Fashion forward: With Lagerfeld, clothes were only part of the story
The fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, who died in 2019 at 85 (he would have claimed 80), was not known for any particular garments, the way his longtime rival Yves Saint Laurent was for the safari jacket or the Mondrian dress. Lagerfeld rather achieved mega-celebrity status by giving dramatic makeovers to two entities: the esteemed but for a time somewhat moribund house of Chanel, which he took over with a pow in 1983; and his own body.
Years before Ozempic consumed the moneyed class, Lagerfeld lost 90 pounds in 13 months with a strict diet and ballroom dancing, the better to fit into a new narrow suit silhouette by Hedi Slimane for Dior. “When he transformed himself, there was never any thought about what had come before,” Fran Lebowitz told William Middleton for his chewy new biography, “Paradise Now.” “It was like it no longer existed.” But though Chanel may be just one letter away from “Cancel,” very few of the many people Middleton interviewed, famous and not, have anything bad to say about its resurrector, whose absurdly expensive spectacles — 15 trucks of ice brought in from Sweden? An airline? A rocket ship? — became the exclamation points on Paris Fashion Week. His 2004 collection for H&M caused frenzy among the masses, one customer biting another in her determination to procure a cut-rate cashmere coat.
Lagerfeld was beloved by his workers; conducted his business and personal affairs with a machine-like efficiency; “could,” notes Middleton, author of a previous biography about the art collectors Dominique and John de Menil, “be something of a prude.” His only bad habit, maybe, was tardiness.
He’s a rich subject, in all senses of the word, but occupied an increasingly corporatised world that can make for stretches of arid reading. (“Life goals: unlocked!” the Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom excitedly captioned after posing with the designer.) About the only thing that sasses his authority, posthumously, is the spider that crawls out of a scrapbook Middleton is examining before it’s auctioned at Sotheby’s.
Still, in an industry hungry for daring, larger-than-life figures, Lagerfeld loomed, even with (especially with) his attenuated proportions. Karl was born in Hamburg, the mentally and physically well-nourished only son of a father who had prospered in the evaporated-milk business and a strict mother with a feminist bent. In manner she reminded one family friend, a princess, of an “ice pick,” but she impressed upon Karl the importance of languages and literature: Goethe, Eduard von Keyserling and the polymathic diplomat Count Harry Graf Kessler.
Lagerfeld was 16 when he saw the traveling show of Christian Dior’s revolutionarily lavish postwar New Look, and nearly 19 when he moved to Paris: indulging in cafes and cinema and prophetically attending Coco Chanel’s comeback collection in 1954. He took a few classes at an obscure school called the Cours Norero before entering a competition that would become known as the Woolmark Prize, winning first place in the coat category.
Saint Laurent, three years his junior — a brighter light that would flame out faster — won in the dress division. And the rest is hiss-story.
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