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How an Investigative Journalist Ended up Writing a Karl Lagerfeld Biography

Ahead of Thursday’s much-anticipated Karl Lagerfeld memorial in Paris, Le Monde’s Raphaëlle Bacqué shares the challenging reporting and research process behind her new book, 'Kaiser Karl'.
Karl Lagerfeld | Source: Courtesy
By
  • Laure Guilbault

PARIS, France — In the opening scene of "Kaiser Karl," the new biography of the legendary designer, his February funeral at the Mont Valérien crematorium outside of Paris is described as "grim."

Thursday’s tribute under the glass roof of the Grand Palais will likely be more celebratory, with some 2,000 guests from the worlds of film, fashion, music and more expected to attend.

“It's strange a house makes two attempts to celebrate the legacy of its designer,” said investigative journalist Raphaëlle Bacqué, who is more experienced in political power circles than the fashion world. She is best known for her books on former French President Jacques Chirac, former Head of IMF Dominique Strauss-Kahn and more recently she co-wrote “La Communauté”, on Trappes, a Paris suburb that counts many jihad applicants. She also recently wrote a long piece on the behind-the-scenes of Brexit.

But the Le Monde writer, whose Lagerfeld biography was published on June 7 in France by Albin Michel, began her reportage on Lagerfeld much like any other story. While visiting China, she saw a farmhand wearing a pin with Lagerfeld's iconic silhouette, inspiring her to write a series of six articles on the designer, who was best known for his work as the creative director of Chanel.

In October 2017, before starting on the series, she put in a request for an interview. Ten months later in July 2018, she sat down with the designer. He arrived two hours late for their interview, but spoke with her for three hours. The first article was published a month later.

“What struck me is that he took off his sunglasses and said, ‘You see, I am showing you what nobody else sees.’ It was that mix of seduction and intimidation,” she recalled. “As soon as I touched on sensitive subjects — his childhood and succession — the conversation stalled.”

Ancillary reporting wasn’t any easier. “Lagerfeld has had almost complete control over what was written about him,” said Bacqué. “He reigned over the luxury industry for five decades and no biography has appeared: neither in French, nor English, nor German.”

With Lagerfeld, as with all those who are powerful, she quickly realised that some people associated with him were reluctant to speak or had soothing comments when he was alive. It was only after his death that she was able to further investigate.

Bacqué eventually spoke with several of Lagerfeld's confidants, colleagues and employers, including members of the Arnault family, which, through French conglomerate LVMH, owns Fendi, where he led women's design for over 50 years. She also connected with Caroline of Monaco, Chanel President Bruno Pavlovsky, perfumer Jacques Polge, Inès de la Fressange, bodyguard Sébastien Jondeau and Kering Founder François Pinault. She also met with the team that succeeded him: co-creative directors Virginie Viard and Eric Pfrunder.

Lagerfeld has had almost complete control over what was written about him

The book is light on heady scandal, but it does examine the reasons behind his feud with De la Fressange — something to do with a bust of Marianne designed in her likeness — and examined his often ruthless icing out of old friends. “Antonio Lopez, Anna Piaggi, Inès de la Fressange…'I bleach my past,’ he would sometimes say,” she wrote.

While Bacqué was able to break through on many accounts, the secretive Werthheimer family, longtime owners of Chanel who rarely give interviews, denied her requests. (It was through Eliane Heilbronn — mother of brothers Alain and Gerard Werthheimer — that Lagerfeld was given a lifetime contract with Chanel. Heilbronn, a lawyer, drafted the document.)

“While the person who is most often in contact with them is probably the trainer of their horses, Karl had a good relationship with them,” Bacqué said of the Werthheimers, who are also known, albeit secondarily, for breeding racehorses.

Bacqué also delved into the way Lagerfeld operated within the fashion community, building Chanel from a dusty Parisian couturier into a global luxury powerhouse that generated more than $11 billion in sales in 2018. In his 1982 contract, Bacqué said he negotiated a budget of $100,000 a year for what is now known as "seeding," so that he would be able to dress fashion editors and friends and send flowers any time Chanel held an event or a journalist wrote a favourable story.

It was also the couturier’s idea to invite journalists to styling sessions before each show. Sitting in the studio, a dozen or so of fashion’s top editors would observe the models alongside Lagerfeld, offering him their feedback. He rarely — if ever — took their advice, but he understood that offering them a window into his world would make them feel special.

Overall, Bacqué was impressed by Lagerfeld’s “way of building his career path with incredible discipline,” noting that he has “set up” Viard — who leads design alongside image director Pfrunder — to succeed.

“She's introverted, very discreet, but has grown professionally under his protection,” she said. “In a way, she is the opposite of him, but can an emperor choose someone who can surpass him as his successor?”

Bacqué predicted that tonight’s ceremony will have the same sense of spectacle of Lagerfeld’s famous Chanel shows. Even unflappable, unflinching reporters can be charmed — to a point.

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