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From the FASHION Archives: Karl, Before Chanel

Behind Chloé’s grand design is an exotic of rare plumage

Since its launch in 1977, FASHION magazine has been giving Canadian readers in-depth reports on the industry’s most influential figures and expert takes on the worlds of fashion, beauty and style. In this series, we explore the depths of our archive to bring you some of the best fashion features we’ve ever published. This story, originally titled “The Eccentric Luxe of Karl Lagerfeld” by Marci McDonald was originally published in FASHION’s Winter 1978 issue.

It was Karl Lagerfeld’s idea to throw the party at his house. “I thought it would be more personal,” he says. Six hundred of his most intimate friends were greeted at the doorway by liveried footmen in white wigs and blue-satin breeches brandishing gigantic silver candelabra. By the light of more than a thousand flickering tapers, they were led into his ivory-and-gilt 18th-century salons, large enough to hold a small gymkhana, only to confront buffer tables recreated to match Marie Antoinette’s finest. Three-tiered pièces montées, threatening to graze the ceiling frescoes, spilled over with foie-gras-trimmed dolphins and peacock-shaped saddles of lamb. The sweet table featured a 50-foot meringue fountain cascading petits fours and crowned by four life-sized jeweled sugar swans spouting green syrup water. Jean Seberg, his next door neighbour, came and declared it marvelous. Paloma Picasso, whose marriage to a penniless Argentinian playwright in Lagerfeld’s heart-shaped red-taffeta wedding dress had rivaled Princess Caroline’s as the social event of the season, remarked that it was “very Karl.” Only the host, looking a slightly dressier version of his usual cross between Count Dracula and Louis XVI, seemed to have any reservations, confiding later that he wished it all hadn’t been at the expense of promoting his new men’s perfume, instead of the simple little gathering of near and dear as he preferred to think of it. “Little do people know I lead such studious, down-to-earth life,” he sighs. “To be a celebrity – it’s very demanding. But I am my image, I’m afraid.”

The image perches on a folding plexiglass chair in the fading afternoon light that invades the two-floor Chloé empire just off Paris’ fashionable rue de la Boétie and peers out at the world through rose-colored glasses. He used to favor smoky lenses, but finds things vastly improved since the change. “Everybody looks 10 years younger,” he says. Not that everything Karl Lagerfeld lays eyes on now meets his approval. “Ugly, ugly, ugly,” he dismisses the better part of the universe – a condemnation second only to “borrowing.” Offices are boring, as are desks and “fixed points” – which leaves the Chloé staff swirling around him among racks of tweed and sequins in apparent casual mayhem. Most of the clothes in which the hoi poloi parade outside his windows are boring, and frequently ugly as well. Neither sin, however, can be attributed to his image, which on this particular day consists of the usual: black smock emblazoned with a six-inch monogram, one of the hundred handmade shirts he orders annually from Hilditch and Key, shirtmakers to the Shah of Iran, which requires him to have custom-built luggage in order to preserve their starched stand-up collars, and, at his throat, a flowing black-silk bow. His greying shoulder-length tresses are pulled back into a ribbon, his complexion so pale that in certain lights it appears freshly powdered.

It is not an image that the casual bystander might associate with the semi-annual outbursts of witty sophistication and romantic chic that have come to characterize Karl Lagerfeld’s contributions to those feverish April and October follies known as Paris’ prêt-à-porter collections. But on reflection, it is nothing if not appropriate. While not everyone might be prepared to go around done up as he does, it is also true that not everybody can wear a Chloé.

In the 10 years since he has emerged as one of France’s trend-setting fashion triumvirate along with close friends Kenzo Takada and Yves Saint Laurent, his name has become synonymous with a look of rarefied elegance and eccentric luxe that makes him closer to the grand style of haute couture than any other ready-to-wear designer. Wherever two or more of the relentlessly à la mode are gathered, there is bound to be a slither of cleverly constructed silk by Karl Lagerfeld. The press has hailed him as one of today’s most influential stylists but, in fact, the sphere of his influence is limited. While Saint Laurent has set the silhouette for two decades of dressing and Kenzo has cut the pattern for almost every trend that has filtered down to the streets, Karl Lagerfeld has fashioned a unique niche for himself – not copied by the masses, but not ignored either; a label more applauded than pirated; a name that has come to mean class by itself. Buyers tend to swoon over his showings, which have twice inspired the shrewd Martha Phillips of Martha, Palm Beach and New York, to exit rhapsodizing that they were “like a beautiful song.”

