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Karl Lagerfeld

It is sometimes said that there are three different time zones: GMT, EST and KLT. The last is Karl Lagerfeld Time - you can always rely on him to be at least two hours late for any appointment. I had hoped this might be an exaggeration. It is not.

 

He had suggested meeting at four o'clock at his Paris studio above Chanel. The interview finally started nearly five hours later. Of course it is arrogant to expect the rest of the world to revolve around you like this, but it is a tribute to the man's charm that once you are in his company, you forget your irritation and become absorbed by his extraordinary personality.

 

When Lagerfeld eventually appears, he is buzzing with frustration about a last-minute hitch over the venue for his next show. His hair is scraped back into the trademark ponytail and he is wearing, as always, a pair of sunglasses and a baggy black Japanese suit. There is an air of good-humoured annoyance about him, if there is such a thing. He smiles and looks relaxed even as he grumbles.

 

He has spent the afternoon at his home - a vast 1705 hôtel particulier filled with beautiful 18th century artefacts - sketching an invitation to the Tate Gallery Centenary celebrations. They start on July 1 with a Gala evening, sponsored by Chanel. The Princess of Wales will be there, but Lagerfeld has just pulled out of the dinner. "I say I can either do social work or make collections, but l cannot do both."

 

Before we can talk, he has to pacify his staff who have been waiting for him to preside over a session of fittings. The in-house models parade into the room in half-made dresses and suits, while a dozen assistants and seamstresses fetch fabrics and pin hems. Lagerfeld, sitting in a red velvet chair, glances at his creations as they appear: ''Très jolie,” he murmurs, smiling at a tiered navy full-length evening gown. "Trop bizarre,” he says, frowning at a long fitted cream coat with little pockets just under the bust. With a flick of his wrist he begins sketching rapidly with a Pentel on the pad in front of him. A few deft strokes and the coat is transformed.

 

He draws constantly for two hours. It is like watching a cartoon character on fast forward. He completes each sketch in seconds and rips it off the pad, flinging it in the air as he begins on the next one. As one page flutters to the table or the floor, the next sketch is already airborne. His assistants rescue every scrap, carefully numbering and filing them.

 

Although he cannot sketch with his sunglasses on, they never leave his head for an instant. He uses one hand to lift them just the necessary fraction to see the page in front of him. Why don't you take them off? I ask him. He looks horrified. "Without glasses is worse than being naked. It is my portable eyeshadow.”

 

The glasses hide his age - 58 - as well as his expression. Do you want to be inscrutable? "I'm afraid I do," he says. "I am not a stripper." He grins broadly but I cannot see whether his eyes smile too.

 

Yet for someone inscrutable he is surprisingly open. When everyone else has finally left the room, he gives me his full attention. He talks at enormous speed in a slightly choked voice, stamped with a heavy German accent. He says he speaks very fast because as a child his mother always told him to finish quickly whatever he was telling her. "She would say: 'Quicker, quicker, your stories are so boring. You may be six years old, but I am not, so please make an effort.'"

 

Born in Germany at the beginning of the Second World War to a Swedish father, who ran a condensed milk business, and a German mother, he was, by his own account, a strange child. His parents were much older, both on their second marriages. "My parents were like my grandparents and I was very spoilt and horrible. I hated other children because they were boring and pretentious.”

 

Do you still see yourself as different from other people? "No," he starts, hesitantly, "but I must say I don't identify with other people either. As a child I thought I was unique."

 

Lagerfeld was very intelligent as a child and now, by all accounts, has a brilliant mind. He speaks five languages fluently and reads voraciously in all of them. He does not need much sleep, and has disciplined himself to rise before dawn every day to read art journals, biographies and history.

 

He recently had his library computerised and was shocked to find that he had 230,000 books spread among his homes in Monte Carlo, Rome, Brittany, Hamburg, Berlin and Paris. He also writes book reviews under pen-names and in the past few years has begun a new career as a photographer, even doing his own publicity shoots for Chanel.

 

He likes to be in command of every aspect of the business: "But I am not a control freak in the sense that I want to control for control's sake. I like things to be smooth and everyone to be happy - myself included.''

 

He tells a striking story against himself as a child. After the War, he was given six bicycles by relatives from different countries. No other child he knew had even one bicycle and his classmates would watch wistfully as he arrived on a different bicycle every day: "I allowed nobody else to touch them; they could make a little tour, perhaps, but only if they cleaned it for me. I still blush when I think of the way I behaved."

 

At the age of four he demanded a personal valet "because my nurse was too lazy to change my clothes twice a day". He cannot remember not being interested in what people wore. "I think I was interested in fashion before I even knew it was called fashion. I never went to fashion school, but I think I was born with a pencil in my hand."

