WWD CEO Summit: Karl Lagerfeld

The designer sat down with WWD’s executive editor Bridget Foley to discuss a wide range of topics, from his fashion impulses to the relevance of couture.

WWD: Do you like going to different client bases? Do you like meeting with clients?
I never meet clients. I never go to the salon. I am not a coutourier from that school — who goes downstairs to the salon to see if the dress fits. I don’t do this. I only do collections.

WWD: But what about the parties, when Chanel has a party in Scotland or Dallas?
Yes, I go to them, but I am not really a party freak and I don’t have so much time. For Chanel alone, my contract...if there is a contract. In fact, it’s just a little paper between me and Mr. Wertheimer. It’s nothing. I don’t read contracts longer than one page because it’s boring and unnecessary. When people are supposed to work together, you don’t need a contract. I try to find the right way; what the company needs. Chanel, with all the shops in the world, needs not four collections as the contract says, but six. That makes eight with the couture. I do eight collections for them because I think Chanel is one of the few, if not the only company, where, every two months, the windows are totally renewed.

WWD: You say fashion freaks might enjoy a girl coming out of a doorway....With Chanel, we go in anticipating an extravaganza. How do you come up with the ideas?
I thought a basic show was boring. One has to do something to make it more memorable. Also, the way people look at shows, on the television or the Internet, was very different 10 years ago. Look at the show in Scotland. Mr. Pavlosvky told me it made 100 million euros in free advertising only by going through the press and on television. Do you know many other things where you get 100 million euros of advertising for free?

WWD: In the past decade, we have seen some designers leave the landscape and many more, certainly in the U.S., come up, Do you pay attention and whom do you think has the potential for major success?
Major success is very fragile in this business. You can have a huge success and, three seasons later, you are killed or fired, or you leave or are retired, or you have a problem. I am not talking about myself and so I don’t know. Of course I pay attention because I am interested in fashion.

I think we live in an interesting moment in fashion. People always say it was better before. That is ridiculous. First of all, one shouldn’t compare. Circumstances are different, and I think there are very many gifted designers in the world today. The funniest thing, in France, all the people who have artistic director jobs in important companies are no longer French — an American at Vuitton, English at Celine, Belgian at Dior. Isn’t that a strange thing?

WWD: This past season, with Raf Simons at Dior and Hedi Slimane at Saint Laurent, there was a lot of buzz about the season. Did you feel increased competition?
Is there something healthier than competition? If not, you fall asleep and think success, and what you did, is granted. Nothing is granted in fashion, and this is what I love about fashion.

WWD: What irritates you most?
What irritates me are people who create complications because they think they are professionals by creating complications. And then people who make things messy to look serious and in fact try to justify the salary. I hate this.

WWD: You said you don’t want to talk about French politics but I am going to ask anyway. Do you feel a difference since the last presidential election?
A difference? It’s another planet. If you read the papers — and I am not French, so I can say it — you cannot believe what you read. The story between Putin, Hollande and Depardieu. Things like this should not exist in politics. I think it’s funny what Mr. Putin did because he doesn’t want to be lectured by the French.

You know, I never voted in any country. Politics is interesting if you are in politics. If not, forget about it. I stay in countries where I think it’s OK, the minute I don’t think it’s OK, I go. I am a free European, I am linked to nothing. I pay taxes in France but I wouldn’t pay one cent more. There’s no reason to, because I have no social security, I ask for nothing. I have a flat fee given by the left wing government 15 years ago. They respect that, I respect that.”

WWD: Indulge us in a little bit of nostalgia. Tell us about Paris in the Seventies and Eighties and fashion.
The Eighties were very different from the Seventies. I prefer to forget about the Eighties. In the Eighties, I lived in Monte Carlo most of the time...because Paris with Mitterrand was not the most exciting place, either. The Seventies were great in a way because it was careless, it was free… as long as you were young. It had something unpretentious. It was not about money. You never heard about money. Today you hear too much about money. We need it, but as a subject, it’s not very funny. There was no red carpet, there were no 200 bodyguards for famous people. The cool thing was light, young, improvised and fresh. Today things are all overorganized.

WWD: You said there was no red carpet. I was reading some old interviews. Ten years ago, we talked about celebrities’ impact on fashion. Ten years later, that’s proven not to have been a passing fancy. What do you think the celebrity impact has been on fashion? Has it been good on fashion, bad for fashion?
I don’t know if it has had an impact on the fashion department for the clothes, but certainly for the beauty and the fragrances, because the girls are great. You must admit. I can understand that everyone wants to look like them, but here’s another thing: You talked about couture. If you give an actress a couture dress a woman had ordered, they cancel the dress in a second. Perhaps they are afraid that the husband compares and thinks that Nicole Kidman looks better in the dress, but I don’t know. That’s a very strange thing, no? The public who looks at television is impressed by the red carpet. The women who are in a kind of competition on the money side, who buy the dresses, don’t see it the same way. But that’s only limited to couture.

