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Karl Lagerfeld, the last grand seigneur

Karl Lagerfeld "I only have one Point of View". Karl Lagerfeld

February, 2024

A thousand and one lives. A thousand and one dreams. Karl was so much more than the powdered-catagorian couturier who passed away on February 19, 2019. He was a gentleman. A beautiful spirit, a beautiful soul. A free spirit, too. From the child of a lost world to the dandy of the Palace years, via the visionary of haute couture respectful of the past but free of rules, he seduced and fascinated princesses, artists and fashionistas. As the demiurge of a Chanel universe with a global aura, he left a custom imprint on a formatted era.

Karl's charisma and extravagance made him one of Saint-Germain-des-Prés' most popular attractions.

Karl Lagerfeld was a German fashion designer born on September 10, 1933. He was still a nobody when he moved to Paris in the mid-1950s. Behind him, he left a sullen Germany devastated by war and the spectre of Nazism, as well as the memory of a rough childhood, torn between the absences of an elderly father and the demands of an idolized mother. "Speak faster, I've got no time to lose", she used to tell him, no doubt at the origin of the machine-gun flow that kept pace with his thoughts. Winner of the 1954 first prize at the International Wool Secretariat, the 21-year-old couturier shared the podium with a certain Yves Saint Laurent, his soon-to-be-enemy brother.

His early style - he was to become a master of metamorphosis - almost made him look like a Milanese gigolo, bulging his tanned torso, parading his cream Mercedes in front of bemused Café de Flore patrons. His charisma and extravagance - patent-leather heeled boots and copper bow tie - soon made him one of the attractions of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. The designer has already made his mark.

A bulimic worker, he demonstrated prodigious prolixity and energy in his work.

After joining Chloé in 1964, Lagerfeld went on to multiply his freelance contracts, leaving the spheres of haute couture behind and - as always - taking the turn towards ready-to-wear. A bulimic worker, Lagerfeld demonstrated prodigious prolixity and energy in his work. His long, agile hands produced an abundance of sketches: dresses, coats, jackets, bags, brooches, buttons, perfume bottles... and, seemingly out of nowhere on a tabletop, the Fendi sisters' logo.

To fuel this creative torrent, which he feels is inexhaustible, the "fashion machine" feeds off the living forces around him. Alone in the midst of the urban or nocturnal crowds, he sees everything, records everything: cuts, colors, ideas, faces, emerging artistic movements, no hint of the future escapes him.

In the midst of the spectacular parties he hosted at Le Sept, Le Palace or his home in the 1970s, the eccentric Tout-Paris jostled for position. Éric de Rothschild, Kenzo, Balthus's son Thadée Klossowski de Rola, the muse Loulou de la Falaise and Paloma Picasso swayed to the sound of Diana Ross. In this whirlwind of avant-garde intoxication, Karl never lets his guard down. Like a monarch thinking about war, while his advisors feast. Karl doesn't drink, smoke, do drugs or make love. He has only one thing on his mind, work: "I'm a kind of fashion nymphomaniac who never reaches orgasm."

In 1971, he crossed paths with Andy Warhol. It was a decisive meeting. Working alongside the ultra-mediatized king of pop art, the budding star understood the importance of symbols in a society increasingly hypnotized by images. And here he is, arriving thirty minutes late for all his appointments, as if to mark time with his eminent signature.

Karl Lagerfeld
Kristen Stewart Opens Up About Her Close Relationship With Karl Lagerfeld in New Vanity Fair Profile / Getty Images

In tune with the increasingly connected younger generation, he anticipates trends.

Left an orphan at heart, Karl has returned to his first love, work. At the helm of Chanel since 1983, he has embarked on a major project, determined to reawaken the cult brand that has been asleep since Coco's death. One grandiose fashion show follows another, and with them, triumphs. Each season creates surprise, desire and dazzle. Unlike many others, the Kaiser manages to renew himself at all costs, always with panache. "Fashion is made up of two things: continuity and contradiction", asserts this 21st-century moralist, who is also famous for his maxims and, in his own terminology, "dirty words".

In tune with an increasingly connected younger generation, he anticipates trends, adheres to no style and is loyal only to the energy of novelty. For "what counts is what I'm going to do, not what I've done". Preferring irreverence to snobbery, he multiplies daring collaborations: H&M, La Poste and its Valentine's Day stamps, Coca-Cola...

His insatiable curiosity also led him to work as a publisher and photographer. The greats jostle before his lens, capturing the human complexity of his subjects with a single gesture.

Karl Lagerfeld library in Paris
In his photo studio, in front of his huge library in Paris. The designer owned 300,000 books. Caroline Seidel/picture alliance via Getty Images

Courted from all sides, but generous to the end, this aristo-rock king of fashion remains a lonely man who prefers the purity of asceticism to the effusion of sentiment. "I can't walk down the street anymore. It's over," he told the Guardian in 2004.

Sitting at his desk, catogan untucked, collar loosened and glasses finally placed on the table after a long day, his naked face may have been seen only by Choupette's celadon eyes. His ashes will be scattered in an undisclosed location, along with those of his mother and part of those of Jacques. In accordance with his wishes, a simple ceremony took place. A final sign of his childhood solitude. Or the ultimate politeness of a sovereign.

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