Yesterday I went to the supermarket and I bought a chainsaw, a handkerchief and six eggs, all 100% Chanel and all at 50 cents more! Fashion was transformed into a supermarket sweep yesterday as Karl Lagerfeld sent his personal shoppers including Cara Delevingne, Stella Tennant and Lindsey Wixson out onto the floor in trainers and slacks with shrink-wrapped 2.55's. A clever satire of today's consumerism, this is the supermarket where the rich can go too and not feel out of place. Funny, intelligent and not afraid to poke fun at his own game, we sat down with the undisputed King of Fashion for a chat about all sorts of things starting with his adorable white Burmese cat.
“Who can ever forget the first time they met Karl? It’s always an unforgettable event, even a life-changing one,” says International Editor Sandra Brant, recalling when she was first introduced to the designer while on assignment with Interview magazine. “For me it was a trip to Paris in the early 70s that I made with Andy Warhol. Because of our love of the movies of the 20s and 30s we had both become obsessed with Art Deco. Back then you could still find amazing pieces hidden at the flea markets, and only a handful of others were onto its extraordinary style - Karl was all over it. He invited us to the house to see what he had found and we were all knocked out. Also, by Karl. Naturally, Andy, who always knew a star when he saw one, put Karl in his very next film, L’Amour, which we thought would be fun to make in Paris. Everyone else in the movie played a part. But Karl, of course, played Karl, and as they say in Hollywood, ‘The camera loved him.’” It’s a fascinating anecdote, and it says a lot about Lagerfeld. He’s a star, he’s very thoughtful - he was once described by Vanity Fair as “Couture’s undisputed philosopher prince” - and he’s one of the most important designers ever.
Karl Lagerfeld is Creative Director of Chanel and Head Designer of Fendi, two of the world’s grandest fashion houses, but he’s not bound to history in any way. Instead, he’s a great innovator who’s always looking to the future. Consider his collaboration with Net-A-Porter, which took high fashion further into the realms of virtual reality and cutting-edge technology than ever before. Using a special Net-A-Porter KARL augmented reality app, shoppers could scan Lagerfeld’s silhouette and so purchase these incredibly covetable - and surprisingly affordable - items straight off their iPhones and iPads. That’s not all... in perfect synchronicity, five pop-up window shops were also unveiled in Paris, Berlin, London, New York and Sydney, allowing everyone else with the app to purchase the collection straight out of the glossy photoshoots surfacing these gorgeous window displays. “Because he’s so forward- thinking and futuristic-thinking and innovative we challenged ourselves with the idea of doing something that would excite him, something very 21st century,” says Natalie. “So we focused on having this simultaneous launch in cities around the world, and having augmented reality, and using social media and social shopping to create a lot of buzz. It was an enormous success, and really one of the highlights for all of us at Net-A-Porter. It was a lot of fun.” Unsurprisingly, two-thirds of all of KARL’s stock sold out within 24 hours - this is how we will shop in the future, but in the present.
To coincide with the launch he also interviewed himself on Net-A-Porter in a hilarious, and bewilderingly surreal, exchange that showed off his self- awareness and wicked sense of humour. “No-one’s mind moves as fast as Karl’s, and who better to interview him than himself?” asks Natalie. He loved the idea, and again because he likes doing things that have never been done before he jumped at the opportunity. He was very gracious and wonderful and funny, and I’ve watched it about 30 times and every time I laughed. It’s brilliant!” At one point Karl 1 asks his doppelganger, “How do we stay fresh and relevant? Because if I see you I think we are quite fresh and relevant, what’s your opinion?” And Karl 2 answers, “A question I never ask myself...” and drifts off, momentarily flummoxing his alter ego. In the end Karl 2 becomes bored with Karl 1 and walks off, leaving him alone in his Saint Germain studio. And what a studio! The walls are literally lined with books, towering floor to high ceiling in a living monument to the written word. Lagerfeld’s obsessed with books, loves typefaces and owns 7L - an Aladdin’s Cave of a bookshop beneath his studio, stocking vintage tomes, photography compendiums and cutting-edge magazines. 7L is also the title of his bespoke publishing imprint of Steidl, with a straightforward mission statement that he explains very succinctly: “Books need to confront a certain number of significant issues. I make up my mind more and more concerning what I really love, what I really want to show and what I consider valuable, interesting and appropriate.”
