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The Paris spring haute couture may be less than two weeks away, but Karl Lagerfeld didn’t let that stop him from flying to New York for the WWD CEO Summit. After all, as he put it with a nod to his penchant for the private aviation sector, “There are traveling conditions and traveling conditions, so it’s not that difficult.” Nor, it seemed, was it for him to attract a glossy entourage for the occasion, which included Sarah Jessica Parker, Carine Roitfeld, Anna Wintour and Stephen Gan, as well as Lagerfeld regulars Brad Kroenig and his son and sometime Chanel model Hudson.
They came to see WWD’s executive editor Bridget Foley sit down with the designer to discuss a wide range of topics, from his fashion impulses — “I listen to my inner voices, like a French male version of the Joan of Arc” — to the relevance of couture, his relationship with the Wertheimers, who own Chanel, and his views on France’s recent political shift to the left.
WWD: Karl, I know you are not one to revel in past glories.
Karl Lagerfeld: My own past. Other people’s past, what I had known or I don’t know, is interesting. I am not really interested in my own past, because I know everything about it.
WWD: Well, one thing you know is that this year will mark, if not celebrate, your 30th anniversary at Chanel, and you have been longer at Fendi. Recently we have seen a number of changes at the creative helm of houses. What makes for a successful designer-house relationship?
KL: Some people say I am a hired gun, and I am very flattered to be one because the label is there. Ms. Menkes recently wrote a very interesting article about this in The New York Times. The label is there before, it has to be after. It’s not the star system of a person for a certain number of years and then...who knows? I think the important thing is to be behind the label, and not use the label for something that pushes your own fame. I cannot cross the street, but Chanel also [did] a lot to help me make Chanel what it is now. When I took it over, everybody — even the people from the business — said to me, “Don’t touch it, it’s dead.” Mr. Wertheimer said, “You can do whatever you want,” and I did, and apparently it worked because I am good when the work conditions are perfect. The people who don’t make an effort on things they know better get less. It’s very strange but the best get the best.
WWD: What were the conditions? Chanel was doing very badly when you went in.
K.L.: Ten or 11 years after her death, it was a sleeping beauty with one idea: respect. The good thing about Chanel is that her whole life was not that flawless that, “Yes, we have to be respectful.” The other side, that’s about fashion. Only doing an homage really gets nowhere. That’s boredom incarnated.
WWD: How do you balance the two — staying true to the Chanel identity that you, at this point, have nurtured and created, and with the proper amount of irreverence to make it modern?
K.L.: You have to have your eyes open. It’s easy to make Chanel into something fashionable for every period. First of all, there are so many elements. In a way, my job is to make believe that something’s very Chanel even if that was something that was never done at Chanel. It’s like a game, and maybe I am not too bad a gambler.
WWD: What is it that you have learned from your relationship with Mr. Wertheimer?
K.L.: Without that, it wouldn’t exist but he never interferes. I have nothing to do with the perfume, but in our world, we do the fashion we think is right. Me, Bruno Pavlovsky, Virginie [Viard], the creative studio director of everything, we don’t do meetings, we don’t talk about marketing. Maybe they have marketing people but I never saw them. I have never gone to a meeting in 31 years. In fact, 30 years is not true. It’s 31. The first collection was in January 1983 but you don’t do the collection the week before and I started in 1982. But as I am not into anniversaries, I will not be touchy about the subject.
WWD: Your work ethic is legendary. What drives you?
K.L.: If you accept a job or it’s something that is your own business, you do it decently, or you forget about it. I am beyond. I can do whatever I want, in the most perfect conditions, and it works. In a moment in the world where not so many things are working that well, I am very lucky and hope that this reflects in my work. Work conditions are important. I mean, I don’t want to run a company myself. I have nothing against business. My father was a businessman, but I like the creative freedom.
WWD: You said you don’t do meetings, and you don’t get involved in the marketing, but you make no bones about being a commercial designer. Do you think about how things will sell and performance when you’re designing?
K.L.: No, thank god, because then it becomes marketing. I hope it will, but I don’t formulate it. I think that’s a very unhealthy thing. I am a commercial designer. As Carrie Donovan used to say, “Fashion is what people wear,” and I don’t think that’s changed. I am happy that so many people in the world like Chanel. The other day, the owner of another big group asked me, “Do you have permanent sales at Chanel?” Why? “Because the shops are so crowded all the time.” I am saying we are pretty lucky. They may say I do the right thing. Somebody may do it better, but I don’t know who for the moment.
