Behind The Pony Tail: Remembering The Legacy of Karl Lagerfeld

Lagerfeld's signature pony tail.

Lagerfeld's signature hairdo at the 2008 launch party for his book "Metamorphoses of an American." (Photo: Joe Corrigan/Getty Images"

Few embody the words fashion icon quite as wholly as designer Karl Lagerfeld, who died today in Paris at 85. We were thrilled to feature Karl Lagerfeld on our  September 2015 cover, as he epitomized the Zoomer philosophy of staying engaged and relevant to the end. 

The fashion world is abuzz with Karl Lagerfeld’s Chanel Ready-To-Wear Spring 2016 collection, presented in a Chanel-themed airport. The collection is already being hailed as a success, with Vogue saying that the, “array of products will most certainly fly off the racks at duty-free and in all cities where the house has boutiques. ”

Here, we look at the genius that is Karl Lagerfeld, from his beginnings as a designer, to the fashion legend he became.

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Lagerfeld with Marisa Berenson in 1965. Photo: Jack Nisberg/Roger Violette/The Image Works
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At the fall 2015 Chanel couture shoe with Kendall Jenner. Photo: Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images

1965 Paris. Karl Lagerfeld stands with Marisa Berenson, a Zelig of the Zeitgeist at the time. The designer, then quite tender, sports a thick, black beard that wouldn’t be out of step in the juice bars of 21st-century hipsterville. He is in a tux. She is holding flowers, looks sufficiently coquettish. The synergy is palpable; he the designer still in the throes of ascent, and she – the gal Elle would soon crown “the most beautiful girl in the world” – showing a genius for popping up at precisely the right place at the right time. Berenson. Berenson. The actress, the granddaughter of the legendary couturier Elsa Schiaperelli, just then coming into her own, had been taught to dance by Gene Kelly and groomed by the one and only Diana Vreeland.

Photo: Karl Lagerfeld

2015 New York City. Karl Lagerfeld rides the Hudson in a boat fit for a king and full of nubile young things, including his most recent crush, Kendall Jenner. Groomed by the one and only Kris Jenner and taught to “selfie,” no doubt, by her older sis, Kim, Jenner’s own heist of the fashion spotlight had begun, in earnest, about a year before. On all the “lists” these days – including, of course, this nautical journey at dusk beneath the Statue of Liberty, helmed by Chanel – she’d come on board just weeks after shooting with its German-born grand master, who dubbed her – and we quote – “great and modern and the girl of the moment.”

Really, now, who else could call it but him? “Karl” – as he’s known even by the fashion ignorami – collects muses the way Meryl Streep collects Oscar nominations. In much the way the old Hollywood system was in the business of manufacturing its own stars and promoting its ornate ideology, he’s been in the business of these proclamations for half a century. He both affixes and anoints – something even more remarkable in a world where top-down commandments are rare, and It Girls are their own broadcasters and broadsheets via their own social media networks. The “Kaiser” – as he is also often known – has been around so long and done so much that one almost forgets – primarily because he’s never been discussed in the past sense. He lives in the hyper-present.

The designer at age 21, with Yves Saint Laurent, then 18, at a fashion competition in 1954 where they both won awards
The designer at age 21, with Yves Saint Laurent, then 18, at a fashion competition in 1954 where they both won awards.

“I hate nostalgia,” he happened to tell me, as if on cue, when he sat down with me recently in Toronto. “But I hate boredom more.” Making his acquaintance – the very night after his out-to-sea jaunt with Jenner, as it happens – it couldn’t help but hit home: at 80-something and still doing a combined 17 collections a year, here goes a man whose contemporaries are either dead (Yves St Laurent, with whom he was frenemies and giddily ran around Paris in the ’60s, passed almost a decade back), retired (Valentino is a mainstay at parties these days but hardly the catwalks) or effectively disappeared (that once-great enfant terrible, Paco Rabanne, faded from view eons ago).

Demonstrating both a healthy ego and a customary archness, he also said this to me about his trajectory: “Maybe I am one of the most famous Germans in the world. Angela [Merkel] and me … but I doubt if she will last as long as me.”

