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Karl Lagerfeld Opens Up


More than anyone else in the fashion world, Karl Lagerfeld gives the impression that he’s propelled by a massive tailwind—nothing seems to irk him more than slowing down, revisiting, pulling into port. Even his words come out in rapid gusts. For his latest project, forward motion has brought him to Macy’s, of all places, and caught up with him while he is promoting the limited collection for Impulse, one of the mass retailer’s house brands. It’s the latest of the multitasking designer, photographer, and publisher’s high/low collaborations, a twist on the trend-setting partnership he embarked on with H&M in 2004.

At a suite in the Mercer Hotel, Lagerfeld spoke to about subjects as varied as “ugly hats” at the royal wedding, the similarities between the iPad and sixteenth-century engraving, and why it is that he simply must have a leather-gloved hand in everything.

What was the most interesting thing you learned about Macy’s while you were designing this line?
I learned a lot of things, [but] the work of the American department store is something I knew quite well from the past. They made European designers in America, because [these designers] had no advertising. It was not like today. They made the shows, and really promoted them, and educated the American public about European design. That was another world, another time. But that does not diminish my sympathy for department stores.

Is it harder for department stores today, do you think?
You cannot compare it. People don’t shop the same way. There was no Internet. We live in another world. It’s a new start. What I love best in life is new starts.

When you’re considering a partnership like this, what are the factors that help you decide yes or no?
That I can be 100 percent behind it. I do package deals. I do it myself—the choice of girl, the whole thing. If not, I’m not interested. It’s not a licensing of the old days—”Here’s my name, do whatever you want.” The other day there was an article that said how I approach it is the opposite of what Cardin did, and for me that’s the greatest compliment.

For him, it was the name. For you, it’s, well, you.
Yes, that’s what I’m selling.

Do you get tired of people trying to peek behind your sunglasses, or do you see it as part of the game?
You don’t ask a marionette what a marionette really thinks. I’m totally myself. I became 100 percent my image, so maybe there’s nothing else behind it. It’s like talking heads.

People get excited about high/low. But what happens to the middle?
I loved to do H&M because it was an experience. People like me were supposed to be into exclusivity, unapproachable. That’s what I hate most. I think it’s very démodé. T-shirts for ten dollars are even more fashion today than expensive fashion. But the middle has more problems. That’s a point we don’t talk about. The middle has not so much class, in terms of fashion.

You take photographs for art and business, but for many people it seems to have become a habit. Everything is documented. Do you think it’s overkill?
TV didn’t kill theater, iPhone photography doesn’t kill photography. But it’s childish, in a way, being so over-obsessed. Sometimes I see things and I don’t have a camera with me. And you can never come back five minutes later because it’s not the same. To be there all the time—I mean, I have an iPhone and an iPad with a camera, but I use them very little, because I like photography. But photography for me is business. I have a studio with five full-time assistants to do all our campaigns—Chanel, Fendi, Dior Homme—and covers for CDs, editorial, whatever we do. In a way I’m lucky that I did that, because if I were only in fashion I would be isolated.

And everyone is now in front of the camera, too. One product of all the photo-taking, I think, is that it makes everyone try so hard.
I don’t even try. From you to me, I don’t know anything myself. I am flattered, because I don’t understand. I don’t sing, I’m not an actor, I have no scandals, I am a decent working-class person and people are interested in me, which I think is extremely flattering.

I think you say things well.
I can say what I think. Maybe I should think deeper and open my mouth not as quickly.

Are you scared of being bored?
I’m not scared. How can you be scared of being bored? Only boring people are bored. When they say they are bored, the only thing I can say is, “It’s right, you’re boring, too.” Because there is so much to do, to read, to know, the idea of being scared of being bored doesn’t even enter my mind, because the day only has 24 hours, my dear.

How many of those hours do you spend asleep?
Seven, without waking up, and I think that’s the secret.

Do you watch TV?
I like if I’m on TV; watching it is not my specialty. I prefer what I see in my mind—I get second-rate images delivered there for free. But I’m not too bad on TV. I commented on the English [royal] wedding for the [French] state channel. Normally they don’t have a huge audience, but with me doing it, we had nearly 50 percent and the others had only 30 and 20 percent. An event like that is fun to do because I can make jokes, and jokes of the lowest kind are not against my mentality. But I don’t want to do it all the time, hmm?

You’re famously about moving forward. But you don’t destroy your archives, do you?
What I do, I give to the houses. They can keep it or not. I have no archives. You want a sketch, I have to make you a sketch. What I like is doing for doing. Why should I look at my old stuff? What’s interesting is what I’m doing now, what I want to do. I battle for not remembering. You have to be in front row of the fight, not sitting comfortably back watching everything you did.