WWD: You have successfully done something so many people have tried. You have cross-generational appeal. Real women; young girls who want the first Chanel jacket; young actresses who can’t wait to wear Chanel on the red carpet...but you haven’t lost the core of the lady who really has the money to buy Chanel. How do you do that?
K.L.: That is a mystery that I don’t try to analyze because that would be very unhealthy. I just work like this. I am not such a serious person. I don’t ask too many questions. I try to give kind of the right answers. I don’t listen to my voice, I listen to my inspiration.
WWD: What inspires you?
K.L.: Everything. I am what people call a voyeur. I look at everything. I remember everything. I can redo things my way because a bad idea of somebody else can give you a good idea. I am like a building with an antenna that captures everything. I want to know everything. I read every magazine. I want to be informed. I think that’s exciting about fashion. You look at paintings from whatever century, but you can only date them by the clothes. That means fashion is important.
WWD: Are there artists you are particularly interested in right now?
K.L.: My favorite is Jeff Koons, because I think that’s the right spirit of our times. I like the spirit, the proportions, the person, the whole thing. When I like something though, I don’t ask myself why. I only like it, that’s all.
WWD: What are you reading right now?
K.L.: As I, more or less, speak three languages, I read a lot of books. I have two publishing operations in Germany with Gerhard Steidl, one for reading and one for photo books. I read what’s new in English, what’s new in French, what’s new in German, though there’s not much. For the moment, I am reading “Back to Blood” by that man in the white suit [Tom Wolfe].
WWD: You photograph other people’s clothes, you photograph fashion. Are there any genres that do not interest you?
K.L.: You never know where good photography is. I love to do architecture. It’s interesting for a designer to do photos, because if not, you are isolated in your studio after you do a collection. Doing photos, doing advertising, you meet with other people. You are not isolated. The worst thing in fashion, which was the case with couture in the past in France, is the ivory tower. I think that’s like a cemetery. I am very much against it.
WWD: What’s the role of couture today?
K.L.: Somebody once said that couture was dead when someone closed their house. Apparently, it’s not really true, because, in fact, there are more clients for couture than there were 20 years ago. The clients look like models. They could buy ready-to-wear and buy it because some of the rtw today has the prices of couture in the past. There are so many new worlds and so much new money. They’re interested in it because they discover it.
I think couture has a real reason to exist in a limited way, like Chanel or Dior, because they have a real couture house organization. Small designers who don’t have a real organization should do expensive rtw, because couture is not just the same dresses made-to-order, but it’s also the presentation, the fittings, the whole thing that goes with it. There is something mythical about it that cannot be improvised. You can make very good clothes at home on a limited scale but a real couture organization...there are very few left.
WWD: Are the new clients mostly in what are the newer markets or is there a remaining significant core in the West?
K.L.: Today, the private jets. Most of the clients don’t even see the collection in the salon. The collection goes to the country, it’s shown to the women after they make a vague choice on the video. It’s a different world from the past, because of private planes. Many of the rich people of the past are poor people compared to the richness of today.
WWD: You have also taken various rtw collections — not the major collections for spring and fall, but the pre-collections, the special collections — [out of Paris] and just did a big show in Scotland. How important is it, do you think, to leave Paris for a collection?
K.L.: It’s very important to do it in a very special way, because today, everything is shown on the Internet and on television. When you have a show with only a girl coming out of the door, crossing a runway, it’s OK for fashion freaks but the public get bored very quickly. There has to be some magical surrounding. That’s why I went to Scotland to this castle where Mary Stuart was born, and it was quite a magical moment. To do the opposite, next time, in a year, I will go to Dallas. You know why? First of all, I love Texas. I love Texans. There’s another reason. When Chanel reopened, the French press was beyond nasty. The only press that understood it immediately was the American press, and Neiman Marcus gave her the Oscar for her collection, so I think it’s a nice thing to go there.
Normally I try to find a vague connection. For Scotland, it was easy because her lover was hunting with her in Scotland and it’s is how she discovered tweeds, even if our tweeds have nothing to do with her tweeds of the past, but that’s not the subject. She went to Venice a lot, that’s why I did a show in Venice. She had a Russian lover, and loved Russian art, and so I did it in Russia. I try to find a connection, but the connection is often very vague. With Texas, it’s a detail, but with little detail, you can make a whole story. I am a storyteller for that.