An interview with Karl Lagerfeld, one of the most erudite, creative and outspoken figures in the Paris fashion industry

By Michael Budman and Robert Sarner, Paris Passion, Oct. 1983

Fashion means change and inventiveness and designer Karl Lagerfeld, 49, is a master of both. By his own description, he’s a “fashion machine,” continually moving forward, unwilling to bask in the glory of past achievements. A great proponent of verve and refinement, Lagerfeld has given luxury fashion a modern definition.

Born in Hamburg, Germany and raised in the northern part of the country near the border with Denmark, he left home as a young teenager to live on his own in Paris. At 16, he won a design contest sponsored by the International Wool Bureau for a coat. That same year, contest judges also crowned Yves Saint Laurent for his dress design. Early in his career, Lagerfeld gained valuable experience and developed his talents at the haute couture houses of Balmain and Patou.

Lagerfeld “got serious” at age 25. At the time, prêt-à-porter (ready-to-wear), interesting fashion at an affordable price, was emerging as the dominant force in Paris. Putting haute couture behind him, he designed ready-to-wear as an independent in Italy and in 1964 began his association with Chloé, at first as a freelancer just designing a pieces each season for the Paris fashion house.

Lagerfeld is nothing if not prolific. Rarely idle, he’s also the inventive spirit behind Fendi furs in Italy, has numerous fashion licenses in Japan, designs costumes for opera and film and is a professor of fashion in Vienna. He’s constantly on the move.

In addition, Lagerfeld has created three major perfumes over the past decade. In 1975, he came out with Chloé, a feminine scent, his favorite, in a bottle of soft, sculptured lines. He made his contribution to men’s scents in 1978 with the introduction of Lagerfeld, a spicy scent with a sweet tone, an unusual mixture that has become quite popular.

The designer recently concocted a new fragrance “K.L.” The amber-colored perfume has the scent of mandarin oranges and is held in an open fan bottle, a personal touch from Lagerfeld who is seldom seen without his own fan. At the same time, true to his love of beautifully designed printed matter, he just published an elegant new book entitled The Passion of the Fan.

As if all these activities weren’t enough, Lagerfeld has thrown himself into several new ventures. In January, he will begin as artistic director at Chanel. What wonders he will work with the enduring Chanel suit has been the latest fashion guessing game. Lagerfeld revels in such speculation while welcoming the challenge of creating a modern look within the Chanel tradition.

Two consuming projects are in progress. One, a film set in the 1960s, Le Général de L’Armée Morte, will be directed by Luciano Tovali, Michelangelo Antonioni’s favorite cameraman. The other, Les Strauss, is a stage production by Jean-Louis Barrault which Lagerfeld will collaborate on in October.

Lagerfeld is not weighed down by a sense of his own accomplishments. He shuns reminiscing, craves change and rejects outright the notion of saving his clothes for a retrospective. His fascination with new ideas keeps him in a constant state of creative evolution.

Each of his many homes captures another facet of his style and personality. His Parisian hotel particulier (grand urban townhouse) on the Rue de l’Université is furnished entirely in the 18th century style with rooms lit mostly by scented candlelight. A second apartment in Paris, on the Rue de Rivoli overlooking the Tuileries Gardens, serves as a live-in design laboratory complete with bookcases on wheels, with modern touches designed by Andrée Putman. He also has a château in Brittany, a lakeside villa in Switzerland, and a top floor apartment in a palace in Rome. His new living quarters in Monte Carlo feature a sofa constructed like a boxing ring and many black and white photos of naked women by Helmut Newton.

His residence in Monaco has a practical side as well. Lagerfeld recently received tax-free status there, enabling him to better safeguard his estimated four million dollar annual income.

A highly disciplined man, Lagerfeld can spend hours on end in his study, and seems always ready for the challenge of creating another collection for each new season. For Lagerfeld, work is for the effect of the moment, for it’s the moment which fascinates him. He says that what he loves is to “scream, make scandals, have dramas and keep everybody alive.”