But the music to her ears may have been the cash register bearing witness to the fact that, beneath Lagerfeld’s outlandish exterior, there lurks the canny commercial intelligence that has managed to create not only what the ads unabashedly call “the world’s most beautiful clothes,” but also some of the most wearable. Bianca Jagger, the Baroness Olympia de Rothschild and Margaret Trudeau all number Chloés in their closets, as – much to Karl Lagerfeld’s astonishment – did did his ailing mother’s private nurse. “She kept turning up in all these dresses of mine,” he says, tinted shades only half-betraying the intimation that there are, after all, limits to the democratization of prêt-à-porter. Discreet inquiries, however, finally assured him that the Chloés hovering at the bedside came of impeccable lineage – castoffs from a former patient’s wife named Jacqueline Onassis.

The tiny ready-to-wear house that he signed on with 14 years ago now boasts 11 boutiques and 95 outlets in the world’s toniest fashion emporiums under his signature, chalking up $9 million in wholesale clothing sales last year alone – triple the business of three years ago. If the growth rate is just short of phenomenal, it is no accident. Today, ethnic and organic are stunningly out and the fashion tyrannies of the crunchy granola set are going down to the yawns. In a year when the blue jean has resurfaced in gloriously co-opted little $300 leather versions and glitz has become de rigueur, it may not be entirely coincidental that the designer of the hour is an exotic of rare plumage whose idea of getting back to basics was once to show tennis shoes with chiffon ball-gowns and T-shirts of crepe de Chine. “Today, fashion is not made in the streets as much as it was in the early ‘70s,” he says, the relief clearly evident in his voice. “Now there’s a new sophistication that has nothing to do with the streets – in fact, it may not even reach them.”

Certainly, the pavement was not what he seemed to have in mind when creating his fall collection. An androgynous stray from a Cabaret set, in black chesterfield coat and top hat, waltzed down the runway and opened prison gates to release his latest inspirations: hip-hugging petal-hem skirts blossoming over stiletto heels, lamé tunic dresses afloat over skin-tight black-satin pants and tiny bellboy hats perched on the forehead, all topped off by mammoth fake jewels that dripped from tweed lapels like relics from a chandelier disaster. They were droll, they were outrageous, and the fashion press promptly went into delirium, demanding to know their meaning. “Why, they don’t mean anything – they’re just fun,” said Karl Lagerfeld, only surprised that anyone would ask. Relevance, significance – he waves them off as only slightly more boring than inquiries into the origins of his image. “Who knows where it came from,” he shrugs. “It was just there.”

For those inclined to favor the environmental theory of character formation, it was not perhaps a childhood designed to produce the average citizen. Born in 1938 in the heart of Hitler’s Germany, Karl Lagerfeld cannot recall ever growing up aware that there was some international unpleasantness going on. Life continued as usual at the château in the countryside outside Hamburg, where he found himself the last child of the last marriages of two not entirely typical members of Third Reich gentry. His father, a canned-milk tycoon with an inclination for marrying, was 60 at his birth. His mother, who had worn a Paul Poiret gown for her first wedding and a Vionnet for her second, favored Lanvin for the war. Their offspring passed his time reading her back issues of La Gazette du Bon Ton, sketching her wardrobe and changing clothes three times daily. “Already, I hated open shirts,” he said. “I had collars up to here, bows and ties, even hats. I was a fashion freak. Even as a child, I was overdressed.”

