Karl Lagerfeld: The Dream Machine of Chanel

That Lagerfeld is the most well-versed artist in the design world means he has the broadest visual vocabulary. He is less in danger of becoming stale than just about anyone else. His reference points range from ancient Greek vases to the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment to classic French movies like Children of Paradise to contemporary Scandinavian and Dutch design. Since the very idea of producing anything "boring" is anathema to him, anything that lacks freshness of vision gets edited out of his work before other eyes can even see it.

The breadth of Lagerfeld's creativity becomes apparent when you compare what he designs for Chanel with what he designs for his own Lagerfeld Gallery. The play of black and white, which is so important to Chanel, is even more characteristic of Lagerfeld--but the way it's used is very different. With expressionist German cinema from the silent era looming large in his aesthetic, the designer uses contrasting tones to starker effect, and his austere, angular Lagerfeld silhouettes would never be mistaken for Chanel. His work for Fendi and for the new lower-cost line coming from the Swedish company H&M are no more likely to bring Chanel to mind.

Lagerfeld operates not so much as an individual with broad range, but as a broad-ranging person with a number of individual identities. "I like being a chameleon, being many persons at once," he has said. "When I sit at a desk at Chanel, I am Chanel. When I go to Rome and sit at Fendi, I am Fendi." As he told Larry King in a fascinating TV interview not long ago, "Maybe I have no personality at all. I can do whatever I want with myself. Chanel is an existing style and my job is to put that into today's life. So it's me and it's not me." That's saying something. And he has elsewhere wittily remarked, "I collaborate with myself."

The crucial center of gravity for Lagerfeld's multiple-personality brand of modernity--David Bowie and Madonna would be other examples of this protean impulse--is the powerful egotism to which Lagerfeld readily admits. But his ego has an honest, accountable bottom line--his work. He is always at work. Unparalyzed by the noise and volume of stimulation that afflict less "grownup" denizens of the 21st century, he is relentlessly productive. As a practical matter, he makes no distinction between his work and his enjoyment.

Where Lagerfeld's rich inner life began is, as far as he lets it be known, a fascinating tale by itself. In our strange era's appetite for biographical tidbits about the people we fix on, we seem surprisingly inattentive to the ultimate biographical material--a person's mother. But when we do know something of a prominent person's mother, our sense of that person rightly or wrongly gains a vividness that nothing else could lend. The woman who mothered Karl Lagerfeld was already in her forties when she had her son, and, as the cultured wife of a wealthy Scandinavian industrialist with an estate in Hamburg, Germany, was well-advanced in a kind of eccentricity that did not lend itself to coddling a child. She apparently told young Karl, who was by his own account precociously bright, that if he wanted bedtime stories he'd have to learn to read them himself. Moreover, she insisted that he deliver whatever he might have to say to her as quickly as possible--she did not pretend to find the apercus of a 6-year-old, prodigy or not, fascinating. For the most part, she left her son in a stimulating, art- and book-filled world of privilege to decorate his tabula rasa and by so doing become interesting to her and, presumably, the rest of the civilized world. She was willful, aristocratic, intellectual, multilingual, unerringly chic and staunchly unsentimental. (She neglected to mention Karl's father's funeral to her son when he was an adult, and she forbade him in writing from attending her own.) She was, it seems, the one person in Lagerfeld's life more eccentric than he.

To observe that it makes a certain narrative sense for the son of this woman to turn out to be uniquely equipped to negotiate with the ghost of the willful Coco Chanel and to transform the Chanel legacy with unsentimental intelligence into a contemporary fashion juggernaut would no doubt strike Lagerfeld, his mother and Coco Chanel as vulgar. None of them would disagree, though, that the enormous freedom of thought and imagination that Karl's mother permitted him by her un-smothering brand of parenting did, when matched to the structure of education and decorum she organized around him, result in a person of independent vision, productive discipline, creative complexity and unusual confidence. Or that those characteristics, mixed with an abiding fear of obsolescence, have made Chanel what it is today.

