Photo: Jean-Baptiste Mondino.
The history of fashion is the history of longing. Nobody is born stylish. Everybody wants to be a little memorable, and some would like to be somebody else, or more like the self we see in the better part of our minds. It’s about one hundred years since fashion took its place alongside literature, painting and music as a way to look for the social essence of one’s era. Proust saw it happening, and, in ‘‘In Search of Lost Time,’’ Madame de Guermantes’s dresses are ‘‘not a casual decoration alterable at will, but a given, poetical reality like that of the weather, or the light peculiar to a certain hour of the day.’’ I tried to recall the passage as I waited for Karl Lagerfeld in his Paris apartment off the Boulevard St. Germain. It was just after 1 p.m., though there is something timeless about the room where he likes to take his lunch. It has blinds and something of an Art Deco ambiance in shades of gray, angular, with spotless glass and candle-scented air, a Jeff Koons sculpture erupting on the table, next to a beautiful drawing for the poster of the 1924 film ‘‘L’Inhumaine.’’
The room is all about the books, lying horizontally on towering shelves that go to the ceiling. Euripides’s ‘‘Electra.’’ Samuel Beckett’s letters. ‘‘A Companion to Arthurian Literature.’’ The poems of Cavafy. ‘‘Alice Faye: A Life Beyond the Silver Screen.’’ ‘‘My problem is I have no experience,’’ said Lagerfeld, who came into the room, shook my hand and dove, at my first mention of the name ‘‘Proust,’’ into the most florid and energetic conversation. ‘‘Because I don’t believe in experience.’’
‘‘You have no past?’’
‘‘Not as far as I remember. For other people, maybe. But personally I make no effort to remember. I like the language in Proust, but not the context. I could say something mean. It’s all — you know — the son of the concierge looking at society people. There was this woman who survived from that group. The wife of a banker, Madame Porgès. They had a huge hôtel particulier in front of the Plaza Athénée hotel, where LVMH is now. She died a hundred years after everyone else. She was not very chic, and people said, ‘She was the last person who could remember a world she was never part of.’ Some couture designer — to be kind I will not say his name — once said to me he liked Proust because Françoise Sagan coached him in the best passages.’’
I believe he is talking about Yves Saint Laurent. He paused. ‘‘There was a moment when designers draped in ermine would be reading Proust, or pretending to.’’
And so we began. Karl Lagerfeld loves only the present. He loves work and does eight collections a year for Chanel, as well as his work for Fendi and other companies. In conversational terms, he takes to the track like a prize racehorse, not only groomed, but leaping the fences and taking the corners with brio. Unlike most people in fashion, he actually likes questions, gaining on you one moment, falling back the next, but never resting on his laurels. I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone more fully native to their own conception of wonder. That’s to say: He lives out his own legend in every way he can think of, with every instinct he has, and in a world of stolid conventions, he has the courage to perpetuate a vision of something wonderful. He also has the intelligence not to take himself terribly seriously, laughing easily, sending up his own iconic status, and — God save us — actually thinking about the world he makes money from, instead of just feasting on its vanities. Lagerfeld is a man on top of his own greatest invention: himself. And believe it or not he has the talent and the good taste, after all these years, to continue finding the world mysterious, and to give himself wholeheartedly to its discovery. There’s nothing that doesn’t interest Lagerfeld, except perhaps death.
‘‘What does survival mean to you?’’ I asked.
‘‘Well, I’m a battlefield sort of person.’’
‘‘You like the fight?’’
‘‘Yes,’’ he said. ‘‘But not with intimates.’’
Nor does he take inventory of his past: ‘‘One day it will be over and I don’t care. As my mother used to say, ‘There is one God for everybody and all the religions are shops.’ ’’ His mother read constantly, he said. ‘‘I remember her being on the couch reading and telling other people what to do. ... I spent my childhood in the country and started reading even before going to school. There was nothing else in my life but sketching and reading.’’