He does remember a parade of rather curious people showing up at the château who later turned out to be war refugees, but the memory concerns him only insomuch as one of them tortured him in French – a language he could speak with devoted fluency from his sixth birthday. When he was 12, his mother took his drawings to the director of a Hamburg art school who refused him admittance, declaring, “This boy is not interested in art. He’s interested in costume.” At 14, he begged to be allowed to finish high school in France, pointing out that he had, after all, immigrated in spirit. His arrival by train at the Gare du Nord did not disappoint him – it was dirty, it was decadent, and it was gloriously Paris, the city where he has lived ever since. Boarding school, however, was another matter – crowded and cloying. “In those days, if you were the slightest bit out of the ordinary, you were considered and eccentric,” he says. “I wanted to be alone.”

He won permission to rent an apartment on his own to prepare for his bacclauréat exams, provided that his father’s minions could keep an eye on him. When the other eye was closed, he secretly entered the International Wool Competition fashion contest for amateurs. He was just past his 16th birthday when his sketch of a little wool coat captured first prize and he was catapulted into a career that over the next 23 years was in many ways to mirror the progress of fashion itself.

The year was 1955 – mid-point in the heavy heyday of haute couture’s resuscitation by a one-time designer’s assistant named Christian Dior, who had opened his salons during the liberation sweep-up in 1947 with what he called the New Look, and was promptly hailed as the man who had saved Paris. Each July and January the world hung on his prophecies for hem lengths and hair lengths, while names like Jacques Fath, Pierre Balmain, Cristobel Balenciaga and Hubert de Givenchy were lesser stars who revolved around his headlines’ pivotal glare. In 1955, the press was in its usual uproar over Dior’s newest look, the A-line, and did not pay particular attention to the International Wool Competition fashion contest which two teenagers had just won: Karl Lagerfeld in the coat category and, in the dress category, a gangling blond 19-year-old who was to become one of Lagerfeld’s closest friends and two years later, Dior’s heir – Yves Saint Laurent.

While Dior plucked Saint Laurent out of the contest to become his dauphin, Balmain, one of the judges, sometimes known as the “couturier of queens,” offered Lagerfeld a stylist’s job. He worked with Balmain for three months before he had the courage to break the news to his parents, and stayed three years. He failed to meet any queens, but did help dress Anita Ekberg, Vivien Leigh, Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida and even Bardot, although in retrospect he cherishes no fond memories. “Pierre Balmain was very teacherlike,” he says. “But the whole atmosphere with models and all was very borellolike. I just thought it was not chic at all.” Bored, he toyed with the thought of going back to school, when a job offer as art director at the venerable couture house of Jean Patou saved him – but in the end, only for more boredom. “Twice a year, I turned out 50 dresses,” he says. “It wasn’t enough for me. I spent the rest of my life at nightclubs, on beaches, at parties. It was empty, completely empty. When I think about it today, it was really the most boring and stupid time of my life.” After five years, he dropped out of couture altogether, the bloom rubbed thin on the boyhood dream. “I didn’t like the atmosphere. You waited there for your private clients, then you flattered them so they’d keep coming back. But they were just boring. Uglies – all uglies. Today there are 50 girls in the street who look better than the women who wear haute couture. I didn’t like what Balenciaga was doing. I didn’t like what Chanel was doing – all those little suits – maybe because I saw so many ugly copies on so many ugly women.”

At 25, he decided to devote himself to a life of the mind, but found that finishing his high school diploma did not always provide sufficient inspiration to get up in the morning, nor even in the afternoon. A year of more parties. And more boredom. “Then suddenly I realized work was the most important thing in my life, more important than all the rest of that stuff. I knew couture was finished. But something was changing.”

It was 1964, two years before Saint Laurent descended from his haute-couture shrine on the right bank to set up a Left bank boutique for the vast unwashed, making mass retailing respectable. The Paris ready-to-wear industry was still a slightly disreputable collection of pirates devoted to churning out bargain-rate couturier rip-offs, thanks to the advances in mass production and manmade fabrics with such odd names as Orlon, rayon and Terylene. The idea of men’s fashion had become fashionable, and teenagers with fat disposable dispentions from daddy had created a new market that British upstarts like Mary Quant were blithely capitalizing on with the miniskirt.

