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Karl Lagerfeld: Luxury is the ease of a T-shirt in an expensive dress

  • Designer, photographer, illustrator, author—Karl Lagerfeld’s oeuvre spanned six decades
  • An Indian journalist remembers meeting the multi-hyphenate at Chanel’s 18th century Parisian studio in 2011, as he prepared for a couture show inspired by India

Karl Lagerfeld with model Stella Tennant at the Paris-Bombay Métiers d’Art 2011/12 show in Paris. Photo: Reuters
Karl Lagerfeld with model Stella Tennant at the Paris-Bombay Métiers d’Art 2011/12 show in Paris. Photo: Reuters

Circa 2011. It was freezing in Paris. I sat nervously twiddling my thumbs in the corridor of the creative studio of Chanel, an 18th century building soaked in nostalgia, on Rue Cambon. I was waiting to interview Karl Lagerfeld, a man who had carried the legacy of Coco Chanel to great heights, for Vogue India.

My friend Marielou Phillips, the custodian of the brand in India at the time, led me to Lagerfeld through a labyrinth of rooms and corridors overflowing with sartorial treasures—hundreds of Chanel pearl necklaces cascading from wooden shelves and racks of the finest tweeds and taffetas in classic Chanel silhouettes.

When I saw him, it was the image you and I are familiar with, thanks to social media—Lagerfeld sitting, gloved hand under smooth chin, looking like a Parisian hipster, with his monochromatic skinny jacket, dark aviators, high-collar starched shirt (always Hilditch & Key, I was told, and he had thousands of them), fingerless gloves and black boots. And, of course, his quirky pompadour.

He was inspecting the models’ ensembles with a hawk’s eye. The fashion show next day was, after all, the first Chanel collection inspired by India, Paris-Bombay. When I looked around, I noticed the magnitude of this homage to India. From the finery of the clothes, shoes, jewellery and make-up that paraded before him, I saw that the India he imagined was of a much older, more grandiose era—of the 1930s Manik Bagh Palace designed by Eckart Muthesius for the maharaja of Indore—and of women like Lady Curzon, wife of the viceroy of India, a patron of Indian craftsmanship. And what a homage to traditional Indian jewellery—maang tikkas, bracelets, bib necklaces, ornaments that stretched from ear to forehead and wrist to fingers. To complement these, there were Nehru-collar coats, liquid-gold lamé dresses with sari-like drapes, and cobwebs of pearls swinging around the hips of bouclé suits. Amanda Harlech, the famous Chanel muse, swept into the room with the flourish of a Mughal princess, exclaiming, “It’s the spirit, the pure spirit of India!"

I had researched Lagerfeld thoroughly. But alas, this didn’t work for me during the interview. In Lagerfeld’s world of abstruse thinking, I really couldn’t ask him about this collection because, right at the outset, he said: “When the collection is conceived, it is in fact finished. It’s the next big thing that occupies my mind; the last inspiration is over and done with. So there is nothing to ask."

So I asked him about his mother and his childhood. That’s when the interview fired up.

“I was very pretentious," he replied. “I thought I was the centre of the world. My mother was very good to calm me down. My problem was that as a child I was bored to death—all I wanted to be was an adult." Where did this dry sense of humour come from, by the way? I asked. “My mother. She was worse than I am," he said. “Humour, she said, has to be in your blood, you can’t learn it. Like curiosity."

Lagerfeld was inspired by the new global cultural capitals like Shanghai, Istanbul, Moscow and Mumbai. “That’s what makes Karl an extraordinary postmodernist," Ingrid Sischy, creator of the inaugural Florence Biennale, told The New York Times in 2002.

“The fact is, I do love history, especially 17th and 18th century history," said Lagerfeld. “But I was not around in the 17th and 18th centuries. So I like the idea of those eras. Reality, I’m not so crazy about. My thing is about the idea of things, what I think it could be, should be or may be. But what do I want reality for? I prefer my personal realizations and my private reality."

It almost felt like he was racing against time. Are you? I asked. “No. But time is very precious to me, it cannot be wasted. Schopenhauer, the famous German philosopher, said that if you buy a book, you should be capable at the same time to buy the time to read it."

Lagerfeld—a fanatical reader in four languages, French, German, English and Italian—was known to tear out each page of a book as he finished reading. He had an uncanny ability to straddle two worlds: one that was delightfully long and atmospheric, like Tolstoy’s War And Peace, or Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks (both of which he savoured as a child); and the abbreviated hyper-fast realm of social media. He was a consummate sharp-shooter: “Luxury is the ease of a T-shirt in a very expensive dress", or “Luxury is the income tax of vanity. But it is so pleasant." Or, “The world is not there to please you. It is up to you to please the world."

Are you as preoccupied as the French are with existentialism, designing out of creative angst? I had asked. “I am a dress-maker, a bookmaker and a photographer," said Lagerfeld. “But today everyone wants to be an artist. Newton didn’t say he was an artist—he just did what he was good at. When famous designers say to me, ‘My work is a work of art,’ I always ask, ‘Why? Don’t you make dresses any more?’"

Lagerfeld, though, had something more than just humour and curiosity running through his veins. Under his aegis, Chanel underwent a stratospheric rise that transported a moribund label to the pinnacle of high luxury. But I reminded him that he had once said, “The most important piece of furniture in a house is the garbage can." I had asked him to explain. “Ah…," he said thoughtfully. “That really there’s absolutely no point getting attached to things at all. Over is over. You should be a collector’s item yourself."

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