Karl Lagerfeld: The Dream Machine of Chanel

Karl Lagerfeld is the design maestro who revitalized the legendary label. He has also created his own fashion line, collected world class art, mastered French history and learned the cha-cha. But his greatest invention may be his own identity.


Once you know a few things about Karl Lagerfeld, it's difficult to stop thinking about him. At 66 he creates more than 20 fashion collections a year, designing most famously for Chanel but also for Fendi and his own Lagerfeld Gallery. The Chanel gowns seen on Nicole Kidman alone are enough to support a claim of genius. He's a prolific photographer who does superb, clear-speaking fashion layouts for high-level publications as well as commercial campaigns. Besides fashion he designs perfumes, porcelain and even postage stamps. He runs a genre-defying Left Bank anti-department store that stocks contemporary art and design books, including those from his own distinctive imprint, in tandem with a gallery in which he stages shows three days a month. He's a renowned draftsman and a wicked cartoonist. He reads incessantly (historical biography is just one passion) and speaks four languages. He's an expert in all areas of 18th-century history and has been a connoisseur-level collector of art and furniture from a number of different eras (the 18th-century collection he divested himself of three years ago brought over $21 million at auction). He buys, renovates and sells grand houses around Europe. He stays fit by doing ballroom dancing after dinner--and is a one-time champion at cha-cha to boot. He doesn't take drugs or drink and he sleeps seven hours a night.

Once you see Karl Lagerfeld, it's difficult to get his image out of your mind. His hair is powdered white and drawn tightly into a ponytail. He wears darkly tinted glasses at all times (he refers to them as his "portable eyeshadow"). His neck is invariably wrapped in formal collars so high that his ties leave two inches or so of starched white cloth above them. For a time he carried a fan, some said to shield his growing double chin from photographers, but since a studious weight-loss program he undertook several years ago so that he'd be able to wear his friend Hedi Slimane's narrow silhouette designs for Dior Homme, he's dropped the fan and taken up silver and diamond biker rings on as many fingers as possible.

On the surface Karl Lagerfeld is not a man with reservations about drawing the public eye. Indeed, he orchestrates it better than most. But the dramatic appearance seems to make a statement actually operates more as a disguise--it is both striking and unreadable. And when Lagerfeld is out of the spotlight--which is much more of the time than most people who are as famous as he is in a visual business--he is very private. His circle of intimates--Amanda Harlech, a smart, beautiful British aristocrat; Nicole Wisniak, editor of Egoïste; the actress Amira Casar; Slimane, among others--is discreet, and he does not engage in any high-profile nightlife.

Coco Chanel died long ago, and the name Chanel, gloriously dominant in fashion and fragrance before World War II and reborn afterward to define post-war elegance, had dimmed to near irrelevance by the '70s. In 1983, Lagerfeld--once a haute couture teenage wonder who'd matured to bring an ethereal touch to Chloe, transformed Fendi into a full-fledged couture house and restlessly freelanced for Kirzia, Valentino and Charles Jourdan--became the artistic director of Chanel. He promptly began fulfilling what he made to seem Chanel's destiny. He revived it overnight with a collection that wore the past like a witty accessory on a magically chic modernity. With more talent and intelligence than back up most houses bearing their designer's own name, Lagerfeld channeled Chanel and built a global brand of instant recognizability and enormous power.

The number of mutually reinforcing ways in which resurrecting the house of Chanel was the perfect assignment for Karl Lagerfeld is so great that his success and longevity feel inevitable. On the most concrete level, Chanel was (and is) privately owned by the Wertheimer brothers, who put their trust in Lagerfeld with a firmness no group of stockholders would ever have granted. They gave him creative freedom unburdened by the obligation to deal with the business side of Chanel, the operational details he has said many times he detests as "boring." Right at the beginning of his association with Chanel he was quick to point out that the label was the only one in the world with components so identifiable that they constituted a global brand. The famous suits, the distinctive costume jewelry, the camellias--it was as if Coco Chanel had invented an entire array of logos. One needed only to put them in a new context.

The fashion press regularly marvels at the mystery of how Lagerfeld remixes the signature elements of the Chanel look--the multi-colored tweeds, the chain belt, the contrasting black and white, etc.--into collection after collection that manages to define the present moment but cannot itself be defined by the age or culture of the wearers. When Lagerfeld isolated the signature elements of "Chanel," he was really making judgments about what in Coco's oeuvre was classic and what was not. For example, the longer hemlines? A lesser variation. The braided trim? Classic. In his first collection for Chanel, which vibrantly juxtaposed the classic boxy jackets with denim miniskirts, the fashion press and the world at large saw the future. Invention, irony, humor, balance and loveliness infused Lagerfeld's translations of Chanel's legacy into one forward-leaping collection after another from then on. The quilted bags became earrings and; pins; the crisscross pearl brooch was integrated into bracelets and belt buckles. Both screen legends and the younger generation of stars like Mischa Barton, Sofia Coppola, Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Amanda Peet and, most recently, Wimbledon champ Maria Sharapova, continue to be captivated by the Chanel look.

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