WWD: But do you think that is, sort of, the world’s runway and by playing to such a broad audience, the fashion itself gets watered down?
We propose, the selection is after. That is not our problem. My problem is to show collections I think are right for the moment and for the label. But I don’t think it’s bad or good for fashion. This comes later. This is not my problem. I am not a journalist, I am not a buyer, I’m hardly a consumer.

WWD: You did make a life out of fashion, and we know that you love photography and you have a real, serious, photographic career. Have you ever thought about writing memoirs or essays?
No memoirs. I have nothing to say, and what I could say, I cannot say. But that is why I like this interview. I only answer questions personally, I have nothing to say. And also, you know, there is a problem with memoirs. Things are not always that pleasant. There are people who have perhaps played an important part in life, but I don’t want to give them the pleasure of ever mentioning them again. That limits the thing. I could write about backstage couture when I started at Balmain, but this is different. Memoirs, no.

WWD: What do you consider modern? Can you definite modern today?
Modern is right for the moment and the next moment, but the word avant-garde is an overused word.

WWD: Is there an avant-garde today?
No, avant-garde was OK in 1920, 1930, or perhaps the 1960s. Today avant-garde is an overrated word.

WWD: Last question, what are Karl Lagerfeld’s three, or four, or five, steps to success.
It’s a whole staircase. I try to pay attention not to fall down, but with my black glasses it’s not easy, because in fact I am shortsighted. To go down the staircase, I don’t need it, and to go up I don’t need it either, so I prefer to keep my glasses to watch everything, and make an effort not to fall. I think, step by step, sometimes you go two steps back, that’s a healthy thing. Nobody has a one line career like this. That doesn’t exist.

Audience Question: You’ve channeled Coco Chanel and you know more about her than perhaps anyone alive. Is it true that she was an orphan and do you think that the underlying tone of respect perhaps comes from that?
I think so. Her parents died when she was young. Her father left, her mother died. In the 19th century, people died very quickly with tuberculosis and all of this. She invented perhaps part of her life, but she’s totally allowed to do that. It sounds good in books. I think her big problem was about how to get away. You must put her back to the period. In those days, there was no big choice for girls. There was no background, no money, no school. You could be a worker, a maid, and if you were a little cute, you could make some money with men. Horrible to say, but we forget that today. Our moral standards of today are totally unnecessary to be applied on that period. It was very difficult period for women.

Audience Question: You have a very distinct look. Is it something that came about by accident, or is it something that you sort of evolved into?
You know, you think it’s a very distinct look. For me, it’s a normal look. I have a shirt with a collar with a tie with a black jacket with jeans. I’m surprised myself. It’s not an invention — it’s a normal evolution. I had 100 different looks in life. Just like the steps of success, the steps of looks should be, too. Stay yourself, but change the aspect or else it becomes really boring, no? You cannot compete or compare yourself to what you were before, so you better change.

Audience Question: You had mentioned that you don’t keep archives. So you don’t go back and take a look at things from 20 or 30 years ago?
No, never ever. First of all, I have a good memory. There’s a lot in storage, so if I make a good effort I can vaguely remember. It’s different for houses. I can cross all of the houses that I’ve lived in and decorated in my life, everything included. Professionally, I do not make this kind of promenade because I think it is not good. I can redo something because I had forgotten I did it, but I did not do it on purpose. The other day, I went to the opening of the museum in Paris for the show for Chloé, in my fact only my Chloé — the clothes from 1965 to 1983. I looked at it and thought “that’s not that bad,” but could not imagine that it was me, the person, who did that. I had no relationship to the thing. Some of them could still work today and they were good ideas. I was the most surprised person, but it was not an influence of my next step in work. The show was well done, I must say. But I had to shock myself.

Audience Question: Karl, you did a collaboration with H&M some years back and since then every year retailers have done some collaboration with designers. Do you think that this is over or is there someone that you would still like to collaborate with?
It can continue and I think it is a very smart thing to do, collaborating for a short time, because you get into other kinds of work and it’s interesting, but it depends on what they propose. I’m not looking for jobs, thank god. The other day, some man from the Gulf called and wanted me to do something with him. I said, “I’ll see you when you come to Paris,” and he said, “No you must come.” I said, “No, I’m not looking for jobs, but I can send you my assistant.” He said, “We don’t work with girls.” I never called him back.

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