 

He went to Paris at the age of 13, where he studied drawing and history. When he was 16, he won first prize for women's coat design in a competition in which Yves St Laurent came first in the dress section. Pierre Balmain, a top couturier, was so impressed that he made Lagerfeld an assistant and he was soon creating clothes for film stars.

 

Moving into freelance work, he became head designer at Chloe, where he worked on and off for more than 30 years, only recently resigning to be replaced by Stella McCartney. What does he think of yet another English infiltration of the Paris fashion houses? "It's just the fashion,” he says, smiling at his own wit.

 

Even without Chloe he is still designing for three companies: Fendi, the Italian furriers; Chanel, which he took over in 1982; and his own signature line, Karl Lagerfeld. I ask him why be established his own label after expressing such strong distaste for those who did so. In an interview in 1972, he dismissed such an idea as "egocentric and ill-founded as well as dangerous".

 

"I still think that's true. The idea of having my name over a shop is not something that really excites me." So why have it? '"Because it was difficult not to, but now I want to change that. I want to make Karl Lagerfeld into a photo-gallery and library and just sell a few clothes."

 

While waiting for Lagerfeld earlier, I had looked into his own-label boutique, a raspberry-coloured affair on rue St Honore. It was very different from the pretty frippery of Chanel. The clothes were hip and very expensive - nearly £1,000 for a suede dress, only marginally less for a zebra creation.

 

How does he manage to alternate between such different lines? He smiles mysteriously: "I'm more than one person, you know. I don't even have to think about it.''

 

I ask him whether his mission to maintain the spirit of Coco Chanel, who founded her first boutique in 1914, is something of a straitjacket. "lt is a jacket exactly tailored to me. I take the idea and then I do whatever I want with it.''

 

And yet there are those who say Coco - whose presence still hovers in the words Mademoiselle Privé on the door of the room where we talk - would be turning in her grave if she could see what he is doing. Yves St Laurent has said that he sometimes dreams that he is standing with her, looking into the window of her shop and mourning the ruin of her business.

 

Lagerfeld snorts scornfully. "All I can say is that [St Laurent's] things are the top of boredom. He has been doing all the same shit for the past 20 years.''

 

Despite his occasional cattiness Lagerfeld is not a difficult man to work for. Stella Tennant, who replaced Claudia Schiffer as his muse, says that he is far less alarming than his image suggests: "He is not really intimidating and always puts you at your ease. We often have to work past midnight at his house, but there are always several people around; we have a laugh and a couple of glasses of wine and a very good dinner at the end of it. He also does surprisingly thoughtful things; he knows that I am very interested in art so the other day when I arrived, he gave me a catalogue for an exhibition that he thought I might want to see.”

 

It is not just the top models who are on the receiving end of his kindness. While I am there, a new office secretary is brought in to meet him; he is frantically busy but rises to greet the blushing woman like a long-lost friend.

 

His pronouncements have an air of finality - it hardly occurs to you to disagree with him. "The idea of the supermodel is démodé. The new generation has another approach - people like Esther de Jong and Stella Tennant are more relaxed, much cooler."

 

But his image as a man of menace and mystery - a sort of monster/genius - is partly of his own making. "It's more fun to have a mean image than a sweet image because when people know me, they find out that I'm not that horrible. In fact I'm a boring, basic, down-to-earth person."

 

This is not true and he knows it; the giggle at the end gives him away. He is an enigma and likes to play with people's responses to him. "I like to give the impression of being superficial," he says at one point. Because it amuses you? "Exactly."

 

He professes not to care what people think of him; indeed, he says, he does not need people at all. His idea of a perfect weekend is to cocoon himself in one of his magnificent homes, and not even answer the telephone. 

 

It was not always thus. For 20 years he devoted himself to Jacques de Bascher, who died of an Aids-related illness in 1989. "It's a relationship that cannot be repeated and that I do not want to repeat - I want it to be unique. It was not a physical thing, it was something beyond that.”

 

He was devastated after Jacques' death and until recently found it hard to mention him without crying. Now he speaks more readily. "Two more opposite people do not exist. He was auto-destructive whereas I have a strong survival instinct."

 

Nowadays, he would rather read than waste time socialising. He has cancelled his dinner appointment tonight because he knew that the company would bore him. “I was not in the mood for those people with their holiday problems, their boat problems. Nothing scares me more than the small talk of people who do nothing.”

 

I ask him if he ever switches off or goes on holiday; it touches a nerve and he reveals a more human side. "It frightens me to switch off: I can never be carelessly happy because I always think that something horrible will happen. It is a very German thing to think and it ruins everything."

 

And so he is always relentlessly rushing forwards, never pausing too much for thought and adamantly refusing to dwell on the past or to preserve anything he has created. "I don't believe in anything that I've done, just in what I will do. I'm not faithful to my own past and I have not the slightest estime pour la mérite. I'm an opportunist, I like change. That's why fashion is OK for me.”


  

as published in The Sunday Telegraph, June 22, 1997

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