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Karl Lagerfeld, His Spirit Is Everywhere

The designer beamed the salons of 18th century France into the modern world of image culture, becoming a guru to all of the great names in fashion. Despite his death, his spirit is everywhere, writes French fashion commentator Laurence Benaïm.
Karl Lagerfeld | Source: Courtesy
  • Laurence Benaïm

Pour lire cet article en français cliquez ici.

PARIS, France — "I'm a sort of fashion nymphomaniac who never has an orgasm," declared Karl Lagerfeld, the veteran baroque designer who died on February 19 at the age of 85, or so we are told — the designer was always highly secretive about his actual date of birth. His true forte was less about having revolutionized fashion and clothes, and more about having changed the fashion system.

Indeed, of all the silhouettes the man designed, the one that stands out most is his own. Karl Lagerfeld gave fashion a shot of Botox as it began to see itself as young, rich, logotyped and famous. He was not only the inventor of his own puppet, but also the programmer and set designer, at once exposed and invisible; it was he who pulled the strings, the friend and influencer of the great names in luxury, a guru to them all.

He was a Rasputin of frivolity, a Warhol of seams who would certainly have been one of the favourites of Madame du Deffand, proving like the lady herself that "for people who think, there are no foreign languages." The correspondence left by this lady of letters was full of small talk, royal court gossip and portraits of the rich and famous. Karl Lagerfeld beamed the salons of 18th century France into a modern world of images, audience, followers and media metrics. With him fashion turned fluid, a smooth-flowing liquid, an unstable toroid filled with air, very much in the mood of the times.

The Sun King of Fashion

Karl Lagerfeld died before the transformation of the Grand Palais, planned for 2020 to 2023. Built for the Universal Exhibition of 1900 and dedicated "by the Republic to the glory of French art," this historic monument where Lagerfeld staged his mega-scale Chanel shows was for the designer the agora of transformist luxury, a cavern of relentless metamorphosis since 2005. With Karl Lagerfeld, the reality of fashion clearly expanded into virtual reality in the sense already understood by French poet and essayist Antonin Artaud in his "le Théâtre et son double" in 1938: "When I live I don't feel myself living. But when I play, then I feel I'm existing."

Dazzling the people was the best way to keep them at bay.

For Karl Lagerfeld, fashion was something of a layer-cake, with each flaky stratum, from runways to imagery, set in a sort of global garden of Eden, totally Instagrammable and as disincarnate as his relationship with human flesh could possibly be. Never the slightest décolletage, allusive slits or teasing gimmicks. With Karl every silhouette was about lines rather than curves — Claudia Schiffer was the one exception — like the pink asteroid in the Chanel galaxy. With Karl Lagerfeld, seduction was about dry points and watercolours, stemming directly from his love of the 17th and 18th centuries, that he reproduced over and over in his own lightweight and remastered way.

For him, the Sun King's château was "the material illustration of fairy tales, a world that once existed but now only speaks to our imagination." Panier skirts, shades of porcelain, French gardens with flowerbeds embroidered with boxwood. No other designer ever explored Versailles so closely, braving the taboos of the politically correct French establishment rife with chauvinistic egalitarianism. "Dazzling the people was the best way to keep them at bay," he once whispered in 2008. Would he have said the same thing 10 years on?

Chanel, His Ultimate Court

With him, the ultimate royal court was N° 31 rue Cambon, where on the sidelines of each runway this purveyor-cum-king would entertain journalists, courtisans and friends. Karl Lagerfeld was a hive of references that even the French themselves had forgotten — he could draw Lucienne Boyer and recommend you read the diary of Mireille Havet — stretching beyond the borders of France and establishing himself as a true European as understood by Stefan Zweig: "A large part of our enchantment, of our aspiration toward the Beyond — the best part of our being — all this hallowed thirst is something we owe to the salt from books that prompt us to find water in the ever-cool fountain of human experience."

Contrarily, Karl Lagerfeld preferred salt to water, immortalizing his persona and preserving it for longer during his lifetime, presumably with the anti-bacterial and anti-fungal techniques of salt-workers. He would stare at you, but you would never see his eyes, always hidden behind dark glasses. His protection and bakelite armour.