Striking a pose in 1984
Striking a pose in 1984

The legend had landed in Canada – his first time, it turns out – for a party in his honour at the Art Shoppe Lofts + Condos, rising on the country’s longest artery, Yonge Street. Lured by Freed Developments and CD Capital Developments – Peter Freed, who’d commissioned the project citing the designer’s “distinctly ultramodern, highly structured style” – Lagerfeld is designing the lobby for the building, which hardly surprises the close Karl-watcher. Knowing the kind of polymath he is – he has everything from bottles of Coke to cars for Volkswagen on his design CV – pourquoi pas a building in Toronto if it captures his fancy?

Watching him arrive at the un-small shindig – now, that was a trip. Young ladies whose grandmas were young ladies when Karl was starting his career threw handbags at him to sign. Phones waved high and in unison, like lighters once did at a Doors concert. There was much nudging and ample ambling, the room moving with the icon as he walked through it. Like something out of a Henry James novel, he has that antiquated quality we call “carriage” – or, perhaps, we were just projecting that onto him? That’s the confusing thing about icons, after all. Dressed in the highly memorable personal style that resembles the Big Bad Wolf, his enormous glamour, I decided, sprung from a tension between energy, structure and lore. It was physics in action.

Black sunglasses. Fingerless gloves. Priestly high collar. The silver chains. Ponytail! I clocked it all when rendezvousing one-on-one with the man later. His views on organized religion, his contempt for all hot beverages, his dream life and his cat, Choupette: just some of the topics we covered. And while he was a journo’s dream to talk to – he talks non-stop, in his elliptical way, full of irreverence and punchy punctuations – he confounded as much he revealed. Who really was the Kaiser? I decided to make some notes, trace some steps.

 

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Although Karl never met Coco Chanel, he’s been custodian of the legendary French designer’s legacy since taking over her atelier in 1983. More than a decade after Coco’s death, the brand had lost much of its cachet, and Karl set about reviving it, making it his business to know everything about Coco, using her life as signposts and riffing on all that she represented, season after season. Today, some see him as much a historian as he is designer, as demonstrated by a recent Métiers d’Art show, dubbed the Paris-Salzburg Collection. Using a 1922 letter to French artist Jean Cocteau as a start-off point – one in which Coco mentioned a trip to the Austrian Alps – Karl contends that the famous Chanel jacket came to her then, inspired by an elevator boy’s uniform in a hotel where she was staying. Truth or fantasy? Either way, it made for a sensational collection. And one takeaway from his arc: the stick-to-it–ness of Karl shows how the steward can eventually be the show. A reason why he’s as famous today as the very interlocking Cs that make up Chanel.

Karl as Philosopher King

Where some designers will indubitably let their clothes do the talking, Karl is nothing if not ready to opine with machine-gun speed – a talent that makes him an almost-perfect species for our insta-media age. His pensées run the gamut: “Sweatpants are a sign of defeat. You lost control of your life so you bought some sweatpants.” “People in magazines are 50 per cent bimbo and 50 per cent pregnant women.” “Trendy is the last stage before tacky.” “Think pink but don’t wear it.” In this vein, he spouts to me today, “Selfies are distortions. People look like monsters in them.” Indeed, how many contemporary designers can boast having had a compendium of their thoughts put together in book form? Answer: one. The World According to Karl came out in 2013. This image of Karl is bolstered by the fact he is a known bibliophile, with his own bookstore in Paris and his own imprint. Indeed, there was some philosopher-on-philosopher action when, some years back, he put out the works of Nietzsche. Asked around that time about the project, he said, “I’m publishing 12 volumes because somebody sent me them. They found them in the middle of nowhere. It’s all his work, with his personal remarks written in the margins and on the sleeve. But he’s not my favourite. My favourite is Spinoza. Bon.”

Always a bibliophile, the designer in 1972
Always a bibliophile, the designer in 1972

Renowned fashion editor Kate Betts, who was editor of Harper’s Bazaar and worked as a senior editor at Vogue and is the author of the best-selling memoir, My Paris Dream, sizes up the man this way: “Karl works incredibly hard, but his secret, I think, is that he is so smart. He is an intellectual. He can talk to anybody about anything. That is an unusual talent. And to be that clever in the fashion business – on top of his great talent for design and his work ethic – is a triple threat.”

