Legendary designer Karl Lagerfled, in conversation with Andrew O’Hagan and shot by Jean-Baptiste Mondino, for The New York Times Style T Magazine.
A brief excerpt below:
The room is all about the books, lying horizontally on towering shelves that go to the ceiling. Euripides’s ‘‘Electra.’’ Samuel Beckett’s letters. ‘‘A Companion to Arthurian Literature.’’ The poems of Cavafy. ‘‘Alice Faye: A Life Beyond the Silver Screen.’’ ‘‘My problem is I have no experience,’’ said Lagerfeld, who came into the room, shook my hand and dove, at my first mention of the name ‘‘Proust,’’ into the most florid and energetic conversation. ‘‘Because I don’t believe in experience.’’
‘‘You have no past?’’
‘‘Not as far as I remember. For other people, maybe. But personally I make no effort to remember. I like the language in Proust, but not the context. I could say something mean. It’s all — you know — the son of the concierge looking at society people. There was this woman who survived from that group. The wife of a banker, Madame Porgès. They had a huge hôtel particulier in front of the Plaza Athénée hotel, where LVMH is now. She died a hundred years after everyone else. She was not very chic, and people said, ‘She was the last person who could remember a world she was never part of.’ Some couture designer — to be kind I will not say his name — once said to me he liked Proust because Françoise Sagan coached him in the best passages.’’
I believe he is talking about Yves Saint Laurent. He paused. ‘‘There was a moment when designers draped in ermine would be reading Proust, or pretending to.’’
And so we began. Karl Lagerfeld loves only the present. He loves work and does eight collections a year for Chanel, as well as his work for Fendi and other companies. In conversational terms, he takes to the track like a prize racehorse, not only groomed, but leaping the fences and taking the corners with brio. Unlike most people in fashion, he actually likes questions, gaining on you one moment, falling back the next, but never resting on his laurels. I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone more fully native to their own conception of wonder. That’s to say: He lives out his own legend in every way he can think of, with every instinct he has, and in a world of stolid conventions, he has the courage to perpetuate a vision of something wonderful. He also has the intelligence not to take himself terribly seriously, laughing easily, sending up his own iconic status, and — God save us — actually thinking about the world he makes money from, instead of just feasting on its vanities. Lagerfeld is a man on top of his own greatest invention: himself. And believe it or not he has the talent and the good taste, after all these years, to continue finding the world mysterious, and to give himself wholeheartedly to its discovery. There’s nothing that doesn’t interest Lagerfeld, except perhaps death.
‘‘What does survival mean to you?’’ I asked.
‘‘Well, I’m a battlefield sort of person.’’
‘‘You like the fight?’’
‘‘Yes,’’ he said. ‘‘But not with intimates.’’
Nor does he take inventory of his past: ‘‘One day it will be over and I don’t care. As my mother used to say, ‘There is one God for everybody and all the religions are shops.’ ’’ His mother read constantly, he said. ‘‘I remember her being on the couch reading and telling other people what to do. … I spent my childhood in the country and started reading even before going to school. There was nothing else in my life but sketching and reading.’’
As he picked at his lunch and sipped Diet Coke, I wondered if the only old-fashioned thing about Lagerfeld was his way of speaking. It is fabulous, both inward and outward at the same time, the actions of a man searching his thoughts and pouring out his learning. It’s not everyone who sees thoughts as action, but he does. Let me show you how he trips from one thing to the next. When I asked him about the 19th century, he only said, ‘‘We are spoiled. We have dry cleaners. They did not.’’ Then he talked about the Scottish philosopher David Hume. (‘‘I just found a book by him in a box of books that came to me from my parents.’’) Then quickly we moved to the case of the German novelist Günter Grass. At this point I saw how entertainingly Lagerfeld will give vent to his opinions. I told him I once did a public talk with Grass at the New York Public Library. Grass had just published a memoir that revealed his time spent as a young member of the Waffen-SS. ‘‘He left it too late,’’ Lagerfeld said without hesitation. ‘‘You can’t give moral lessons all your life and have that in your past. He was the most boring, lesson-giving writer, and everything was lost in fake political thoughts. Willy Brandt was clever enough not to give him a post. And — even worse — the sketching!’’ At this Lagerfeld let out a giant roar of disapproval. ‘‘Horrible! Like a mediocre German art student of the 1950s!’’ He went into a piece of gossip and quoted his friend, the late style journalist Ingrid Sischy (‘‘a genius’’) and then told me that before he knew that fashion could be a job he wanted to be a cartoonist.