In her regular column, Meredith Etherington-Smith pays tribute to her friend, the world-renowned fashion designer, art collector and aesthetic polymath, who died recently aged 83
The death of Karl Lagerfeld, supreme fashion designer, art collector and true aesthetic polymath, has brought back fond memories of a period in the 1970s and ’80s when I was fortunate enough to see a great deal of him at work and at play.
We met first in Paris in the 1970s. I was working for French Vogue at the time, and became a regular at Le Sept, a tiny and very exclusive nightclub on the rue St Anne. Le Sept was the venue of choice for all world-famous fashion designers — notably Karl and Yves St Laurent — and their attendant cliques. They came to dine upstairs on such delights as spaghetti and caviar, before heading down to the disco in the basement where we danced until dawn.
In those days Karl had a beard and the physique of a body builder. He always wore formal black tailored suits, white collars, ties or stocks — and always carried a fan. He would go through subsequent phases of wearing Japanese tunics from Yohji Yamamoto and the uber-slim clothes designed by Heidi Slimane, having reinvented himself as a slim, boyish figure with a pure white pony tail, fingerless gloves and four-inch white collars to his Hilditch & Key shirts. Image was all — it was a form of branding, which Karl was so brilliant at.
‘I am a hired gun,’ Karl once explained, but that was to underestimate what he achieved
In the mid-1980s, when he had single-handedly revived Chanel, I was privileged enough to sit next to Karl at the Chanel design studio where its founder, Coco Chanel, had once worked. I watched attentively as he put the final touches to the upcoming collection. Surrounded by models and his assistants, he sketched at lightning speed to demonstrate how he wanted his garments to be worn before crumpling up those exquisite drawings and throwing them in the wastepaper basket.
Jewellery was brought in on velvet trays for his consideration and pinned and draped on the model; everywhere you looked there were ropes and ropes of pearls and gold chains with the double C logo he made internationally recognisable from Beijing to Boston.
Later, I wrote a three-part television documentary, The Story of Fashion, in which Karl commented on the key looks of the 20th century and captured precisely their drape, lines and attitudes in a series of expertly rendered sketches.
Karl spent 35 years at Chanel, building it into a multibillion-dollar international brand, and an incredible 54 years at Fendi in Rome. ‘I am a hired gun,’ he once explained, but that was to underestimate what he achieved at Chanel, in particular, where he preserved the essence of Coco Chanel while introducing cut-glass designing for the contemporary zeitgeist.
He also took very good photographs and was responsible for Chanel’s publicity shots each season. Once, at three in the morning, having finished taking the photos for the latest Chanel press release, he made me pose for a triptych while sitting in a white plaster chair, which was a copy of half the head of Donatello’s David.
As an art collector he was equally peerless. ‘It is clever to find something cheap and buy it because no one else sees how important it is,’ he once remarked. ‘I bought a Steichen print for $3,000 dollars some time ago and recently it fetched $2.5 million. It isn’t clever to be expensive.’
His art collecting was voracious. His houses were filled with 18th-century furniture, much of it with royal provenance; Art Deco; Memphis furniture designed by Ettore Sottsass; and, more recently, contemporary design art by such exponents as Marc Newson. These collections within a collection were regularly sold in their entirety when he decided to move onto something new.
He also collected houses, restoring and furnishing them before selling them once he felt there was no more he could do for them. At one point, he owned several homes: a majestic apartment in Saint-Germain; a hill-top villa looking down on Monte Carlo; the pretty La Mee, near Fountainebleau; a chateau in Brittany; a rustic house in Vermont; and an Art Deco house outside Hamburg, his hometown, to name but a few.
Recently, he was renovating a grand piano nobile apartment on the Quai Voltaire, which looks over the Seine to the Louvre. As with all his other homes, it was awash with reference books, magazines, and his own KL books, which he edited and published with Steidl.
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Even at the very end of his long and remarkable life, Karl Lagerfeld was to be found constantly on the telephone to the Fendi studio in Rome, making sure his very last fashion show would be exactly as he had envisaged it. He got his wish: it was a triumph.
From his upbringing in post-war Germany, which he embroidered with whatever story took his fancy — ‘I bleached my past’ he once said — to the heights of international fashion, Karl Lagerfeld was truly without equal. There will never be another like him.