As he picked at his lunch and sipped Diet Coke, I wondered if the only old-fashioned thing about Lagerfeld was his way of speaking. It is fabulous, both inward and outward at the same time, the actions of a man searching his thoughts and pouring out his learning. It’s not everyone who sees thoughts as action, but he does. Let me show you how he trips from one thing to the next. When I asked him about the 19th century, he only said, ‘‘We are spoiled. We have dry cleaners. They did not.’’ Then he talked about the Scottish philosopher David Hume. (‘‘I just found a book by him in a box of books that came to me from my parents.’’) Then quickly we moved to the case of the German novelist Günter Grass. At this point I saw how entertainingly Lagerfeld will give vent to his opinions. I told him I once did a public talk with Grass at the New York Public Library. Grass had just published a memoir that revealed his time spent as a young member of the Waffen-SS. ‘‘He left it too late,’’ Lagerfeld said without hesitation. ‘‘You can’t give moral lessons all your life and have that in your past. He was the most boring, lesson-giving writer, and everything was lost in fake political thoughts. Willy Brandt was clever enough not to give him a post. And — even worse — the sketching!’’ At this Lagerfeld let out a giant roar of disapproval. ‘‘Horrible! Like a mediocre German art student of the 1950s!’’ He went into a piece of gossip and quoted his friend, the late style journalist Ingrid Sischy (‘‘a genius’’) and then told me that before he knew that fashion could be a job he wanted to be a cartoonist.
He hates it when people talk to him about their illnesses. (‘‘I’m not a doctor!’’) And he thinks psychoanalysis is the enemy of creativity. ‘‘Analysis?’’ he said. ‘‘What for? To get back to normality? I don’t want to be normal.’’
‘‘Maybe that’s why you like silent movies,’’ I said. ‘‘Because you don’t like the talking cure.’’
‘‘Yes, the discovery of silent movies,’’ he said, ‘‘was much more important to me than discovering the talkies. To me they are images. Like illustrations. I remember when I was at school I saw the ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.’ I could not sleep for three weeks because I thought the strange marionette played by Conrad Veidt would come onto my balcony and then kill me the same way. I have stills from the making of the movie and the only surviving German poster of the opening. I bought it for a fortune.’’
Since 1954, when he won a prize from the International Wool Secretariat (judged by a panel that included Pierre Balmain and Hubert de Givenchy), Lagerfeld has been a master of his own choices. He never went to school for fashion, though early on he designed for the couture house Jean Patou. But it was not in couture that he made his name, rather as an irreplaceable styliste, a king of ready-to-wear long before it was the mainstay of the big fashion houses. He cultivated his mind and made his own prestige, becoming a personality in Paris fashion when he worked for Chloé. He was a lightning rod of 1970s sensibility, imbuing his designs with an essential sparkle and a Pop Art accessibility. The ultimate cultural magpie, Lagerfeld grew in fame, and has remained in orbit, as a freelance personality with a strong conception of himself that exists beyond the labels he represents. After 60 years of achievement, he appears more like a grand film director than a designer. He never sought to own the studio. He just wanted to imbue his work with unmistakable good form. And that is what he does. He has a director’s eye for detail, for story and allure, which makes him stand out, at the age of 82, as our premier idea of what a brilliant fashion designer can be.
‘‘Which directors do you love?’’
‘‘I love Erich von Stroheim’s movies. My favorite is ‘Foolish Wives.’ ’’
‘‘I came to know Marlene Dietrich when she was an old lady,’’ Lagerfeld said. ‘‘I introduced her to Helmut Newton. He told me he used to masturbate to her photographs.’’ He wanted to say more about silent films. ‘‘I was once talking to Paul Morrissey, who made the films with Andy Warhol. He said he loved silent film. But he knew nothing about the European ones, the Italian, the Swedish ones, the Danish ones. I have a Google brain.’’
‘‘You were in a film of Warhol’s, weren’t you? ‘L’Amour.’ ’’
‘‘Oh, yes,’’ he said. ‘‘It was the most childish moviemaking ever.’’v
‘‘But we were talking about actresses. You’ve always cared about them.’’
‘‘I had better do, the business I’m in.’’
Lagerfeld loves women but he has never fetishized them or sought muses. He’s an intellectual designer and tends to admire women not so much for their shape or how they look so much as for their way of being. They don’t always last in his affections, but he prefers human beings who let their imaginations run away with them — Inès de la Fressange, Amanda Harlech — and he allies strength to intelligence in a way that has made him sensitive to women who refuse stereotypes.
I asked him what was his ideal of the perfect woman today. He didn’t hesitate. ‘‘Julianne Moore,’’ he said.
‘‘I don’t know. I just think she’s great. Her whole life; the way she is in life. And Jessica Chastain — she’s great, too. Of the younger generation, I love Kristen Stewart. She is gifted. She looks tough but in fact she’s the nicest person in the world.’’
You can see from the way he talks about his mother that Lagerfeld is no stranger to strong women, and he still has them around him.