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Karl Lagerfeld, Boy Prince of Fashion

Karl Lagerfeld at the Chanel headquarters in Paris.  

But then there he is—Karl! His stiff silver tie glitters like a saber. His black leather gloves are good for murder. He poses for the cameras wearing a ghastly grimace, an entourage of twenty Frenchmen and foxes waiting behind. Guests with fingers curled around champagne glasses jostle to catch a glimpse, not quite crying the way they did in Tokyo last year at the opening of the biggest Chanel store in the world, but certainly eager to be entertained. “I think his hair is powdered, like from the 1800s,” says one socialite. “In fact, it is from the 1800s,” titters her friend. Paparazzi are yelling “Karl!” and bystanders are yelling “Karl!” and peta is yelling “Karl!” the loudest. A dreadlocked white guy with Rollerblades slung over his shoulder streaks down the sidewalk and snarls, “Blood for money, that’s what Karl Lagerfeld wants. Karl is greedy! Karl is evil! Karl is wicked! Karl is . . . the devil!”

Lagerfeld stops in the doorway, puckering his bulbous German lips, which is what he does when he is mad—well, not mad, exactly, but frustrated with other people, who, he has found, are frequently idiots. “You eat meat and wear leather, so shut up,” he says to a German reporter. “I have no time for zis foolishness.”

Lagerfeld is too busy, too smart, and too old to be brought into any foolishness, at least not that which is not of his own making. At 67—or 72, if the 1933 birth date on a baptismal record unearthed by German tabloids is to be believed—he is one of the most professionally self-realized people alive, keeping busy with an incredible twelve or so collections each year, an extensive photography career, a Paris-based bookshop, personal museum-quality furniture collections, the management of six homes, and staying skinny. Lagerfeld lost 90 pounds four years ago on a low-calorie diet—his book on the subject was a best seller in Europe—and has put on ten or so since. The new, skinny Karl is an improved Karl. The creepy fat guy hiding behind a fan has been replaced by a boogying hipster who hangs out with Stephen Gan and Hedi Slimane. “My people are zee cool ones, the rockers,” says Lagerfeld. “I get along with everyone except for men my age, who are bourgeois or retired or boring, and cannot follow the evolution of time and mood.”

As much as Lagerfeld would like to ignore his association with such men—and aging and death in general—his role as a vital elder statesman has much to do with his importance in the world of fashion. He is the King of Fashion, if you will, though he would prefer to be called its eternal Prince. Lagerfeld is the last of the old-world couturiers, with Valentino his only remaining contemporary, and the last of the big high-fashion names, with Yves Saint Laurent in retirement, Tom Ford in transition, and Helmut Lang disappeared. He is also a terrific pop cartoon—a scolding great-uncle, Dave Navarro the elder, the S&M George Washington. His look is an extremely conscious metaphor for his philosophy of fashion and life: Here, watch as I bring together the old, in my tall eighteenth-century collar and bizarre powdered hair, with the new, as seen in my ponytail and $2,500 Agatha leather pants, “the most expensive leather pants in the world,” he declares, with a laugh exactly like Count Chocula’s in its length and ridiculousness. Without the indecipherable French-German accent, he would be made for reality TV, although one would think he’d resist on grounds that philistines should not even be aware that he exists. His iconography grows and grows: first, menacing larger-than-life portraits at H&M; then, Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art gift shop, where one could buy a pin with his face on it.

“In the whole world, there is nowhere I can go,” says Lagerfeld, in a tone that should have him fluttering that old fan. “Everybody has a camera, and it is flash-flash-flash, and I am a puppet, a marionette, Mickey at Disneyland for children to play with. In Japan, they touch me. I have Japanese women pinch my ass, so now I must say, ‘You can have the photo, but please don’t touch me.’ You cannot pinch the ass of a man my age! And I cannot go out without something for my eyes, because someone might throw chemicals in my face, and I would be like my childhood French teacher whose wife burnt him with acid, Mr. Pommes-Frites, can you believe the name. I can cross the street nowhere in the world, I can never go into a shop. Oh, it’s horrible, horrible.” Lagerfeld, the master of the contrapuntal, grins a bit and then whispers, “In fact, I do like it. It’s very flattering, and very fun.”

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

The place where Lagerfeld will likely be fending off excitable fans next is New York, though he will not say so directly. “I can tell you all sort of bullshit, but I work only from feelings and motivations and creations and needs and opportunities,” he declares. Nevertheless, last year, while working on the show of Chanel couture at the Met, he bought one of the John Pawson–designed apartments in Ian Schrager’s updated Gramercy Park Hotel, which he will decorate only with German design from 1905 to 1915 and move into in April. “I must have a key to the park, because you know I cannot walk in the street,” he says. (Of the Met show, Lagerfeld says, “I do not care if they say I was a Fascist and all this—if you did not like it, you could have walked out.”) Lagerfeld has been spending a lot of time here these days, making a trip about every six weeks, to stay at the Mercer, dine at diet-friendly restaurants like Omen, and occasionally go to nightclubs where young people ask him to sign their clothes with Sharpies. “I like New York these days,” he says. “At least the way I see it, it is perfect, though I am not down in the streets, so don’t ask me about that. I like how the people don’t call me by Monsieur here. It’s always just the first name—Karl!”

Lagerfeld also now has offices in New York, since he sold Lagerfeld Gallery—recently renamed Lagerfeld Collection—to Tommy Hilfiger for $30 million (Hilfiger has no creative say). It was all very sudden, says Hilfiger: “I was at Karl’s home in Paris, and we were telling each other our dreams. I said, ‘You know, I would like to buy another brand.’ He said, ‘Buy mine.’ ” And why not? It may have beefed up Hilfiger’s December sale to Apax Partners, and who owns what and what they plan to do is of little interest to Lagerfeld, who intends to do exactly what he wants regardless. “Groups are groups,” he says, with a wave of his hand.

One very good thing Lagerfeld got out of the Hilfiger deal was some of the most stunning office space in New York, on the seventeenth floor of the Starrett-Lehigh Building. Lagerfeld’s true nature is revealed in his walk, a curious, energetic bourrée performed on the balls of his feet, and on a recent afternoon he dashes to and fro in the offices, drinking in the stunning Hudson River–to–Empire State Building views. “Dee-vvvine,” he pronounces, to the tiny claps of assistants (divine is one of Lagerfeld’s favorite words, never used ironically). “I must be in Milan, Paris, and New York. To show in one city is a problem, because you cannot go to every party the same night. You cannot dance on every bar. But you can dance in different cities on different bars. I think that is the modern way, and I am organized for it.”