Earlier this month, he met with Passion’s Michael Budman and Robert Sarner for a far-ranging discussion. Herewith excerpts from their conversation:

Passion: In a recent New York Times article, you described yourself as a builder.
KL: Yes, I build to destroy, to rebuild again. What I think is interesting is the way you have to pass by a certain point to do something. When you are there, you need another project. If you reach the place you were aiming for, it becomes less interesting if you don’t strive to go further. The important thing is to create new points all the time.

Very few people seem to think like that today.
I am afraid that’s the case, but it’s the only healthy way to think for somebody who is involved in something as stupid as fashion.

Do you have any desire to go into other creative fields?
No. I like to write but I am not a writer. I like to make portraits but I am not a portrait maker. I don’t care about it. As I don’t make my living from it, I can do it for fun. Whether it’s bad or good is only my problem.
For fun, I also do a lot of costumes for opera and things like that. I just did something for La Scala in Milan. I was so bored with the theater and bad organization that for the moment I am fed up with everything related to stage and movies.

Most people think of you as a man of fashion without knowing of your passion for everything printed, especially books and magazines. You seem to have walls of books wherever you live.
Yes, I have so many in the country in places I don’t even know. I’m mad for books and everything that’s printed ¬¬– books, newspapers and art reviews and all those things.

Do you try to stay abreast of what’s happening in the world?
I think one has to. That’s part of my business. To be informed is one of the most important things today. If you are not informed, you have no idea what’s going on in all kinds of businesses. One has to know everything in every different part of life, politics, art, everything. Not that I’m very intellectual, but I like to be informed.

What attracts you to do other things?
The other areas I get involved with are all, in a way, related to what I do. I am a fashion machine. It interests me. It’s my way of expressing myself. I am not a writer, nor a painter. I am someone who is supposed to make things that people put on their backs.

Is it by choice you are not involved in the business side of fashion? Is it only the creative side you are interested in?
Yes, but I can tell you that I am actually also a pretty good businessman. And I am very good with numbers. Thank God, because, if not, I would have trouble. That’s why I’ve never had trouble with the people I’ve worked with because they know it’s difficult to try to trick me. I can calculate the 18.6% TVA [value added tax] in my head as fast as people do it with a machine.

You said you are a fashion machine, but your impact extends beyond matters of style.
Yes, but thank God I don’t ask myself or tell myself that I have an impact anywhere. For me, I have to start again, to redo from zero every six months.

It’s very bad for people to think that they are important or that they did something significant for the world. In this business, what you previously did doesn’t count. What counts is what you are doing now and what you will do next. Who cares about what you did before? There’s no credit for the past.

But reputation so often is built on what you have done.
Reputation, that’s something else. Very often, one’s reputation really makes the money and strengthens the business even when the exciting, creative moments are over. But that is something else. That’s business, and it’s a bore.

[Pierre] Cardin did interesting things in the 1960s. His magic wore off but he still makes big money now, in part because of his reputation based on the past. But you cannot lie to yourself and think about your reputation when you know perfectly well that the creative stuff isn’t right anymore.

Do you think your approach and attitude are different from other major figures in the fashion business?
This I don’t know. But I can say that for me, it’s not an ego trip. There are many fashion people who spend time in their studios, talking about their creativity and taking it so seriously. For me, it’s much more a matter of fun.

What I know how to do best in life is to design clothes, so why should I do something else? I’m not a frustrated architect. I’m not a frustrated decorator. I’ve done exactly what I decided to do when I was a child.

The most important thing in life is to never go one step backward from what you decided you wanted to do. Whether what I’ve done is right or not, I don’t know. But that’s what I wanted. And I’ve gone even farther ahead than I expected, and I like it.

I have houses that are different. I have a Vienna secession house in Rome, the most modern and most advanced things in Monte Carlo. And it’s amusing because it gives me the feeling of being somebody else, somewhere else.

The same thing is true for my working atmosphere. Every place gives me an idea for the other and if somebody tried to put me in one thing where I wasn’t able to do anything else, then I wouldn’t even be worth the price. It would be like a plant you forgot to water. For me, all the information and ideas I get from traveling around, seeing different world atmospheres, is like having several families, and like the water a green plant needs to live and grow.

