Outspoken, in demand and still at the top of his game, fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld holds court on the industry, the media, lesbians and why Berlin isn’t as good as it used to be.
It’s a lucky pair of countries that can both lay claim to an all-round national treasure. We mostly see it on sporting fields, where football players from Brazil can be treated like hometown heroes in Italy or Japanese outfielders can feel like they grew up in the US little leagues as they bat for a Major League baseball team.
In the world of luxury goods, both France and Germany boast no figure that comes quite as close to a living national icon as Karl Lagerfeld. Born in Hamburg and a fixture on the Paris fashion scene for more than 50 years, Lagerfeld is most famous as the creative force behind Chanel’s fashion business. I first met him over two decades ago while on assignment for a British newspaper and have had the good fortune to check in with him now and again ever since. If ever two nations had a private sector, soft-power asset at the centre of the creative industries, it’s the man in the skinny denim, frock-ish coat, pulled-back hair and sunglasses. We stood for an interview at Lagerfeld’s studio-cum-book warehouse beyond the pavements of Rue de Lille.
Tyler Brûlé: Can I start with a bit of a trip down memory lane, 25 years ago.
Karl Lagerfeld: Memory, I have no memory. There is a famous story: a dyke who wanted to cruise Greta Garbo in the 1940s. She told me this story; not Garbo but the lady, 30 or 40 years later. She wanted to cruise her and as Garbo was apparently not easy to small talk, so she tried to find a subject. She remembered that Garbo had been somewhere in Italy in 1938 in a villa with [conductor Leopold] Stokowski. So she said, “Oh, you know, I went to Positano last summer and I saw the villa where you spent summer ’38 with Stokowski.” And Garbo turned her head away and said: “I don’t remember, I wasn’t happy.” For me the past is that.
TB: I am still going to take you back to Berlin 25 years ago: the fall of the Wall. I am wondering what your recollections are when you look back at where we sit in Europe today versus what you saw then.
KL: You know, if you look at the newspapers and TV, Europe has a few fights, it’s not that pleasant at the moment. I mean, especially the French: they promise, they promise, they cannot keep the promises and then they get pretentious: “We do what we want.” But they agreed to make Europe. Nobody forced them to do it, you know?
TB: Did you feel optimistic – euphoric even – when the Wall came down?
KL: Yes, but I knew it would take ages for Germany to become the one country. East Germany is still another kind of country. They used the money they got after the Wall went down for stupid things, for roads nobody went on. They didn’t improve the factories; it was not very well handled. The only city that is great is Dresden. That’s all.
TB: Back in 1989 and 1990, many fashion houses were not attached to big luxury groups. Was there a different sense of doing business, a different sense of marketing?
KL: Marketing is a word I never use because I do not even know what it means.
TB: Lucky you.
KL: In 25 years the world has changed unbelievably; stupid things like the iPad and the iPhone changed the world. The world is so different: people connect and touch in different ways. The business is also different. Look at Amazon: all those things did not exist so you cannot compare anymore. For me it’s like it happened 50 or 100 years ago.
TB: You recently brought out a newspaper. A provocation? Just to say that there are many ways to consume media, there are many ways to advertise and promote, or another reason?
KL: You will be disappointed: it is less meditated. I love paper; I love newspapers; it was fun to do. It was not done like this before. You know, I worked for one day [as guest editor] for papers like Metro, Libération and Welt am Sonntag. So why shouldn’t I do it for myself?
TB: Does that also reflect what your breakfast diet looks like? Are you a Frankfurter Allgemeine, Neue Zürcher Zeitung?
KL: I love daily papers but some of them have problems because they are not very well written. I think the survival of daily papers depends a lot on the way people write. There are not many great what they used to call feathers. The language online is just information. But with a paper you want to sit down with something that is pleasant to read. Not just flat information you can get somewhere else. They have to make a bigger effort. But I read Zeit; I love Zeit. The Zeit Magazin sometimes is a little too pretentious for me though, I prefer the magazine from the Frankfurter.
TB: Somehow the world has been seduced a bit by what Silicon Valley says.
KL: Yes but perhaps people are happy with this kind of superficial information.
TB: What is your take on Berlin today?
KL: You know, Berlin could be great but for me it is like a human body with an arm and a leg missing. What the Russians did there was make it forever something different to the soul that Berlin was famous for. It’s OK, they want to be trendy; they want to be so trendy that they sometimes look like a second-rate London. For me, I know the past of Berlin so well. Today, I don’t know.
TB: Are you saddened by the demystification of modern media? Good brands, I think, are always quite mysterious, yet today everyone is talking every second about what you’re doing.
KL: Information became so easy: we are over-informed by things we are not supposed to know, which are not that great to know. But, that is something that never existed before. So it is too dangerous to say no, it was better before. It wasn’t better, it was just different.
TB: There is also a certain boredom when you look at some major fashion corporations: so many companies seem to answer to the stock exchange.
KL: Now it’s all on a global scale; it has to be on the stock market. The people and the companies that I work for have hundreds and hundreds of shops all over the world. So you cannot criticise the world. For me it’s OK, I must be an opportunist, I can still live in my private world. But I am not against the world of today, because if you’re against it you are like Don Quixote and I don’t fight windmills.