That said, however, history is one of your great interests.
I like information. The only thing I never get tired of is learning, looking, collecting information, images, things like this. It’s why I have 300,000 books. I never stopped buying them, because I prefer thick paper to screens, even if I use them.

Oscar Wilde said it was a sad thing there was so little useless information. But I think we have enough now.
Beyond enough. But my other problem is from Schopenhauer. He said, whenever you buy a book, you should try to buy the time to read it. Time is not for sale. That’s why I have a problem.

I think we’re noticing a shift in the zeitgeist, at least here. Going, on the surface at least, from superficial and replaceable to authentic and permanent.
That is a fashion, too. The fashion of no-fashion is another fashion. I agree. But I think it’s horrible that people have to be told. Don’t smoke! Everybody knows it’s bad for the health. But they have to forbid it. But I’m a bad example. I never smoke, I never take drugs, I’m never drunk, because I like only what I’m doing—work, reading, learning, sketching, taking photos. For the rest, my lack of passion or interest for this kind of thing makes it perhaps too easy for me to judge others. I’m surrounded by people who drink and take drugs. It doesn’t bother me at all, even when I know it’s bad for them. I’m not teaching them.

Surely there was an instructive component to your TV commentary on the royal wedding.
Sure, sure, sure. I do the things they ask me. But this was not a collection, this was the choices of this kind of woman for this kind of ceremony: the bad proportions, the ugly hats, the short skirts on fat legs.

For a lot of people, watching the wedding was a real-life fairy tale.
But royalty is very trendy, no? Now it’s in. It goes back to the very values you talked about before, you see? The old game coming back. People are excited by it. There is no political ideology for the moment, so they have to turn to something they can identify with.

To a large extent, advertising keeps people buying.
I love advertising. The only thing I’m still missing is to own an advertising agency.

Are you seriously considering that?
I never consider anything seriously. It happens by accident. But no, I don’t want a business. I’m free—in fact, I’m attached to the company, but there’s the idea that I’m free in my childish head.

You’re attached to several companies, in fact. But the default career trajectory for a lot of designers still seems to be to try and build an empire.
I don’t want an empire. I work for several empires.

Did you always feel that way?
I started to become known without my name, but then Fendi and Chanel and Chloé [changed that]. Don’t overact the story of your name. Overact the story of your work.

What’s next?
Tomorrow I do a photo shoot with Carine Roitfeld, and then back to Paris and Milano. Collection time, my dear! Workers have to cross oceans.

What do you think about Carine Roitfeld’s new phase?
She’s a very gifted person. Her greatest gift: The people she works with are more gifted when she’s around. She has something, I must admit, that nobody has. There’s something very feminine, very modern, very creative, very stimulating. In fact there is nobody like Carine Roitfeld. She is the French woman, in a way.

Another hot topic: thoughts on the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair?
I love DSK. I love his wife. They are great people and when they came back to Paris I sent them flowers. But you know, for people in politics, it’s very embarrassing. On the left they had hoped he wouldn’t come back, because I think other people want his job. And on the other side…but even in America, Clinton survived his blow job.

But there was not a lot of doubt that that was consensual.
They all do it in the political world. They get horny from politics, from power. And he had unbelievable charms. He is really charming. He’s fun, he’s great. He’s a sweet guy—as long as you’re not a woman. That’s the problem.

Do you still communicate by fax?
Yes. I know people who have a fax only because of me. This morning I sketched things on the iPhone and I sent it to my Paris office and they printed it. In August I started iPad sketching, and I found a system that’s the same technique, if you really think about it, as engraving in the sixteenth and seventeenth century.

So the iPad is an important tool for you now?
I don’t like computers or the Internet, but I love to sketch on iPad. Another technique that I like: You take a photo with an iPad, you put it into a photocopy machine—not every machine, but some—and you get something that looks like a daguerrotype. It’s very strange. And the other day I made a cover story for Japanese Vogue, with Florence Welch—from Florence + the Machine, she’s divine—and I did it entirely with photomaton.

A photo booth?
Yes. And I computerized it after. I like to play with things—to make a better future, with a large element of the past. That’s my favorite line.

Is it yours?
No, Goethe. I’m not that pretentious. If I have a line, it’s mine. But if it’s from somebody else, I give the name. Nothing is worse than people who quote, making believe they invented the quote. I think I have enough imaginations for a few funny quotes.

Photos: Damien Meyer/ Getty Images (Lagerfeld); Courtesy of Macy’s (campaign)