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Karl Lagerfeld, Boy Prince of Fashion

Fashion people will tell you about Lagerfeld’s “weird psychic connection” with Coco Chanel and how he “channeled Coco” to reinvent the brand, but Lagerfeld does not wear Chanel himself. “In Chanel, I look like my mother,” he says, grimacing. Like his mother, Coco Chanel was master of the grand pronouncement—“Luxury is not the opposite of poverty, but the opposite of vulgarity” was perhaps her most famous aphorism. Chanel, the fabled orphan-grisette-demimondaine-superstar, is credited with inventing modern style in the 1910s with simple, uncorseted dressing, giving rise to the little black dress, bouclé jacket, and later accoutrements like red lipstick, a perpetual tan, and Chanel No. 5. After surviving the scandal that she spent World War II at Paris’s Ritz with a Nazi boyfriend—“Really, a woman my age cannot be expected to look at his passport if she has a chance of a lover,” she explained—she staged a slow but solid comeback in the fifties, but her selfish nature and disappointment in love eventually got the better of her, and she died a bitter spinster.

Lagerfeld is determined to end his life differently. He says he will not participate in retrospectives of his work, create any foundations, write an autobiography, or keep archives. “I do not like funerals, and I do not want anyone to come to mine,” he says. “Do what you want with the ashes. Send them down the garbage chute.” Nevertheless, he seems to like talking about death an awful lot. The top book on his nightstand is Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which he declares, of course, divine. “I have finished it three times in less than a month!” he says. He bangs the table repeatedly as he begins to count off the age of death of his ancestors—two grandparents at 98 and 100; his father at almost 90; and his mother at 82, killed by her own fidelity to propriety. “The doctor told her she must stay in bed, but instead she got her hair done and when he arrived, crossed the room to greet him at the door, dying there,” he says. “Also I had a godfather who lived to 104, and his brother to 102, and their mother to 108. When my godfather died, he was totally normal, chic and everything. He got up early and dressed every day. After lunch he slept one hour and walked one hour afterwards.” He stops banging on the table, and leans back in his chair. “That is a long time they lived,” he says softly. “They saw a lot. I would like to see as much.”

Paris in the wintertime, raw and windy. Lagerfeld is no longer leasing his eighteenth-century hotel particulier, site of countless galas and unforgettable private dinners. Now he lives in a long, narrow, glassed-in apartment on Quai Voltaire—“like a space in the hospital for early-born babies,” he says—that he has furnished with postmillennial furniture by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec and Marc Newson. He does not want to be owned by things, he says. In the past decade and a half, he has sold off his eighteenth-century-furniture collection ($21.7 million), his collection of the Italian postmodern design group Memphis ($280,000), and Art Deco pieces ($4 million), as well as the château in Brittany where his mother and De Bascher are buried. “In the future, I want only apartments like hotel suites,” he says. “I want to be light. I want nothing.” The riots are going on, and Lagerfeld doesn’t want to talk about them. Paris is dreary, mired in the past. “Now they make the ugliest sixties building landmarked,” he says. “The Chanel building on Avenue Montaigne is the ugliest building in the world, all I want is to see it go, but they do nothing. You never hide against progress, because then you will be lost.”

The Chanel-headquarters building on Rue Cambon is a bit mired in the past as well, although Lagerfeld had the salon renovated in 2002. The modernist beauty of the ground-floor boutique, filled with happy Asian and American customers, disappears in the offices, where thin girls in pedal pushers sit at cramped desks, pounding on keyboards. “They do not wear these pants in America yet?” asks an assistant, laughing. “In a few months, they will.” Another sign of olden times: a butler, whose entire job seems to be carrying a platter that holds a crystal goblet filled with Pepsi Max expressly for Karl.

Lagerfeld is fitting his Paris–New York collection, a new line that he has added to Chanel’s five collections a year because he knows the Chanel customer can bear it, that they will buy almost anything he sells (in the boutique, a cloth coat was priced at 36,814 euros, and there was only one left). The mannequins cabines, young girls with bodies more terrifying than Nicole Richie’s, put on dresses behind filmy curtains as Lagerfeld makes tiny adjustments. Devendra Banhart, an American neo-folk singer Lagerfeld has taken under his wing, hangs around waiting to be fitted in a suit he will wear to perform in the show. “How about if I wear just my underwear?” he asks.

“Oh-ho!” says Lagerfeld.

Chanel’s high-energy Belgian accessories designer dashes about wearing multiple scarves and belts and fake earrings from the collection, trying to get Lagerfeld’s attention. “Look at these!” she says, shaking to make things jingle. “How beautiful!”

“I get along with everyone except for men my age, who are bourgeois or retired or boring.”

J’adore!” exclaims Lagerfeld. “If you go out to a nightclub like this, the ladies will go crazy for it. Très jolie, très New York.

Throwing on three rhinestone bracelets and sticking her hands into a white fur muff, she vamps across the room. “I look great,” she says. “I resemble—”

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