The one group at Chloé is a family, the other group is a family too, even if sometimes we fight. I don’t care about fighting. I like screaming and growling. I’m very good at that. It’s amusing because I see so many people in my work and travels that it gives me the feeling of living several lives.
In a way, I have a very spoiled work-life. I never have the trouble or problems of the fashion houses. I come, I do the magic moment, and they have the mess.

By buzzing in and out, does it keep your energy stronger and creativity fresher?
Yes. It allows me to bring some fresh air with me. If you stay in the same place all day, there’s no fresh air. Not at all. Especially if it’s a fashion environment.

The people who create fashion know it’s always changing yet for many of them, it seems their environments stay the same.
And they do the same with clothes. I don’t want to mention any by name but look at those poor creatures that became cartoons of themselves compared to what they used to be. They became their own caricature.
It’s a joke. And what I love is when all those people start to talk about creativity and how they create fashion and yet you see the same stuff all the time. They are making a fool out of everyone. That’s not exciting, nor amusing.

Are you ever influenced by what other people do?
No. Of course, there are always certain things in the air. Something you have to pick up on because it’s just the right thing. Never fight against the right thing because you will lose.

Do you go to many fashion shows every season?
No. Most of them put me to sleep. They depress me to death. I know too much about fashion shows to want to go see most of them.
Sometimes I go to Thierry Mugler because I think it’s fun. I go to Sonia Rykiel because I like her very much as a person. And sometimes I go to Marcelle Dupuy because she’s a good friend, too.

Is there any designer you really admire?
I hate the idea of ‘really admire.’ With my own stuff, I realize of course there are good things and there are bad things. Same with other designers.

I like a lot of stuff and a lot of designers. There are good things, bad things, and mediocre things. That’s the way things are made. That’s the way it has to be. If today you were to see pieces from an old Balenciaga show, you would see that likewise there were divine things and also horrors. I think you have to make some horrible things to get through the whole process.

We are pretty lucky that people pay us so much attention for just designing clothes. There are people who do so much more in life and we never talk about them. So really, one must not exaggerate when it comes to the world of fashion. Sometimes when I read interviews with designers, I’m astonished by the heaviness and pretension of what they say. Who do they think they are?

Do you think people today are increasingly preoccupied by how they look and what they wear?
Sure, thank God. And what things they put on! It’s a very strange business that we are in. It’s like streetwalking.

What was your first job in the fashion world?
I started working when I was 16 years old in early 1955. The year before, there was a contest organized around the world by the International Wool Fashion Office in Paris. You had to create a dress or a coat in wool, in a sketch, and you had to be an amateur. About 200,000 people sent in sketches. Eventually, two winners were chosen. Yves Saint Laurent won first prize for the dress while I won for the coat.

Balmain was the one who made the coat based on my sketch and the Yves Saint Laurent dress was made by Givenchy. Balmain told me I should become a designer instead of going to school. He hired me and I worked there for three and a half years. That’s the way I started.

At that time, the atmosphere was still quite glamorous, especially because of all the movie stars and all, but it wasn’t chic. But Dior was chic. Then after three and a half years, I was asked to be art director at Patou. So I began working at Patou when I was only 20 and did it for five years.

Couture was still another thing then compared to today because ready-to-wear didn’t exist then. Or it was simply cheap and boring copies of high fashion. And, in fact, I was bored to death because if you have nothing else to do throughout the year other than work for a little collection, you are underemployed. And I was really bored to death without knowing it.

My ambitions were very limited then. The most important thing in life then was to get a beautiful convertible car every summer, to be tanned the whole year, and to go from one beach to the other, stupid things like that.

So after five years Patou?
The ready-to-wear started around then and I could see in the newspapers and magazines that this was the future, this is what we would be doing. It all happened. And I went to work in Italy as well as in France. I worked for five years with Kritzig, and with Fendi for 16, 17 years.