TB: In this globalised world, is the city like the one we are in, Paris, important not just as a centre for creativity but as the centre for making things? Does there still need to be an atelier here or can it be in Pakistan?
KL: It depends what kind of label you are working for. What Chanel does – and Chanel is not a French company, you know, Chanel has been an English-American and Swiss company since 1946 – they produce in France. But for less expensive things, the workers here ask for so much money that if they made the things, nobody would pay that much.
TB: So provenance is still important when you talk about a label like Chanel?
KL: Yes, Chanel’s shoes are made in Italy; they are pretty good. But perfect labour is expensive. Beautiful craftsmanship like they can do here in terms of embroidery and things like this is expensive. But not everybody can pay that so some people are happy to get something with some glitter on it made in India. I hope not by children.
TB: Do you think we will see the rise of somewhere else as a fashion hub: a place to make things?
KL: Not in the next 10 years. Later, I don’t know. I am sure that China has ambitions to become something. Japan has a fashion identity but the strongest part of the Japanese fashion identity is shown in Europe. New York has an identity but it’s not as established as Paris. London is known for creativity but not for business. In the end it depends on the people. Since Fendi was bought by LVMH it has done unbelievably well. Prada does very well, I mean Miuccia Prada. But there are not 200 Miuccia Pradas in the world.
TB: You mentioned Fendi. You wear multiple hats, work for multiple brands. But when you speak to many companies they say that their creative director needs to focus. Yet you are able to send your collections down the catwalk for a variety. Do you have to explain how the collections will work, be different?
KL: May I say something horrible? I don’t discuss, I do what I feel. I do what I want, so I’m never questioned and don’t make meetings; there is no marketing meeting, I don’t do those things. You know, everything in my life is the general opinion of the single person. But before I open my mouth, I think about what I want to do. And apparently, seeing the numbers, my advice is not that bad.
TB: Yet in a drive for bigger margins it is amazing just how many designers get pushed around, who have to have focus groups.
KL: Poor boys or poor girls. I mean, it never happened to me and I hope it will never happen. I was never head hunted because my head was never free.
TB: Luxury business and a luxurious place.
KL: In a way I invented a kind of blueprint for the freelance job the way it is. Because, you know, I have exclusivity with nobody. Not Chanel, nobody. But I am honest enough not to do the same thing for somebody else. I have no ego problem. Chanel is Chanel, Fendi is Fendi, Lagerfeld is Lagerfeld. They are totally unrelated and if it was not like this it would be very dishonest as a job, because [the brand] is not me, it is them.
TB: But is that world coming to an end?
KL: I have never been questioned. I would be bored to death. Even budgets, I don’t discuss. Because, look, we spent fortunes on doing those shows for Chanel but it comes back 20 times on the net, it’s seen by billions of people. It would be unbelievable that somebody would start to talk about budget. I said that I don’t work with the poor. I understand the budget of the house: it has this kind of amount but very few people can do what Chanel does.
TB: There was a bit of a political statement at the end of your most recent show for Chanel. It sort of coincided with a strike of an airline and coincided with just the general sense of protest that exists within this country.
KL: It is in the air and you have a demonstration every day but to make that show I started six months ahead to build the set, but it was not just paint on the walls, it was really built; it took months and months. Normally I have the idea for the next show the day after the show before. People say in French that appetite comes when you’re eating and, I think, ideas come when you are working. But I am working class, so that’s different.
TB: Do you look at the front row still? Do you care about the shifting tides of demographics, that there might be more Chinese people, fewer Japanese, more Russians etc?
KL: No, I mean there are a few people I like, I am interested in their opinion but it is a very limited group. The others, if they come, I am happy if they want to see it. At Chanel we have 3,500 people; if other people want to be more exclusive and show to only 250 or 300, OK, why not? But a global brand should show to everybody.
TB: What’s your view on the new generation of designers and the people taking the helm of the established brands?
KL: Apparently, 95 per cent of people who buy certain brands don’t even know who the designer is. Apparently I am an exception, I was told. It is not me who tells you.
TB: Of course not. Well, once or twice maybe.
TB: From a creative perspective, have you done everything you want to do?
KL: No. I will never build a modern house because you have to build it somewhere that you go often; if not there is no reason, so I am afraid this I will not do. I always think I am lazy, I could do better, I could make an effort and stupid stuff like this. I always have to kick my own ass because I think there is still something you could improve, could make better. I know it’s childish for somebody who is in the business for such a long time to say that but I still have that feeling and I think I’ll be OK as long as that feeling exists. You know, it’s like showbusiness: you are only as good as your last show.But I know we have to make the next one. I get no satisfaction... like the old song from the Rolling Stones.
TB: Do you have any regrets?
KL: Yes, the house is my only disappointment. My regret is that I didn’t do the house with [Japanese architect] Tadao Ando, I really regret that. The rest, I did what I wanted to do an – in a way – even more than I expected I could do.
Watch Tyler Brûlé’s interview with fashion visionary Karl Lagerfeld, filmed at his studio in Paris.