LONDON, United Kingdom — It feels like Karl Lagerfeld was always there. Long before he became a fixture in my professional landscape, I’d be reading about this or that in Andy Warhol’s Interview, and there would be Karl. I’d tear breathlessly to a rare screening of Warhol’s “L’Amour” and there was Karl again, playing “Karl” a fashion designer. (Method acting par excellence.) I’d be flicking through an interiors mag and find his extraordinary apartment in Monte Carlo, ceiling to floor Memphis, with the PoMo boxing ring in the living room. One of my favourite shoots from Vogue Paris: Guy Bourdin’s highwaywoman fantasia, a rapier piercing the breast of a Chloe-clad damsel, a single trickle of red on Karl’s white lace (at least this is what I remember). Then there was the portrait in Helmut Newton’s “White Women,” Karl sprawled on a bed in Saint Tropez, muscling his way out of a black maillot. “Who’s this sexy beast?” I wondered.
Years and years passed. Continents shifted, planets realigned. Karl was at Chanel. I was making a TV show for the CBC in Toronto. In our first interview, he called me “Canada,” and would continue to do so for a very long time, way after Toronto was a shadow in my rearview mirror. That interview was the first of so many. I crunched the numbers once: 30 years, two Chanel ready-to-wears a year, two couture shows, two or three Fendis, a mishmash of his eponymous labels for men and women, a handful of pre-collections, special presentations and magazine assignments… I feel like I’m bordering on 250 conversations. I have close friends I haven’t talked to that often! And in those circumstances, it would be perverse not to build some kind of bond. Music, books, movies, always history, lately politics… He was a medium for all kinds of culture, the highest, the latest, the lowest. I have never met another living soul for whom age was so truly nothing but a number.
You remember the odd little details: the time I turned up to talk and we were both wearing EXACTLY the same outfit by Japanese designer Matsuda; the time the newly skinny Karl patted my oldly plumptious belly, fixed me with a beady stare (I imagined it thus behind his shades) and said, “Willpower!”; the time I ran into him in Gaglignani’s and he signed his latest limited edition for me (he paid for it too — maybe that particular encounter makes more sense if you knew that he knew how much I love books. Even better when they’re signed first editions.) And the faxes! Long after the planet had converted to other modes of communication, I have a vestigial memory of faxes from Karl, spilling onto marble floors in the dead of night.
With both of us, our hearing grew a little impaired over time, so our exchanges became a little more abstract. Somehow, that never mattered. Karl talked, I listened. I talked, he listened. We commented on what we thought each other had said. It worked because I always came away feeling like I’d learned something. My grandmother taught me how to use a telescope. It really matters when you can pass things on. That’s what Karl was always doing, for the callow cub reporter “Canada” in his interviews, for the whole industry in the prodigious legacy he leaves behind. It goes without saying there’ll never be anyone else like him. Sometimes it felt like he would live forever. Maybe he still will. That would be the kind of twist I think he’d enjoy.