Karl the Manic Multi-Tasker

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When I asked Karl if he ever goes on vacation, he said to me, “What for?” Certainly, if the man has a raison d’être at all it is to let the rest of us feel like slackers. How does he do it? That remains one of the most asked questions about the icon. With a range unparalleled, he continues – in the winter of his life – to put out collections, year in and year out, for three different brands. Chanel, of course – with its various calibrations of couture, ready-to-wear and cruise. But also his own namesake collection. And, finally, Fendi, that being the brand he’s celebrating 50 years of business with this year. Of course, he not only designs but, being an avid photographer, shoots many of his own advertising campaigns as well as writes editorials and even designs his shops. Extracurricular activities abound. He designs fountains pens. And the insides of VIP helicopters. And short films for Magnum. And luxury hotel suites – like at The Crillon. If he were anyone else, he’d be more regularly accused of spreading himself too thin … but because he’s Karl, nothing less is expected. Karl will be Karl. And it’s one of the reasons the octogenarian remains relevant to new generations. With mainstream incursions like the H&M collaborations he did in 2004 – he was the first boldface designer to do so – and the über-hit that he created with the Fendi monster keychain with him as an iteration – he’s ridden the see-saw of high-and-low masterfully. “When I was a child,” he explained, “I didn’t know you could make a living out of fashion. I had no plans but was always ready for the unexpected. All these things are really interesting. I’m interested in interior design. I’m interested in fashion. I’m interested in books. As a child, I never played with children.”

Karl as Epic Self-Invention

In New York with his godson Hudson in 2013
In New York with his godson Hudson in 2013

We can’t imagine Karl as a father, in much the same way we can’t imagine Karl as a child. At this juncture, he seems to have come fully formed out of an egg, in Mork fashion. Accused of embroidering his life history on more than one occasion, his life of early nobility is challenged most notably in the biography The Beautiful Fall, by accounts of an upbringing in Germany that was “flat and colourless,” a mother who was a hausfrau who sold ladies underwear and a nadir in fortunes so low during the Second World War that the “Lagerfeld family had just two pieces of bread left to eat, one for Karl and the other for his sister.” These days, counting only his steady entourage of male models, like Brad Keoing and his son, Lagerfeld’s godson, as kin, he recently told the New York Times Magazine, “I have no family at all, so it’s good to have, like, sons but without the unpleasant problems sons can create.” In the same interview, he mentioned that he has a sister (with children and grandchildren) in America – in Connecticut, it turns out – whom he hasn’t seen for 40 years. Shedding pounds in much the same way he’s shed his past, Karl also famously lost 93 pounds in 13 months about a decade back, recreating himself in the most dramatic of ways via a low-carb, low-fat, low-calorie regimen. Known for carrying a fan during his “Fat Years” – something, perhaps, to cloak the extra bulk – he dropped the accessory when he got skinny. Thus, in the canon of Karl, there is pre-fan and post-fan.

Karl the Fabulously Unabashed

Lagerfeld arriving for the debut screening of Chanel's No5 Film by Baz Luhrman in 2014
Lagerfeld arriving for the debut screening of Chanel’s No5 Film by Baz Luhrman in 2014

In an age when the jet set is not what it used to be and even the Windsor royals aspire to be more relatable and “of the people,” the Kaiser carries on with a kind of let-them-eat-cake panache. As does his white Birman cat, who has become a pet of much renown of late and is a potent symbol all her own. Having conquered all media – complete with her own Twitter account – Choupette was with Karl when we met. She’d come with her full-time nanny, he told me, going on to confirm that the feline earned some three million euros last year, chiefly for appearing in commercials for cars and beauty products. Choupette could make more, he said, but “she won’t do food commercials.” If Karl didn’t exist, we’d have to invent him … wouldn’t we?

Looking back, one thing echoes from our meeting in Toronto. Though I’d initially been concerned about how I might strike a rapport, in an interview setting, without making eye contact – given that he wears such dark sunglasses – I almost instantly forgot that he even had them on. He was that engaging, that vivid in the flesh.

Karl, the wizard. Karl, the virtuoso. He remains, as fashion journalist Robin Givhan once described, “fashion’s most elaborate invention: a myth that has swallowed the man.” And, moreover, ever the seismograph, continuing to register the latest tremors in the current of the moment – the newest trends, places to go, ways to look.