Karl Lagerfeld, 1933-2019

His appearance, for the last forty years of his life, was alien, mannered, armored by various styles of outfit that were less uniforms than the carapace of some unique extraterrestrial being.  It was this persona, behind gently waving fans, knuckle-length gloves, heavy-looking Chrome Hearts jewelry, that made him such a memorable media figure. An unforgettable bowsprit, rather than figurehead, for the many different fashion houses he designed for – at times creating collections simultaneously for Chanel, Fendi, Chloé and his own Lagerfeld label, among others.

The energy and inspiration this must have taken also seemed inhuman.  He appeared to be the hardest working man in #steez (with apologies to Isle), maintaining an active career as a photographer (with a gallery among the other dealers in Saint-Germain-des-Près) in addition to all of his design work.  He professed to voraciously devour various other forms of media, supposedly tasking someone to maintain dozens of iPods fully loaded with different music in the early part of this century.  

Adding to his alienness was his constant obfuscation about his age, and about his privileged but bourgeois origins.  On reflection, perhaps that reluctance to own up to his realities made him more relatable.  He was 85.

In fact, Alicia Drake’s The Beautiful Fall, about the rivalry of Lagerfeld and his fellow 1954 Woolmark Prize laureate Yves Saint-Laurent makes Lagerfeld out to be by far the more human and sympathetic of the two.  Those who knew him personally reported that he was kind, personable, charming and funny, as well as as intellectually curious as his public persona.  

Looking back, he almost never lacked a knowing ability to satirize himself: posing for a public safety announcement in a now infamous yellow vest (required to be carried in a car for road safety reasons) marring his otherwise immaculate high-collared bespoke Hilditch & Key Paris shirt and Dior Homme suit with the caption “It’s ugly, it goes with nothing, and it could save your life”; or publicizing Steiff’s Karl Lagerfeld teddy bear (both the bear’s deadpan expression and outfit matched his); or adopting a fluffy Persian cat, the iGent’s spouse.  He even later said that he wished he could marry it, and has left a sizeable part of his fortune to it. 

His words, though, could depart from self-aware high camp to the inhuman and inexcusable, covering the usual bigot bases from xenophobia and latent anti-Semitism (such as “One cannot – even if there are decades between them – kill millions of Jews so you can bring millions of their worst enemies in their place”), to his own industry’s sexual exploitation (suggesting any woman who didn’t want her “pants pulled about” instead “join a nunnery”) to a harsh phobia of fat or indeed just “curvy” women.  It is better to evoke and remember than to eulogize.  No pretended or adoptive persona can excuse his insistent repetition of invective on these topics.

Not at all unexpected, though quite ironic, too, that he so persistently attacked the fat (among other things blaming them for the depletion of the French social safety net), given that over his career he morphed from a bodybuilder in a Caraceni suit (he abandoned Cifonelli several generations before the current tailors) to a fat person himself in a Japanese designer muumuu.  His willingness to satirize his image didn’t extend to his own weight.  Those bizarre smocks did nothing to conceal it.  The fan and the dark sunglasses he started sporting only drew attention to a self-consciousness about his own aging body, as did his powdered hair.  In the early 2000s, he lost a substantial amount of weight, announcing that he did so in order to wear the new slim Dior Homme suits designed by Hédi Slimane.  He even wrote a diet book along with his doctor, containing that rationalization along with a host of rigorous recipes that required a personal chef, as well as a willingness to eat certain special protein packets. No doubt his fat-shaming words since then presumed that everyone had willpower, means and opportunities similar to his.   Those tight suits, with baroquely high-collared, miter-cuffed custom shirts from H&K Paris, boots, and the jewelry, remained his public uniform until his death.  He referred to them on occasion as an armor. 

His sensitivity about his weight and his acknowledgment that in his favorite clothing he felt protection are to me his most human qualities.  He admitted that his shades, his high collars (which served the same neckfold-obscuring purpose as his fans had), his ornate shirtfronts and sharp boots had all been part of an artifice, to distance the casual onlooker or the stranger.  No doubt he thought that his public quips and proclamations, no matter how offensive, were also facets of that distancing persona.  But he found security in his clothes, they functioned as expressions of self, he even forced himself through a typically inhuman diet to lose weight in order to be able to wear them as a manifest of self.  Who among us – presuming we all enjoy clothes, because you’re reading this – has not also felt that same completion and empowerment in wearing a favorite set of clothes, a favorite armor against the depredations of the day, whether veldtschoen boots the snow and wet just slide off of, or the suit, shirt and tie whose fit and cut make us feel that much closer to invulnerable no matter who’s across the table?

In that way, not only was his artifice – his public oral and sartorial persona – part of his art, but it became indissociable from his true person, however privately warm and kind he was.  And as such, even if some argue that his offensive public opinions were simply a function of the industry he helped create and his time, he was, despite his interesting superficial alienness, a man of his time, of our admittedly appalling time. May men of other times be as original – and yet also conscious of their humanity, and better.

Previous Article Next Article

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

Comments & Questions