When did you start your association with Chloé?
It began in 1964, and with Fendi around 1965. It’s all very old already. And they all made big money and big names so nobody should really be so nervous about me doing other things. I don’t even want more money. I want the freedom. Nobody can tell you that you have to do this or that, and not these other things, not in this life.

Can you speak a bit more about the future, especially in connection with rumors about you designing for Chanel?
There is no rumor. This is the reality.

When is this taking place?
In January. But it doesn’t mean that I will stop doing other things. I will keep everything, including my whole empire, and just make it bigger.

Is Paris still as important in the fashion world today as it was back in the 1950s and 60s?
It’s different. There’s something in the air in Paris which doesn’t exist anywhere else. There are things that have been done in Paris that couldn’t have been done anywhere else. But there are other things you can’t do here that you can only do somewhere else. Today, there’s no longer only one fashion capital. But in the 50s, Paris was the capital of fashion.

Back then, Paris was like another world. It had nothing to do with Paris today. It was still the Paris you see in the old photos of Versailles and all those things.

Then, there was even a certain smell. And it was a darker city because it was before (André) Malraux cleaned up all the buildings ten or 15 years later. Paris then was still very much 19th century. The war [World War 2] had not been over for long.

What do you remember about the smell?
They had all those garbage cans in front of their houses. I don’t know what the smell was. You couldn’t compare it to anything else in the world. The smell eventually disappeared and doesn’t exist anymore.

Back then, for example, you could accept horrible hotel rooms because it was a Paris hotel room, and there was a kind of magic about that.

But coming from a very protected sheltered upbringing, I still ask myself today how I could have lived in Paris back then with those conditions. At first, I thought it was a nightmare but I later realized it was not a nightmare. It was Paris.

Do you feel the changes over the past 30 years have made Paris better?
No. Paris is easier now in a way but it’s also harder. I don’t like Paris as much any more. Years ago, I never thought I could be happy anywhere else in the world other than Paris. Today, I am very happy in many other places, too.

Where did you first live when you moved to Paris?
I lived on the Rue de la Sorbonne in a hotel for students, non-students, and children of diplomats. I couldn’t go just anywhere as we were vaguely supervised by a couple. The lady was a very fat woman with a mustache and the hairdo of Lucienne Boyer, the French singer famous for her song Parlez–moi d’Amour in 1930.

I remember exactly the room where I stayed, even the furniture. It was a big room with a bathroom and balcony. That was considered a luxury then because bathrooms did not exist in many French houses. The hotel was very beautiful because it looked over the Musée Cluny and the Tour St. Jacques and all that. So I thought it was very Parisian.

I still ask myself sometimes how I managed to get my parents to let me come here on my own. I said to them, “I want to go Paris” and they said “Why not?”

I remember the first day I came to Paris. Friends of my parents came to pick me up at the train station and they brought me for lunch to the Berkely, which is now a snack bar on Avenue Montaigne on the corner of Rue de Ponthieu. After a big lunch, I told them I wanted to go back alone to the hotel. They said, “How can you get back to the hotel, you won’t find the way.” I answered, “I know Paris better than you do and I want to walk. Please let me go.”

So I walked and crossed the Rond-Point and went to Avenue Montaigne. Back then, Avenue Montaigne was still very country-like. There was a plaza, tiny little houses and gardens. And though I didn’t know it then, there was a tiny hotel where you could rent rooms for an hour. The hotel had such a bad reputation that people used to say “if you stand in front of this hotel and scream “salope” (bitch), someone would appear in every window.”

From there, I went to the Place de l’Allemagne, crossed the Pont Alexandre III, walked along Quai d’Orsay and down Boulevard St. Germain to the hotel. I was exhausted and quickly fell asleep in my room. When I woke up, I was very hungry. Never in my life before had I been out alone to have dinner in a restaurant. At 14 years old, coming from an overprotected childhood, I realized that I didn’t know how to do this, how to face it. In this hotel, there was no restaurant and I was very hungry. So I stood in the room like a stupid baby and opened the window and looked at the courtyard. Through a big window I saw a French family having dinner. They were eating a tomato salad. Never in my life had I wanted so much to have food. But I just couldn’t face the idea of going out alone to have dinner. I still remember how stupid I felt that first evening, but I was scared to go out.

