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Karl Lagerfeld: Get to Know the Man Behind the Platinum Ponytail

Portrait of Karl Lagerfeld. Photographed by Benoit Peverelli. Courtesy of Fendi

Originally printed in the September 2017 issue of Vogue Arabia.

The rock’n’roll edge, the platinum hair tied in a ponytail, the sunglasses, the black and-white silhouette. Impeccable. You don’t need to be a fashion connoisseur to have heard of Karl Lagerfeld. In fact, Lagerfeld is one of fashion’s most recognizable figures; always at the top of his game in an industry known for its short expiration dates. Lagerfeld has been making waves in the world of design for more than half a century due to his knack for being ahead of the time, and his unmatched work ethic. After moving to Paris at the age of 14, he worked with Pierre Balmain and later had a stint at Chloé. However, it is at the helm of Fendi and Chanel, fashion houses that he joined in 1965 and 1983 respectively, that he garnered international fame. Today, between the French and Italian brands, and his own Karl Lagerfeld collection, he is responsible for hundreds of bestselling products each year. We met with the Kaiser (one of his many pet names) at his studio in Paris, where he led a team of stars, from hair maestro Sam McKnight to makeup artist Peter Philips, to photograph Vogue Arabia’s first September cover. The room was silent, and Lagerfeld commanded with confidence while Bella Hadid posed in looks from Fendi’s Fall 2017 collection. Evocative of a mysterious, cinematic diva furtively walking the streets of Rome, Hadid donned luxurious furs and a net veil over her doll-like face, while red gloves and boots added to the femme fatale nature of her character. Although the result of the shoot recalls wintry days at dusk, one should not forget that Lagerfeld is, essentially, notorious for his solar personality and razor-sharp humor. His lethal quotes are compiled in books, his life is analyzed in countless documentaries, and his collections exude his eccentricities. Who can forget Chanel’s Spring 2008 quilted ankle bags inspired by Lindsay Lohan’s monitoring ankle bracelet? Or the must-have mini Karlitos, produced in Fendi-colored fur? With more than 50 years of work at Fendi, and combining impeccable taste and geniality, Lagerfeld remains the one who laughs last.

How did you start working in photography?
I started in the 1980s, when I had to make a press kit at Chanel and I was unsatisfied with the photographers proposed. I hired a camera, I called an assistant, and started by myself. In a very short time I moved on to advertising, editorials, portraits, architecture, and everything. It was a good idea. Photography is a very fun thing. I like to think of it as a fulltime hobby.

Do you find taking pictures very different from designing a collection?
It’s the next step. I photograph a lot of clothes that are not designed by me. Photography gives a visual impact to clothes. It all depends on how you see them and what you do with them. What you want to express can be based on millions of different reasons and can be developed in completely different ways. The mood of the girls you are photographing is also crucial.

What is one of your challenges as a fashion designer?
For me it’s easy to have ideas but less easy to find people who can realize them. Luckily, Fendi really took every pain to find the right people to do what I thought they should do.

Do you believe in brainstorming with others?
You must be able to work well alone and with others. Not having this skill would be like living by yourself in an ivory tower for the rest of time. And wouldn’t that be boring? In any case, never-ending inspiration is the most important thing in both scenarios.

Do you have an archive of your work?
I have no archives, but Fendi does. It seems I have realized more than 50,000 sketches for the house.

How is your creative process?
It is very pretentious when I say that I am that creative. I don’t just decide to be creative, but it is like breathing to me. Most of the things I do, I see them when I am sleeping. The best ideas are the quickest. No brain. The idea must be like a flash. I can draw faster than I can talk. I never follow my second instinct. I don’t believe that you can do anything if it comes in second place. There are some people who are afraid of the white page, afraid of starting a new project, but not me.

What is your perfect state of mind to create?
I like the mix of craziness with discipline.


Bella Hadid in Fendi. Photographed by Karl Lagerfeld for Vogue Arabia, September 2017

Do you design for a specific woman?
It is very difficult to identify a specific woman. Our job is to propose collections, hoping that many women will appreciate what we do. Saying, “It’s for this kind of woman and not for the other,” is a too sharp remark. Fendi’s Fall collection is a preposition for every kind of woman. The inspiration is for all the girls of today, here represented by Bella Hadid.

Are you inspired by what happens in the news and the world around you?
The minute you are not inspired anymore by what is going on, and you start thinking about the past, it is better you retire. You have to be interested in the moment, in things to come, in the evolution.

What does fashion mean to you?
Fashion is about the “moment.” The best thing that can happen to a dress is for it to be worn. Fashion is not about museum exhibits.

How do you see luxury today?
The luxury that is far from reality no longer makes people dream.

Have you always been passionate about fashion?
When I was a child, I didn’t know you could make a living from fashion. I had no plans but I was always ready for the unexpected.

What kind of child were you?
I never played with other children. I did nothing else other than sketch and read. I loved to sketch, because at the beginning of my life I wanted to become a cartoon artist. I discovered a famous cartoon magazine from the 1900s in the attic of my parents’ home and the cartoons were very beautifully drawn. I must say it was a miracle that my parents allowed me to go to Paris before I finished school. Everybody said, “He will be lost!” But remember: not everybody is born to be lost and I am part of that group. I was already very focused.

You manage many things simultaneously – different brands, design, photography, advertising. How can you do it all?
In terms of fashion, it’s easy to work with me. I sketch in a way that people can nearly do the dresses without me having to come for a fitting. You can see every single detail, every proportion, every cut… Everything! My sketches are like images of things that already exist. This means that when I attend a fitting, the result is very positive and close to what I had envisioned. That’s why I can do so many. I have a concept and my whole approach is conceptual. I’m not a couturier draping stuff.

Karl Lagerfeld attends a fitting at Fendi headquarters. Courtesy of Fendi

How do you change your hat between Fendi and Chanel?
Fendi is my Italian version; Chanel my French version; and Lagerfeld my own version, what I always wanted. I never mix it up. I never made something that looked like Chanel at Fendi, and I never made something that looked like Fendi at Chanel.

What does a day in the life of Karl entail?
I like to stay at home in the morning and sketch. I get the most done in the morning and attend all my appointments in the afternoon, even in the late afternoon. A day is very short for me. My motto is, “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.” In today’s world, and in this business, you need to be fast.

Do you live by the clock?
I am well known for never being punctual. I am late because I do so much and I never look at the clock to say, “I have to go now.” I hate being a slave of my diary. Schopenhauer once said, “Buying books would be a good thing if one could also buy the time to read them.” Time is the pinnacle of luxury. Not looking at the clock is my greatest luxury.

You have “Karlized” the world and it is difficult to find someone that doesn’t know who you are. How did this happen?
I don’t know how it happened, nobody knows. I have no idea because it doesn’t happen to other people who do the same job I do. It is a very mysterious thing. Maybe the secret is that I’m down to earth. I may design for the clouds, but my feet stay on the ground.

What is your best quality?
I have an unbelievable visual memory. I can remember everything and that’s very important.

Is there something you really don’t like?
I hate amateurs. I hate unprofessional people.

What is the most important quality in life for you?
Life isn’t a beauty contest. Intelligence lasts. Youth and beauty are seasonal.

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