His tightly stretched, tanned visage and signature white ponytail make him instantly recognizable; a known icon in the world of high fashion. It is said in jest that he sleeps in his sunglasses; a bizarre breed of fashion crypt-keeper; donning high-buttoned collars, fingerless leather motorcycle gloves, and lacking any indication of real human emotion behind the image he projects. Fashionistas across the globe bow down to his vêtements, the high priestess of Vogue praises his creative ingenuity. This is Karl Lagerfeld, and while he has been carefully curating his public persona, he has simultaneously been digging the grave of the House of Chanel.
“I never go out without my trademark dark glasses. I like to watch, not to be watched.” – KL
Before joining Chanel in 1983, German-born designer Karl Lagerfeld had previously worked with Balmain, Fendi, and Chloé. He famously caused that same high priestess of Vogue, Anna Wintour, to get up and walk out of a Fendi runway show in the nineties for hiring porn stars to model his latest collection of swimsuits (the pair have since reconciled their fabulous fashion-forward friendship). In the early eighties, Lagerfeld was brought in to resuscitate the luxury brand, Chanel, which had been wavering since the passing of Coco herself in 1971. Coco Chanel’s early success as a couturier was due in part to her fashions for the modern woman. When she first emerged around the time of the First World War, the roles of women in society were changing, along with their attitudes and sensibilities, and the young designer reflected this shifting mentality in her creations. Chanel geared women’s fashion away from the opulent, overly restrictive, heavy-materials of the Belle Époque and into the direction of simple, functional, contemporary elegance. Being partial to the comfort of menswear, she incorporated cardigans and blazers to her line for women, adding effeminate touches where appropriate. Cue Mr. Lagerfeld’s position as creative director of the dignified brand for the past thirty years, we now have a much less noble Chanel than we did before.
While he has been successful at reinterpreting some of the iconic elements of early Chanel – the bouclé suits, layered strands of pearls, the little black shift dress and camellia flowers – one can now no longer be interested in Chanel without being exposed to Lagerfeld’s freakish public persona; the man cannot be separated from his work. What was once a beacon of modernity now represents the over-heated spectacle that couture has become, and a great many of his collections are down right foolish.
* * *
￼￼￼In keeping with the creation and branding of his celebrity persona, let’s briefly discuss The Karl Lagerfeld Diet. Published in 2004, his book, which was not actually written by him at all but by his Parisian physician, details his weight loss regimen that allowed him to lose nearly one hundred pounds in just over a year. The book has sold tens of thousands of copies and outlines exactly what he eats and when he eats it for the benefit of the public, just in case everyone wants to be Karl. Because obviously, the average Joe also has a private chef who will flambé quail and whisk together a sugar-free raspberry mousse for you at the drop of your hat. Direct from his diet manual, Karl explains, “In order to have a place in society, both men and women have to be active, good looking, and above all young – and therefore slim.” Surely as we grow a little older, a little wiser, and emerge from our egomaniacal adolescent stage—fraught with insecurity and self-image maladies—collectively we come to realize there may be more to life than being able to squeeze into a Dior Homme slim cut sateen suit? Seemingly, not for Karl (he confirms that his dramatic weight loss was due to his overwhelming desire to don Hedi Slimane’s sartorial creations).
It is quick and easy to find examples of the questionable mentality he perpetuates in his worshippers regarding body image. While certainly not the only figure in fashion to carry this weighty torch, his no-bullshit political incorrectness, making sweeping statements about “fat people” and the entire world’s seeming desperation to be part of the fashion “in crowd,” he is definitely at the helm of this ship. One such example: a young fashion journalist, Katarina Kroslakova, wrote in the Australian Financial Review: “When I learnt Chanel would take me to the 2013/2014 launch of the Chanel Cruise collection in Singapore, my first reaction was to go on a pretty intense diet. Uncle Karl hates fat people, and you hardly want to meet your idol and have him tut-tut your muffin top. Fast-forward four weeks, many Pilates classes and skipped meals later, I was sample-size ready.” Oh, Katarina, you probably wanted to be a brain surgeon when you were a child. They profit from the insecurity they sell you.
* * *
His own eponymous brand, KARL LAGERFELD, launched exclusively online in 2006 on Net-a-Porter.com, and has expanded with two brick and mortar shops in Paris and Amsterdam. His website, Karl.com, is decked out in caricatures of his profile and gives visitors the exciting opportunity to explore the “World of Karl” – places Karl loves, museums Karl loves, vacation spots Karl loves, books Karl recommends, Kollection’s of Karl’s klothing, and perhaps worst of all, Karlisms: a stockpiling of preposterous quotes by, you guessed it, Karl himself. His fashion line panders $110 cotton t-shirts with his face screen- printed on, and a leather varsity jacket with a big old Helvetica “K” on the breast pocket. Don’t know about all of you, but I’ve ordered one of each, because surely if I wear what Karl says I should wear, I will be as chic and as popular as Claudia Schiffer, my life’s aspiration.
“Vanity is the healthiest thing in life.” – KL
For such a blunt and candid man, Karl sure doesn’t handle criticism well. He has famously disregarded, with a sardonic eye roll, those who have dared report anything less than an overly adoring review of his work. Indeed, my personal favorite Karlism; “I hate intellectual conversation with intellectuals, because I only care about my opinion.” Perhaps Karl should take a good, long look in the mirror and reassess his own rhetoric if he can’t take what he so effortlessly dishes out.
It can’t be argued that the man is a massive success, or that people around the world love him and his absurdity through and through; it must be a love/hate sort of thing. Many will say he has had a triumphant career at Chanel, breathing new life into a dying brand. I stand by the old Americanism “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it;” and Karl did a number on Chanel’s early advancement of the modern woman, turning her right back into an overinflated, overexposed, oversexed, and likely very hungry object. As they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I would prefer to avert my gaze elsewhere.￼