Karl is also a fantastic photographer. He has published books of portraits of Baptiste Giabiconi and Brad Kroenig in The Beauty of Violence and Metamorphoses of an American respectively, and striking images of urban landscapes in Abstract Architecture. He shoots all of Chanel’s campaigns, as well as superb editorials for the world’s most sought-after magazines, and he’s had huge exhibitions of his work all around the world: the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris, the Chiostro del Bramante in Rome and the Daelim Contemporary Art Museum of Seoul. For the show in Korea, titled Work in Progress, he worked closely with Gerhard Steidl (founder of Steidl) and Eric Pfrunder (Art Director of Chanel) on enhancing his bewitching images with a reading room, a series of short films and an analogue photo booth. Karl has an amazing history, but he’s uninterested in reminiscing. “I never talk about the good old days,” he says in his interview with himself, “but actually I’m not sure if they were that good - just old.”
Instead he’s only looking to the future, powered by pink-and-white bottles of Diet Coke that he designed himself, and working across a multitude of Apple products. “The iPod is genius,” he once declared. Karl shows us iPhone photos of his cat Chopette throughout our interview, and these days he’s always sketching on his iPad(s); not only outfits but also satirical caricatures: of Queen Elizabeth, of Michelle Obama, of muppet Miss Piggy dressed nose-to-tail in Chanel. When he was younger Karl actually wanted to become an illustrator, and in 1992 he drew a lavish series of illustrations for Hans Christian Andersen’s tale The Emperor’s New Clothes. These are utterly captivating, Aubrey Beardsley-esque images of dark courtly decadence water- coloured in with the melting, expressionist blushes of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner; even the naked emperor looks like a style icon in these imaginings. Karl has the most iconic look of anyone in the industry, as recognisable on him as it is on the plush alter ego that he designed in 2008: a $1,500 Steiff teddy bear in black sunglasses, suit and tie, with a starched high collar, a diamond tie pin and a jewel-encrusted KL monogram belt... all that was missing was a pair of fingerless leather gloves in black. The real Karl Lagerfeld has worn sunglasses at all times - outdoors and indoors, summers in St Tropez and winters in Paris - since the mid 80s. “They’re my burka,” he has explained. “I’m a little short-sighted, and people, when they’re short-sighted, they remove their glasses and then they look like cute little dogs who want to be adopted.”
“Karl makes me feel like anything is possible,” says Florence (and the Machine). “A conversation about the sea can turn into an underwater paradise inside the Grande Palais. He makes me want to know more stuff, all kinds of stuff from French 17th century love poems, to neoclassical artists, just so one day I might be able to keep up with him conversationally... He’s had a massive impact on how I am viewed by the fashion world, and his friendship and support has been invaluable. Also, I do now have a large clamshell in my possession. You never know when you’ll need one of those!” She’s talking, of course, about the show-stopping ending to Chanel’s spring/ summer 12 extravaganza, for which the Grand Palais was reimagined as an under-the-sea wonderland of shimmering white coral sands and monster-sized angel fishes, seahorses and stingrays. As all 83 ethereal sea sirens walked out for the finale, with pearls scattered in their hair and sea-urchin shells propping up the heels of their sandals, Florence appeared out of a giant clam in a contemporary imagining of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, and sang What the Water Gave Me to an entranced audience (and one muscly lifeguard). And this was only one magical moment in an otherworldly show of opulence and boundless imagination.