In a culture that encourages a prolonged state of childhood, Lagerfeld stands out as someone who has declared himself never to have wanted to be a child at all. At 14, he left j the family estate in Germany and went to Paris to study. A year later his sketches for a wool coat won an International Wool Secretariat's prize (a young Yves St. Laurent won in the dress category that same year). One of the judges, the designer Pierre Balmain, hired Lagerfeld. The teenager spent the next few years mastering dressmaking technique, then moved to the house of Patou. In a few short years, he was well-known enough to freelance when that sort of liberty was rare. In the '60s he spent a good deal of time in Italy studying art and developed a relationship with the Fendi sisters, for whom he became the designer, expanding their company from fur designs to include full collections. In the '70s he took over at Chloe, becoming world-renowned for giving that house a look that was distinctively feminine and lovely at a time when the combination of go-go trendiness and denim anti-fashion were gutting the thrall of couture. By the time Lagerfeld took over as artistic director of Chanel he had been a fashion designer for just short of 30 years.

Ultimately, Lagerfeld's own persona is his most original creation. It is, of course, a project always in development. A generalist in the age of the specialist, Lagerfeld makes particularly creative use of his affinity for the 18th century, the last era in which it was possible for an individual to aspire to comprehensive knowledge of the entire cutting edge of human endeavor. His personal debt to the Age of Enlightenment is evident: The powdered white hair. The encyclopedic self-education. The selective formality, in manners as well as design. The broad-ranging curiosity. The belief in the present ("I hate nothing more than my own past," he has stated. "I like today, and perhaps a little future"). The coupling of classicism and iconoclasm.

Even Lagerfeld's uncanny sensitivity to trends that carry the scent of tomorrow is akin to the 18th century's prophetic leaning toward the future. Lagerfeld is, in fact, an indefatigable student of the process of change and of the new. He has very recently turned on a personal dime and made dramatic life changes, dropping 90 pounds as well as dropping one art collection after another (his Deco and Memphis holdings along with a few houses went the way of the monumental 18th-century cache) and embracing a sleek, minimal aesthetic (in addition to the Hedi Slimane fashion silhouette, he favors the interior design look of the Dutch collective Droog and the inventive hologram lighting of Ingo Maurer).

The balancing of his vast interior libraries of images and information with his interest in everything new and original is a feat Lagerfeld himself doesn't pretend to understand, but the designer has offered telling insights. He told Larry King, for example, that he works even when he's dreaming: "I see like a show and most of the time I wake up and make the sketches," he explained. "Nobody believes it, but it happened, and my best work is done like this. I don't go to bed and say to myself, you have to have an idea. I don't even think about it, and that's very strange. Between 5 and 6 in the morning I see it. I see the set. I see the girls. I see the details with the shoes and all."

All of this makes Lagerfeld an exceedingly nimble designer whose age appears to be completely irrelevant, if not an asset. Well into his sixties, he remains compulsively curious about his world. He befriends young designers like Slimane, the Belgian Olivier Theyskens and the American Jeremy Scott, rather than looking over his shoulder at them. He embraces and/or appropriates the new, and he excels at the contemporary game of mixing high and low, having done that all along at Chanel as Coco herself did before him.

Fame is useful to Lagerfeld's work and to the wealth he likes to live in, and it oils the elaborate dream machine he thrives in. But the dream machine ultimately runs on private imagination, and fame is intrusive. Privacy seems nonnegotiable for Lagerfeld. So, while the name Chanel is drawing the spotlight, Lagerfeld the person can be off tangoing with Slimane, photographing Nicole Kidman, writing about Greek art or reviewing books for inclusion among the seven new titles he introduces every week at his shop 7L. Chanel is a roomy, invigorating identity he can inhabit at will, to the great benefit of Chanel and to his own broader collection of identities. In that, Lagerfeld is more of the 21st century than a young artist who has banished previous centuries from his thought and set out to invent the future from thin air.


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