The next day, I went to the place where I had to register for school and had my first lonely lunch in a restaurant. I chose the food myself and paid for it myself but I wasn’t used to that. After two weeks, I went out every night to the movies and walked home at night.

There was a theater called the Cinéma des Champs-Elysées which showed only old movies. I went there every day and eventually saw all the classics in that cinema. In France, you pay for your ticket and you can stay for three showings. That helped me a lot in making my French better. And then I would walk home late at night to the Boulevard St. Michel. It was quite a long walk but there were no prostitutes in the streets and little boys were not taken for streetwalkers, so there was no danger at all. I never even thought about it.

I went home for a holiday in December after which I had to make a real effort to return to Paris. After being home in a very comfortable life, it was quite difficult to face the idea of going back to that hotel room in Paris. But I said to myself, “If you don’t do it now, it will be gone forever.” So I went back to the filthy hotel room.

I remember all these dates because I have kept a diary for every day of my life.

Yes, I do it every day. But never more than one page a day.

Paris in the 50s seems to have been a special period.
Yes, but keep in mind what it really was. It was OK for us, but for most people, Paris was a nightmare of dirtiness, discomfort, and an unpleasant life. It was OK if you were rich and had lots of privileges. For everybody else, it was pretty difficult.

People don’t realize what an easy life they have today compared to then. In those days, there were fewer cars, most homes had no bathrooms, most people in the street looked horrible as they had ugly clothes. There were very few elegant-looking women. The crowds looked terrible.

If you ask me what was the dominant color then, I’d say there was no color. Everything was dirty grey. The reality of daily life was quite difficult. I had no difficulty because my father sent me a big check every month, even when I started working at 16.

You had to be rich and own a nice house. If you didn’t have this, you were real uncomfortable. There was nearly no central heating. Paris was dirty and primitive. But it was Paris. The magic was here. Being in Paris, you accepted everything, even the worst. Because you came for that.

What were some of the places that you went to?
There was a place I adored called the Elephant Blanc that was divine. They had two orchestras; one was kind of an American orchestra, the other was South American and both turned around on the stage. People were dressed to die and there was a kind of magic there. And at the beginning of Régine’s when it was still on the Rue du Four, it was magical, too.

It was funny in the 1950s to be in Paris on summer evenings in a convertible car with a lot of friends. Then, there were lots of funny people. Now they are horrid and smell of French fries and tourists but back then, everybody knew everybody. The evenings in St. Germain were like paradise. But the opening of the Drugstore brought a definite end to the St. Germain-des-Prés scene. It became a kind of new Pigalle.

Did you ever go to Montmartre?
Rarely. I thought it was tacky and horrible. The nightclub scene in Pigalle happened in the 40s and was over by the 50s. By then, the clubs had the smell of things gone by. Cold smoke and an empty bottle smell. There was no magic left in those places.

It’s interesting that the Drugstore had such a negative impact on the St. Germain-des-Prés scene.
The Drugstore used to be a café called the Royale. It was open even longer than the Flore and Deux Magots, and those who were really alcoholics crossed the street and went to the Royale. It was a very unglamorous place. And now it has all those red lights everywhere. Then there were big trees and a village-like feel.

The Bonaparte was a really old café. Sartre lived on the second floor with his mother and would look out of the window in the evening smoking his pipe. It was another world. It was a different time. Back then, it was amusing. Now other things are amusing. Now, it’s much more cosmopolitan. Now, we are into another world.

But don’t compare. Never compare. That world was like that. Now, it’s different. Don’t have regrets. It’s regrets that make you old.

You have to change your scale of values. Lots of people I knew from my age group I don’t see anymore. And I nearly never see people I knew 25 or 30 years ago because they bore me to death talking about the nice old days.

I like today as much and more. Perhaps I’ll like tomorrow even better. I don’t care. I don’t remember. I have to go to my diary to remember. In fact, I remember very well.

< Back