One last anecdote about Karl; we started with a story from Sandra Brant, so we’ll end with a timely story from her partner Ingrid Sischy: “There we were in Tokyo, sitting around waiting for Yayoi Kusama, 83, the fabled Japanese artist, whose portrait Karl was about to shoot. Although Karl had long admired her work, the two had not met before, and we wanted the studio to be as calm and quiet as possible for her arrival. While Kusama’s own art is as powerful as it gets, the woman behind it is fragile; of her own choosing she has spent much of her life in an institution where she feels safe from her inner demons. Suddenly Karl asked for some large sheets of bright red paper. An assistant ran out to buy it. Karl wanted scissors next. Without saying a word he cut a large circle out of the red paper, and applied it to a white backdrop, creating a giant white polka dot, surrounded by red. As he finished the elevator doors opened and what we saw took our breath away. In came Kusama, escorted by two caregivers, wearing a bright red wig and a red polka-dot coat, both the exact colour of the paper that Karl had just cut out. She looked at the set-up he had created and walked right into it for her portrait. One could tell that she felt immediately at home and even more than that, that he grasped everything in a flash. More than one of us blinked back tears. We had witnessed a kind of epiphany of the instinctual understanding and empathy that those of us who know Karl well, see time and time again.”
What is the silliest question you have ever been asked in an interview - aside from this one?
I am too polite to have an opinion on the questions from journalists. I just answer where I can.
Let’s talk about Choupette... How has she changed your life?
I don’t know that Choupette has changed my life exactly, but suddenly I have someone I have to take care of and I am not used to taking care of anything except myself. So even a cat is a big change for me!
Where does she sleep?
On my bed. She always sleeps on my bed, on a beautiful white cashmere blanket. But she never goes on my bed when I am not in the bed. I can show you photos [gets out his iPhone].
Oh my god, she is so beautiful.
Yes, she is very beautiful [shows another photo]. She is six months old; the only thing she cannot stand is fur covers because she really attacks them.
Is she cuddly?
Yes, yes, but not overly, and not with just anybody. She always tries to look out of the window [shows another photo].
Does she wake you up in the morning?
No, I wake up before her. Sometimes she jumps in carrier bags and cannot get out. She is the Queen of the bag. I had a Goyard bag made especially for her. This is her on my desk. She likes to walk between the papers. She always wants to dive into the bathtub. She likes water but only to drink. She wants to drink from the bathtub... and she shouldn’t. This is her on my desk when I am not working [shows another picture].
She is keeping your chair warm.
Yes, yes, keeping it warm for me, exactly. And when I work she lays next to me.
Her eyes are amazing.
Yes, they are unbelievable. Before I travel she hides behind my luggage. This is my favourite photo of her. She was young here and look she hides behind suitcases and at night she is like this. A little white bunch of feathers...
So sweet, and is she happy when you come home?
She waits in front of the door. This is the entrance where she waits.
What sort of cat is she?
Burmese. She is a powder puff. She is brushed all the tme. The maids spend hours, I don't do that myself, but they spend hours brushing her hair. She loves looking out of the window - but she never goes out.
Do you miss her when you are away?
It’s strange, but yes. You get used to these things. She hates the TV. She cannot stand it. When it’s on she sits in front of it with her back to it, look she hates it! And this is when she has lunch. She is very intellectual, she reads Collette [shows picture of her sitting on an edition of Collette]. And she likes to shop at Colette! She’s a very intellectual cat. She likes to play with real jewels. Look, here she is with some jewels the same colour as her eyes. She lives a Princess life.
She looks like a pillow.
The eyes are really something, no?
Unbelievable, and up close she looks quite tiger-like. Her eyes are so exotic.
Look she tangled herself in all this ribbon, she couldn’t get out. Wait, wait, I want to show you something else. This was her today wearing a plastic collar around her neck after she’d been to the vets.
Is she angry about her collar?
Yes, I don’t want to do that to her. They say animals forget - I am not so sure about that... So, can I have more of the intellectual questions, please?
It would be great if I could have a little Diet Coke at the same time, it helps me think.
I would like to talk about your drawing. The fact that you can draw so beautifully sets you apart from other designers. How important has your iPad become when you sketch? You sketch quite a lot on it.
Yes, I do, but it takes time.
Does it take more time than drawing on paper?
Yes, yes, much more time, because I don’t use a technique like Hockney... the quick technique. You saw the Hockney show, right? I don’t use the very easy, quick technique that he does. I use the principal of engraving. I will show you [gets out iPad]. I did a portrait of Steve Jobs for Apple. Look [shows picture].
Oh, it’s amazing, wow.
It takes more time, it’s like engraving. There is another much quicker way but I like the style of engraving. Did you know that in the beginning I wanted to become an illustrator?