But in Paris the only rustlings of a change in the wind were cries of indignation going up from the couturier salons. “Paris has lost its leadership,” fussed Pierre Cardin, while Courrèges fumed that, “I, for one, won’t stand for it,” though what he intended to do nobody had the slightest idea. Among the mass-market outlets, however, there was one tiny house called Chloé, owned by a former financier named Jacques Lenoir, which had delusions of grander things under a young designer named Gérard Pipart. When Pipart was hired away by the couture house of Nina Ricci, Lenoir regarding it as such a disaster that he replaced him with four newcomers – names like Graziella Fontana, Tan Guidicelli, Christine Baille and Karl Lagerfeld – and decided to let them fight it out.

“It was very inspirational,” Lenoir says. “They were like phagocytes in the blood, where the one eats the other. Karl learned a lot from the others, but when it came to competition, he always came out on top. He was stronger, he had more force of personality.”

Indeed, the strength is almost physically tangible when you meet Lagerfeld in person, the image only half concealing a surprisingly solid man with large fleshy hands who looks as if, should the need arise, he could arm-wrestle the ugly or boring to the ground. The sensuous mouth has a capacity for the brutal as it echoes its staccato bulletins in four languages, mingling high camp, high bitchery and exquisite manners with penetrating analyses of the most pragmatic sort. He is briskly efficient, sardonically high-charged – transformed from the languorous wunderkind who once could barely struggle into Patou by 3 p.m. and devoted whole evenings to pondering the meaning of life. But then, he had finally found it, at least for himself. The discovery released so much energy that he designed not only for Chloé, but whipped off freelance work for Charles Jourdan shoes and Fendi furs, along with a band of such other young free spirits as Kenzo and Sonia Rykiel, who were invading the transformed landscape of ready-to-wear.

“I did everything,” he says. “It was very tiring, but very amusing, too – getting up early to take trains to go to the factories, taking planes here and there. It was the best way to learn, because I had never gone to fashion school. And nobody had done it before. We were a little community of pioneers.”

Within 10 years, the little community of pioneers had left haute couture languishing in charming oblivion. Their rambunctious April and October showing stole the thunder – and the crowds – from the ancient rituals in mirrored salons where the faithful perched on little gold chairs. Prêt-à-porter began to hand down the prophecies for the world’s closets, and just as promptly to fill them up, inspiring its own cut-rate copiers, while its brash young stars eclipsed the old names in an entirely new firmament of fashion. No longer did a woman dress under one label. The new rule was that there were no rules and there were as many styles as there were brash young upstarts with chutzpah and scissors.

By 1974, the process of Darwinian selection had left only Karl Lagerfeld at Chloé, where he was offered an exclusive contract and, in tribute to his stardom, his own perfume. He chose a sweet, heavy, old-worldly scent in keeping with his image. “At the time, everything was light, green, duty-free as I call it,” he sniffs. “It set a new trend.” Elizabeth Arden, who holds the franchise, now sells $11 million worth of liquid Chloé a year. Having just launched a men’s cologne, Lagerfeld is already at work on a second feminine fragrance scheduled for 1980 unbottling – “something quite eccentric, I think.” Discussions are also underway for makeup and a men’s line, although he refuses to design for children and linen closets. “One day your name cannot be used any more – only for toilet paper.”

His place in posterity assured, he now looks down from the heights of chic to observe his former conferes of haute couture – like Marc Bohan of Dior – with charity. “Boring – they’re only allowed to do boring things. Of course, they’re only employees. Sleeping beauties, I call them.” He does not resent the phenomenal success of Saint Laurent who has outstripped him even in the prêt-à-porter arena, and they continue to be the closest of friends. “Yves was always more ambitious than I was. He likes high fashion. He never found it humiliating. And he made lots of efforts that I’d never have made.” For example? “Well, for example, I’d never have consented to live with Pierre Bergé (Saint Laurent’s business partner and companion) for 20 years. I mean, there are prices I wouldn’t pay.”

