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When Karl comes calling

Karl Lagerfeld’s longtime associate Caroline Lebar talks to Lounge about the brand’s first India collaboration

Caroline Lebar at Cover Story, Mumbai
Caroline Lebar at Cover Story, Mumbai

As someone who’s worked with the late designer Karl Lagerfeld for over 35 years, it’s not surprising that Caroline Lebar, 54, resonates the same energy once exuded by one of fashion’s most prolific people. For our morning meeting, she is dressed sharp but casual: white sneakers with red tongues, a crisp white shirt with a navy sports jacket. A simple pair of dark glasses completes the look. All from Lagerfeld’s eponymous clothing brand, of which she is communications head.

“I was always very androgynous in my choices, perhaps since the age of 15, which is when you start experimenting with fashion. Back then, fashion was guided by the music you were listening to. I have always been a Parisian.... I was interested in the New Wave.... My style hasn’t changed much. I think it’s one of the reasons that Karl and I connected so well," she says.

How Karl became Karl

Lagerfeld began working with Chanel in 1984. A year later, he started his eponymous brand. Lebar, who was all of 19 then, had come to the fashion house for an internship. Immensely drawn to the entire experience, she offered to work without pay as the receptionist after the internship ended. That was when Lagerfeld noticed her and she was soon employed. “When you’re a child, life is like a game. At Karl Lagerfeld, it was an amazing one, because he was so gifted, so talented and the team was like a crazy family that it was impossible to stop after 10 days (of internship)," she says. Always a part of the brand’s communications team, Lebar insists that working behind-the-scenes was her calling. One might believe that Lagerfeld’s iconic uniform—with his ponytail, dark spectacles and high-collared crisp white shirt—was a premeditated discussion between Lebar and him, but it was the result of an inadvertent marketing ploy for an eponymous perfume, KL by Karl Lagerfeld. “Karl’s hair was long till his shoulders, so he decided to tie it up for the shoot... then when we decided to launch the perfume, its marketing team asked Lagerfeld to keep his ponytail for a while because they were advertising the perfume with his face. They needed him to support his own image. After that, it was nearly impossible to change his look," she says.

The late Karl Lagerfeld in an advertisement for ‘KL by Karl Lagerfeld’.
The late Karl Lagerfeld in an advertisement for ‘KL by Karl Lagerfeld’.

From Paris to Mumbai

In India for the first time, Lebar is here for work and to celebrate the brand’s collaboration with the premium fast fashion brand Cover Story. While the collaboration might seem unusual to some, it is par for the course for Lagerfeld. Lebar takes us back to 2003, when Lagerfeld was approached by Swedish clothing-retail brand H&M to collaborate on a collection. Lebar was apprehensive about the proposal because of H&M’s profile and advised against it. Lagerfeld disagreed and said that it was important to open the doors to accessible luxury. In 2004, as soon as it was launched, the collaboration was a success and sold out almost immediately. It also foreshadowed the business model that would go on to disrupt the industry almost a decade later. Lagerfeld has since collaborated with as many as 50 different brands from around the world such as L’Oréal, Coca-Cola, Puma and Vans.

Today, the brand proactively reaches out for potential collaborations and Lebar is all praise for its new Indian partner. Founded in 2016 by the CEO at Future Style Lab, Manjula Tiwari, Cover Story designs its clothes in London and retails them in India across 30 retail points. With Lagerfeld, they plan on creating two seasonal collections: Fall/Winter 2019 and Spring/Summer 2020. With 80 pieces each, the collections will include clothes and accessories inspired by Lagerfeld’s design aesthetic, but also keep in mind Indian aesthetic sensibilities and body types.

“When I saw all that success (from Lagerfeld and H&M’s collaboration), I felt so awkward in front of Karl that I couldn’t even tell him that he was right. From being a very famous fashion designer, Karl became a rock star. People who didn’t have any interest in fashion knew his face", Lebar says.

The India link started when Maggie Priori, who heads licensing at Karl Lagerfeld, stumbled across Cover Story stores on one of her trips to India. “We were thinking about expanding to India. And after going through Cover Story’s stores I found their designs cool, so I reached out to Tiwari and we clicked immediately," says Priori. Lebar adds that the young brand is “dynamic and open to different ideas", which are qualities that Lagerfeld inhabited.

The Fall/Winter 2019 collection is dominated by monochromes—a favourite of Lagerfeld’s. The collection includes dresses as well as separates such as premium denim, shirts and jackets in cotton and wool. There is a small line of leather accessories, such as clutches and handbags. Standout elements include waist-cinching belts, red accents and metallic studs on apparels and accessories. However, while both Lebar and Tiwari attempt to underline the Indian influences, the links are at most tenuous.

Be more, do more

There’s always the risk that fashion collaborations between brands from different luxury tiers can result in the dilution of a brand’s essence and identity. Lebar, however, says she looks to Lagerfeld’s example. “In 1954, he started working for Fendi, but without any exclusive contract because that idea didn’t exist then.... Karl believed in working with a multitude of designers and brands. It’s almost as though he was the first freelancer in the industry. He wanted to do more and be richer on the inside, so that he could give more to the companies he was working with. That was his way of life. It’s the same way we feel about this collaboration." This approach has parallels with Lagerfeld’s multidisciplinary approach to fashion—he dabbled in photography and publishing.

While the collaboration has been a year in the making, Tiwari is excited that this is potentially the first time an international brand of this stature has reached out to an Indian brand to collaborate. “While Cover Story’s core aesthetic is very feminine, we were happy to see Karl Lagerfeld’s punk and glam-rock vibe complement it so well," she says. A large part of her focus is on manufacturing and she shares that the fabric and leather is sourced from the same sources as Lagerfeld’s luxury brand, bringing a little part of an iconic brand story to Indian consumers.

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