And yet his human presence was clear in the famous Lagerfeld clan, and in the studios and workshops of Fendi and Chanel: an extraordinary know-how marked by outperformance, absolute exactingness, a sense of discipline transmitted through the sole authority of the man's aura, the power to lead his troops to the very last, present here and there ten days before his death because the only role he was able to play was his own. And because he was a designer in every breath he took.

Coco Chanel liberated women, Karl Lagerfeld liberated words.

So, this was Karl, Kaiser Karl, as finely cut as an Infinite Visa card, no body and no contact, obsessed with the idea of being a "good clothes-hanger." One that was perched above the in-fighting and rivalries, a multi-armed mentor, digitalizing his legend on the altar of the here and now. He ruled out any form of homage or funeral ceremony, preferring cremation to burial. "I'd rather die than be buried," quipped this blister-wrapped packager of luxury.

The sway he held lies with his words, his wit. A silver sharp intelligence, a cult of derision on a par with his love for beauty. His unique way of going to look for a sculpture to suggest the right pose for Anna Mouglalis, of growing on his own surrounded by an absolute instinct of survival. Survival by magnifying his image, his collections of furniture, his homes that he sold one after the other. Alongside the man himself, survival was doubtless his greatest masterpiece.

Yves Saint Laurent, The Eternal Rival

Yves Saint Laurent found definition through his style. Research pertaining to the body, to movement, to the enhancement of a personality in a garment. Karl the talented mercenary could point to any number of collaborations, from Chloé to Fendi and then to Chanel, and he was able to unwind the thread of his own existence in perpetual motion. All those images posted on Instagram, with his monocle, his fan and a body struggling against an expanding waistline reveal his addiction to image.

He was maybe loose with words, but his vision of the body was tight. As evidence, look at the round-necks, the castle overcoats, square shoulders and boat décolletages, graphics that even involved correspondence with Le Corbusier and Courrèges, and a pyrotechnic style of beauty that Gabrielle Chanel herself actually rejected. For a while, he built his persona by escaping from himself, an exfiltration from his own body to slip inside that of another.

That other was Yves Saint Laurent, his equal and rival at the Concours du Secrétariat de la Laine award (1954), whose shapes were redesigned 50 years later in slim mode by alter ego Hedi Slimane. Where Yves Saint Laurent the lion staged himself as a drama queen, the more mercurial Karl Lagerfeld became a computer hard drive. Yves Saint Laurent, who said his work was all self-sacrifice, had a life. He would talk about sex, flesh, sensations.

I'm a sort of fashion nymphomaniac who never has an orgasm.

Karl Lagerfeld dismembered his life into acts, into periods to the point of being labelled "a Picasso with scissors." He had to wait until 1983, when he joined Chanel, and especially 2005 with the start-up of his runways and the associated media hype at the Grand Palais, to win the place left vacant by the man who was always top of class just ahead of him. Yves Saint Laurent quit the fashion scene in 2002 and died in 2008. As it happens, this was maybe something foretold in 1954 by a psychic with the words: "It starts when it ends for the others."

But you cannot look at Karl Lagerfeld only through a perspective of revenge, of a fast-moving race that he turned into a principle, and of course the very military-style refusal to feel sorry for himself, as if to drive away the shadows and demons that stuck to his skin. Karl tattooed his day and age with logos, glorified bling-bling with accessories and gave counterfeiters their moment of glory. With him, the craft of couturier broadened to encompass that of art director, his shock regime coincided with the hypertrophy of egos that was just waiting to happen, and then the advent of AbFab fashion.

This was doubtless a screen behind which was hiding a man who could be as fair, generous and loyal as he could be sharp and cutting. He once said that "the most important object in any room is the rubbish-bin." It took Karl Lagerfeld just one look to successfully restore the cachet of the Ritz hotel, to create moments of extreme sophistication, because the past held no fears for him. He felt very close to historical periods, he knew how to shake them up and shake them down, he would recycle and absorb in a single take, cannibalize without a second thought because he knew them all so well with a vision akin more to a mentalist than an archivist.

A Marathon Dandy

"I will never write my memoirs because I have nothing to say," he once said. "I want to be like an apparition, appearing and disappearing." He insisted that he did not remember anything but actually recalled everything with razor-edge rancour. "My thing is to burn everything and start over from scratch." Really? He who travelled with an impressive number of trunks for just a few days, who had become the most immaterial passenger in the history of fashion?