A tiny bronze buzzer swings open the massive iron door on rue de l’Université and a security guard points the way across a courtyard roughly the size of a skating rink. A greying housekeeper in a worn sweater leads the way up marble stairs to the lofty salons where Karl Lagerfeld has consented to be photographed in a little at-home portrait. He sweeps in 20 minutes late, brisk and understated, a shrunken monogram on his dun-colored smock, only a thin western string tie which was the gift of the people at Neiman Marcus in place of the usual flounce – a sobered image due perhaps to the fact that he had just celebrated his 40th birthday two days earlier at his 18th-century château in Brittany where his mother now presides.

“I always live in 18th-century houses,” he says. “For me, it’s the perfection of human culture – the top.” In fact, he once did not live in an 18th-century house when he was making his name as a freelancer, but in a Left Bank apartment surrounded by one of the most lavish Art Deco collections then in existence. He had a backdrop made for it, and immediately had to auction the whole thing off. “It was too much – too fragile, too beautiful. I couldn’t live in it. It was like waking up every morning in an opera set.” Besides, so many people were getting into Art Deco. Now he collects state beds – Madame du Barry’s, the Duke of Richelieu’s, the Princess of Conti’s. Most are in the country château, but there is one of the indeterminate ownership plumped here in the midst of a receiving room, its white-silk coverlet and headboard sumptuously embroidered with a motif of the four seasons. It turns out to be one of the few pieces of furniture in the entire place. He keeps the rooms empty on purpose. “I don’t want to look nouveau riche,” he says.

It is virtually the eve of his next collection, and there is not much time for the setting. A gentle-faced young man serves apple juice on a silver tray and Karl Lagerfeld keeps examining his watch. His fabrics are late in arriving from the factories, his fittings are delayed and he has not yet seen the drift of his next seasonal direction, which makes him tense, although never given to the bouts of hysteria Saint Laurent is said to glory in. “What’s the point?” he says. “A dress doesn’t last forever. In the business, you start all over again every six months.” Still, he shuns holidays and works so obsessively that colleagues confide that Karl Lagerfeld’s problem is not that he may one day dry up on ideas, but that he has to be stopped. His study, a crammed anteroom to one of the salons, erupts with costume histories and ancient fashion circulars that spill over from his drawing board and onto the floor, but he shies from specific discussions of the Muse. “Designers shouldn’t talk too much; they should design. I believe only in instinct, intuition. I believe in imagining things from a window.”

He does not like all of this boring talk of the nuts and bolts, the whys and wherefores. He prefers to deal in images. The night he threw a little candlelight dinner for 40 here in honor of Paloma Picasso’s wedding – “the whole table filled with flowers, orchids the same red as her dress. I must say it was magic.” The little costume ball that Saint Laurent’s associate LouLou de la Falaise held at a disco palace where he turned up in a crystal-beaded jumpsuit and feathers once worn by Josephine Baker. The evenings he insists he spends dining in these rooms alone, according to the counsel of his fortune teller, scarlet drapes drawn, the table splendidly laid for one, while scented candles cast a spell upon the air. He quick-sketches the scenes as one might imagine looking in upon a life through a window. With a stylist’s finely honed eye, he settles upon each detail he chooses to reveal.

It is, after all, no easy task to tread the uneasy line between mass design and mystique, between turning out dresses that everywoman can buy off the rack while leaving the impression that only the truly privileged could attain such a luxury. Karl Lagerfeld, who prefers to work his magic in crepe de Chine rather than cheesecloth, who introduced satin knickers and tried to bring back the fan, has a showman’s unwavering sense of his audience. Strangers are not invited to his workrooms. Colleagues are discouraged from answering questions about him. Upstairs and downstairs in this townhouse, which he writes off for promotion purposes on his taxes, there are other rooms – private apartments that are never seen, never photographed.

The camera clicks. The image is preserved in the splendor of an empty salon. Karl Lagerfeld is in a hurry for his next appointment and rushes off with the gentle-eyed young photographer, shaking hands all around. It is a demanding, tightly scheduled life where even the star of the hour cannot be sure he will not be upstaged a half-year away. It is sometimes not a glamorous life at all, although one only has his word for it.

“I don’t believe in glamour,” he says. “Glamour is very artificial.”

Our footsteps echo on the marble staircase as the housekeeper lets us out with two plastic garbage bags in her hand, which she deposits behind a closed 18th-century door.