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Karl Lagerfeld, Boy Prince of Fashion

The Chanel spring-summer 2006 haute couture runway show in Paris.  

The organization of which he speaks is a support system of a half-dozen image-makers, casting directors, public-relations officers, and graphic designers who travel the world with him, hooking up with creative satellites to consult on projects. Today in the studio, there’s Stephen Gan and Harper’s Bazaar senior fashion editor Melanie Ward, consultants on Lagerfeld Collection and the Karl Lagerfeld line, which includes denim and T-shirts and is overseen by Ward and will be sold in top-tier department stores beginning in March. As with Chanel and Fendi, Lagerfeld controls every aspect of the image-making, from photography to the concept of the ad campaign. The team follows him from city to city like a rap star’s posse. Their look is sleek Euro professional, all with close shaves, slim-cut sport jackets, and starched collars. Most wear some sort of chunky silver Chrome Hearts jewelry, a Lagerfeld obsession since he met co-designer Laurie Stark at a fashion show and she bent over in her leather pants to show him the tartan letters spelling karl across her butt. Today Lagerfeld wears a sterling-silver belt of the American flag with the Pledge of Allegiance engraved on the back—“Dee-vine!”—and a pendant around his neck. He unscrews it to reveal a stack of seaweed pills and pops one in his mouth.

“Our job is to be the team of Karl,” declares Lagerfeld Collection publicist Caroline LeBar, an imposing Frenchwoman in Libertine suits and one of Lagerfeld’s long-term protectors (“I do not like strangers,” he explains). Over a catered sushi lunch—Lagerfeld sits apart from the group, waving a silver fork over pineapple and asparagus in Chinese-takeout boxes that are, oddly, colored black—a member of his team talks about Lagerfeld’s recent photo shoot with Christina Aguilera. “She is horrible!” she exclaims. “She did not even kiss Karl good-bye. She just sticks out her head from the door, ‘Bye!’ ”

“Oh, well,” I say. “She is a pop star.” “Karl is a pop star,” she declares.

On the roof for the photo shoot, it is perfectly mild, and the city seems at peace, with helicopters floating overhead and boats moving slowly down the river. An androgynous model climbs onto a fire escape in a Lagerfeld Collection floor-length black dress cut down the center, fluttering in the wind. It’s inspired by the clothes that Lagerfeld began to wear when he got skinny: skintight pants and long vampiric frock-coats, all Berlin all the time. “A little young Bonaparte!” says Lagerfeld of the model, whispering with Gan. “She is beautiful, but as a model she has a flaw. Her legs are too short. But nobody notices. How perfect she is for this! How divine!”

“Everybody has a camera, and it’s flash-flash-flash. I am a puppet, a marionette, Mickey at Disneyland.”

The model turns her angular body into the sun, and you can see the outline of a tattoo down her belly through the gauzy fabric. “I want to see it—it looks like lacing,” Lagerfeld tells Ward. “Now, I have nothing against tattoo, as long as I don’t have to put it on my body. And her nose-pierce, well, we can move with a computer, though I don’t know if you have a cold if it is very pleasant. Some of them have pierces in the nipples also—and uh-oh—in other areas too!” He laughs his Count Chocula laugh and shakes his head. “That’s modern.”

For all his interest in being modern, Lagerfeld can be quite old-fashioned. He does not drive or use a cell phone, nor does he smoke, drink, or take drugs. He takes great solace in the proprieties of social life and is always telling everyone what can and cannot be done. For example, there were plans for a dinner at LVMH head Bernard Arnault’s new Manhattan apartment after the Fendi store opening, but Lagerfeld squashed them upon hearing that Arnault’s mother had died. “They say it is an apartment Arnault has not yet lived in so it is okay, but I say you cannot go to somebody’s private house without him, knowing that his mother is dead, sitting there eating his food—no, no, one cannot do this,” declares Lagerfeld. With those who are refined, he is refined—“Karl is a great storyteller, a gentleman, and a true wit,” says Nicole Kidman. “Working with him and dining with him are equal pleasures”—and with those who are not, he is delighted to be naughty. Says Helena Christensen, “At a shoot with all these important clients around, he will whisper some really perverted joke in my ear, or say, ‘Did you see her breasts, her on the left? Or him, look at him, isn’t it perverted how he is pushing his torso towards us?’ ” Lagerfeld socializes with royalty, like Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles, and fits right in. “The public does not know who Camilla is,” he declares. “She is the life of the party! She’s sparkling, she’s witty, she’s ready for everything, and not pretentious, not one bit. If you had to make a choice to live with somebody, this is the one.” Of Princess Diana, he says, “She was pretty and she was sweet, but she was stupid.”

Before he ruled the world of fashion, Lagerfeld was a pampered little prince. The heir to a German condensed-milk fortune, he was raised on a 12,000-acre estate near the Danish border. At 4, he insisted on having his own valet because he liked to change clothes several times a day. The family remained on the estate during World War II, suffering no casualties or hardships; Lagerfeld insists that he barely even knew there was a war. But all was not sunshine and rainbows. His mother was a villain and her crimes many: He was not allowed to chatter on when talking to her, because “you may be 6 years old, but I am not”; she refused to let him wear glasses although he was shortsighted, saying, “Children with glasses are the ugliest thing in the world”; she scolded him for smoking as a teenager, because “if you smoke, you show the hands, and as yours are not beautiful . . . you should not.” Among Mater’s few judicious comments was that homosexuality was “nothing, just like hair color, some are black and some are blonde, who cares,” and this Lagerfeld repeats with some pride. He doesn’t talk about his sexual orientation and maintains that he never had sexual congress with the man he calls the love of his life, the Parisian “It” dandy Jacques de Bascher, who called Lagerfeld “Mein Kaiser” and died of aids in 1989. When Lagerfeld says he “hated the nineties, for some reasons,” it is code for many miserable years suffering with a broken heart, partially expressed by naming his Hellenic-inspired villa in Hamburg “Jako,” an amalgam of their names, and briefly selling a perfume of the same appellation. In fact, De Bascher was the reason Lagerfeld gained weight to begin with. He writes in The Karl Lagerfeld Diet that directly before De Bascher’s death, “I started to lose interest in my appearance, because I knew what was going to happen. I lost interest in myself and trivial matters. I felt old-fashioned in my proper made-to-measure Italian clothes. I started to buy my clothes from Matsuda, Comme des Garçons, and Yohji Yamamoto. I went from small to medium, medium to large, then to extra-large.”