tuesday at the age of 85. As a subject, he was a journalist’s dream – unguarded, hilarious, controversial, bold, and, well, occasionally obscene. It’s true he often went too far with his satiric comments about celebrities’ weight or appearances, or in recent years by making potentially offensive remarks about immigrants in Germany. But more often than not, he spoke freely and without serious repercussions because of his unique position as fashion’s ultimate designer for hire. As much as journalists marveled at his prolific output, Lagerfeld made it look easy because he had achieved the ultimate luxury of a position where he could make creative decisions without any concern for business. Of course, it helped that the business did so well – Chanel alone had sales of more than $9 billion in 2017. His contracts stipulated he could do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted.
My biggest scoop on Lagerfeld happened in 2004, by chance, when a guest at the Costume Institute’s annual Met Gala mentioned to me that the designer was about to announce a collaboration with the fast-fashion retailer H&M. This was a pairing so unimaginable at the time that I thought this person might have been pulling my leg – it’s been known to happen – and so, spying Lagerfeld and his entourage making their way toward the exits at that moment, I somehow mustered the courage to walk over – snaking through the tables and assorted celebrities and socialites, block his path, and ask him point black. “Is it true you’re designing a collection for H&M?” I warbled. “Yes,” he said, delighted, and promptly spilled the beans as his handlers pulled him away. I doubt even Lagerfeld realized the impact his rule-breaking high-low collaboration would have on the industry with a collection that was received with the frenzy of a Beatles album, the aftershocks of which can still be seen today in what designers and marketers like to refer to as “disruption.”
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Eventually, after joining InStyle, I was fortunate enough to receive invitations to “accessorization” sessions of my own, in Dallas for his 2014 Métiers d’Art collection, and in Rome for the same of 2016. The environment, I found, had become much more competitive, and less friendly among colleagues, as the assembled journalists preened for his attention. I’m not complaining, that’s the nature of the business today, access being the ultimate aphrodisiac was something that was not lost on Lagerfeld. Anyone entering the conversation had no idea what had been said before, and so the questions must have seemed repetitive and boring. The filmmaker Rodolphe Marconi, director of “Lagerfeld Confidential,” once told me as much, having staged his first interview with Lagerfeld after knocking on the designer’s bedroom door – they spoke for six hours. “When he likes you, he has time for you,” Marconi said. “When he doesn’t, or you’re boring, he leaves.” In other words, if you wanted a good quote, you had to sing for your supper, and that I tried, sometimes with more success than others.
“I’m just doing, you know,” he told me in a memorable moment in Rome. “I’m not an art director. I am never pleased, and that is a very good motivation to always think, to always try to make an effort to be better.”
Other times, I found myself at a loss for how to engage him. We had a great experience when he launched his lower-priced collection in a venture with Tommy Hilfiger in 2006, when he told Cathy, with some seriousness, “Listen, I’m a very basic, down-to-earth person, but if I showed that publicly, people would say, ‘What a bore.’” But I was challenged to rise to the occasion when tasked with interviewing him about video he directed to promote a Magnum ice-cream bar. I also still blush at the humiliation of having asked Karl Lagerfeld, in his suite at the Mercer Hotel, if he liked ice cream.
“I would eat ice cream if I could,” he said gamely. “I made advertisements for Dom Pérignon Champagne, and I don’t drink alcohol. After all, I’m a dress designer and I don’t wear dresses.”
As the fashion industry mourns the loss of Lagerfeld, it seems unlikely that any designer can ever achieve that level of success, which also guarantees their freedom to be serious or silly, or even offensive, on their own terms, again. I wish I had the chance to ask something else.