A man who was as incarnate in the collective mindset — like the Lacoste alligator that he used as a comparison — as he was elusive, a marathon dandy with hands weighed down by silver rings. A man who was running inside his head and would keep others waiting for hours. At once the centre of a crowd and withdrawn, prolix and silent, zapper and reader, and compulsively hooked not only on books (he had a collection of 300,000 books and said he could read forty at a time) but also on the permanent reinitialization of his childhood. Karl year 0, forever new, simply forever.

This explorer of memory would find the essence of who he was in paradoxes. "My greatest luxury," he would say, "is never having to justify myself to anyone." Yet this is what he did all the time. One observer commented: "Coco Chanel liberated women, Karl Lagerfeld liberated words. He waged a creative war as much with words as with shapes. His most extraordinary collections coincided with periods when he was in the shadows. In the light, he became a pure image, forced to change sets, because the garments themselves did not change."

For more than 60 years, Kaiser Karl mastered and polished the glitter of fabrics and materials, making them into works of art and exceptional wardrobes.

Unfair or clear insight? It's anything but clear. "What I find amusing is what I never did," said Karl Lagerfeld. His death plunged the world of fashion into a sort of torpor, laced with invective and a settling of scores on Instagram. Jameela Jamil, the British actress and TV host, considered him to be a "ruthless, fat-phobic misogynist." A streak of venom amidst a flood of tributes, from Cara Delevingne to French President Emmanuel Macron, who saw the man as an "aesthete" and an "icon" who "helped to define French style and elegance," and "carried European sensitivity to the highest level."

As for Jack Lang, one-time French minister for culture, Lagerfeld was "hyperactive, a genius and gifted… the Citizen Kane of Fashion." He went on: "the demiurge of haute couture will no longer amaze us with his majesty, his creative extravagance or his sublime Hollywood-style shows. For more than 60 years, Kaiser Karl mastered and polished the glitter of fabrics and materials, making them into works of art and exceptional wardrobes. Always avant-garde and a perfect reflection of his day and age, he made and unmade fashion, he imposed codes…."

In Paris, if there is one particular place where the man's passing will be sorely missed, it will be the Galignani bookstore, where he was the most important customer despite being the owner of another book-store (7L). You might say that an ill wind came along and blew away this absolute love of books, orphaning all those left behind. A "mentor" and "guiding light" for Silvia Venturini Fendi, Karl Lagerfeld in his lifetime had become an animated character, his own mask and his own avatar.

His passing has left fashion like a game console without the stereo headphones, a computer without a keyboard, an iPhone without 4G. Karl invented a system of communication where he alone was the access-provider and the transmitter of the finest system of high-speed wireless social networks. A label in his own right, concealing of course the original brand's own lack of success. He has left many rich women shorn of their bearings, suddenly confronted with their real age, with the fact that real old-age is "not to age and to want to stay young at any price." Thank you, Oscar Wilde.

Karl Lagerfeld remains the sorcerer's apprentice to memory. A memory to which he is the heir, the absolute encyclopedist, one of the greatest book collectors in the world and at the same time the dissipator. The guardian of a know-how with the Métiers d'Art de Chanel, the Archives de Pantin (where he never set foot), and the "king of the iPod," at once there and not there: "I've been around for so long that prehistoric folk cannot keep up."

After the Chanel rocket, the 45-meter Eiffel Tower, a fully reconstructed forest, a French garden and a giant iceberg, it feels like all the sets are collapsing, that all of fashion is melting away, leaving us alone with cardboard structures. Karl Lagerfeld was a decorator more than an architect, styling locations the way he styled tweed jackets. Here we are on the escalator of formulas and condolences: a sort of gigantic weightless echo chamber, a cloud of bubbles, memories going up in smoke, a ghost ship full of ribbons, mink coats with FF prints or camellias, an XL theatre stage that Karl Lagerfeld could have taken and used for his final set at the Grand Palais, if he had not already imagined it, for a show clouded in the aura of the apocalypse.

His passing leaves us alone with a phantom in black and white, whose powdered pony-tail is a wig, the body a sort of illusion like in a sci-fi movie, dissolving in a hologram. Karl Lagerfeld still surfs on the surface of a digital age, he is everybody's and nobody's. You feel like you want to grab him and get him to come clean. He gave us the feeling that he was larger than life, bigger than death. Immortal.

Most of the quotations here are taken from the book "Le monde selon Karl", Flammarion, 2013.

This article has been translated. To read it in French, please click here.

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