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Karl Lagerfeld, Boy Prince of Fashion

Lagerfeld photographing his new collection in Coco Chanel's old apartment.  

When Gan and Slimane met Lagerfeld, six or seven years ago, he was extra-large, and in fashion circles there is no question that the new friendships—and what is whispered to be an obsession with Slimane—sparked Lagerfeld’s desire to lose weight. About six months after Gan introduced Slimane to Lagerfeld, Lagerfeld greeted Gan at his Paris studio in a Dior Homme tie. “The tie was unusually narrow for his width at the time,” says Gan. “He said, ‘Look! I’m wearing your friend’s tie!’ ” Six months later in Paris, Lagerfeld was wearing a Dior Homme jacket, and six months later it was the pants. “I have never felt an age differentiation with Karl—hanging out with him is like hanging out with a buddy,” says Gan, who is about 30 years his junior. “Now he shops for clothes the way some people shop for chocolates.”

Says Lagerfeld, “My only ambition in life is to wear size 28 jeans.”

At 14—or, you know, 19—Lagerfeld moved in with a family friend in Paris, a woman who had been his mother’s vendeuse at Molyneux. Two years later, in 1954, he entered a contest sponsored by the International Wool Secretariat and won the prize for a coat (Yves Saint Laurent won in the dress category). He began his career in the couture studios of Pierre Balmain, where he learned dress-making methods of the twenties and thirties before becoming the head designer of Patou. Fashion was a good job for him, his mother said—“It shows you have no pretension or ambition.” While Kenzo and Saint Laurent built empires, Lagerfeld remained under the radar, designing for Krizia and Charles Jourdan in the early sixties and Chloé and Fendi in the seventies. “Lagerfeld is not a designer, he’s a mercenary” is the famous kiss-off by Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent’s former business partner–majordomo–lover. In 1983, Lagerfeld was hired by Chanel’s corporate head, Alain Wertheimer, to reinvent the Chanel brand, moribund since Coco’s death in 1971. He promised to be modern. “Respect is not creative,” he told Wertheimer, according to Jane Kramer in Vogue. “Chanel is an institution, and you have to treat an institution like a whore—and then you get something out of her.”

In the same way that Lagerfeld’s collection for H&M made it safe for Stella McCartney and other high-fashion designers to go downmarket, his vast accomplishments at Chanel have set the standard for all the old European houses frantically trying to reinvigorate aging brands with a hot young designer—Alber Elbaz at Lanvin, Olivier Theyskens at Rochas. No other designer has been able to exploit a house’s legacy in quite the same way as Lagerfeld, and it has been said that Chanel, owned by the press-averse Wertheimer family, is the largest luxury company in the world, with annual revenues of more than $4 billion.

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