Really? No, I didn’t know that.
I didn’t know that I could make a living in fashion. Now many designers don’t even sketch, they have computer people that do it for them, or they drape. I don’t know how they work. I only start a design once I have a sketch. In the end we don’t change my sketches that much, because I see the garment in a 3D way and I put it on paper. We make variations but not that many...
Could you tell me something about you that nobody knows? That’s not a sensitive secret, of course!
The most important thing you need to know about me is that everything you’re told by others is not necessarily the truth!
Ha-ha yes. Very good one. Why did you start photography?
A very simple reason. In the beginning at Chanel, the dossier de presse [press kit] was made by démodé photographers or beginners, who were really beginners. Famous photographers didn’t do dossier de presse. Dossier de presse is something not that easy as often the clothes are not ready. There were no stylists. Eric [Pfrunder] showed me three times the dossier for ready-to-wear and I said, ‘Eric, I’m sorry that’s horrible.’ After the third time, Eric said to me, ‘If you are that difficult then do it yourself!’ That’s how it happened. I rented a Hasselblad and an assistant and that’s how we started.
This is possibly one of those, ‘If you were stuck on a desert island questions’ that I know you love...
[Interrupts] I don’t go on a desert island so I take nothing with me!
Do you have a favourite photo that you’ve taken?
Yes and no. Normally I am not into that. I always think my favourite photo is the one I have not taken yet.
In a dream world, who would you most like to photograph?
Michelle Obama. I think she is great. Did you see the sketch I made of her for the American Metro? It was a sketch of her and her husband. He wouldn’t be there without her. This kind of man needs this kind of woman, no? She has something. She got me with one line. A journalist said to her, ‘You don’t think your skirts are too tight?’ And she said, ‘Why? You don’t like my big black arse?’ I think that is a good answer. You have to answer like this in life. You know he wants to be elected again, and you know conductors, when they rehearse with the orchestra they say, ‘Once again with feeling...’ He has not had time to achieve what he wanted to do in his time. He needs four years more. Which I hope he will get. Anyway, I made a very beautiful sketch of them both. It’s called, ‘Please, once again with feeling...’ You see [shows the sketch on his iPad]. It’s him conducting with just Michelle’s eye behind. He is divine. She is great too. There is something in her face. The fashion thing I don’t even care about, I don’t even know what she is wearing. It’s all there [points at her eye in the sketch]. Like the song, ‘Michelle ma belle...’ It’s for the Metro.
Of course, I can also do Miss Piggy [shows sketch], in Chanel of course. And this is for the English edition [shows a sketch of the Queen with a classic hat and a crown on top of that]. Once a Queen always a Queen... This is for the Russian edition [shows another sketch], for the 135 years of Swan Lake. The swan on the lake says, ‘We’ve been here 135 years and they still try to imitate us.’
So, have we finished with the intellectual questions?
No, no, the heaviest of the intellectual questions now. Since you started, what has been the biggest change in the fashion industry?
There have been so many changes. I survived so many changes. I don’t know what the biggest was! I think the arrival of ready-to-wear, when it became something with an identity, but that was 100 years ago! More recently it depends. The internet also. It’s permanent evolution. If there is no evolution then you forget about it.
To what extent do you think the internet has affected fashion?
You must not compare the difference, because times are different. People think it was better before, no, it was just different before. The world was different.
Ok, now it’s time for the really stupid questions.
At least you know your level!
Well, it’s very hard to think up questions for someone who has been questioned as much as you. Especially, as your one-to-one self interview for Net-A-Porter was so brilliant. While laughing my head off my heart sank because I thought, ‘What could I possibly ask Karl after this?!’ So, do you have a favourite animal?
Apart from Choupette?
I like cows.
Because my father was a milkman. Have you ever milked a cow?
No, no, no, that is disgusting. I don’t get physical!
Could you describe yourself in three words?
No, I think I would need several volumes. If I only have three words then I better be speechless, no?
Have you ever played the lottery?
No, I only believe in hard work. I don’t believe in lotteries.
Brilliant - there you go. That wasn’t so bad, was it?
Noooo. Thank you.
No, thank you.
It’s been fun.