Paradise Now – The Extraordinary Life of Karl Lagerfeld by William Middleton

“I’m an intelligent opportunist, in fashion you have to be…” (Karl Lagerfeld)

If at all interested in fashion and the so-called beautiful people, then the white ponytail, black sunglasses, fingerless gloves, and high, starched white collared Karl Lagerfeld was on your radar. When he died in 2019 at a questioned 87, the artist was a celebrated fashion designer – producing annual lines for Fendi, Chloé, Chanel, and Karl Lagerfeld – a photographer, and book publisher.                

This engaging biography is by William Middleton, a journalist and editor who has worked in New York and Paris. He has been the Fashion Features Director for Harper’s Bazaar and the Paris Bureau Chief for Fairchild Publications, overseeing Magazine and Women’s Wear Daily

Lagerfeld created numerous international homes with museum-quality furniture, each in distinctively different decorative style and collected 300,000 fine books. His parties were the stuff of legend. Personal notes arrived on fine vellum by private messenger, often accompanied by exquisite flowers. By all reports indefatigable until the end, he had aesthetic ADHD.

A 14 year-old Karl in the front row of his class photo from Bad Bramstedt, outside of Hamburg – Wearing the suit- Courtesy Gordian Turk

Even as a child in Hamburg, Karl cultivated personal style. Other boys had buzz cuts and wore shorts. His hair was long; he sported Tyrolean suits with bow ties. At four years-old, he asked his mother for a valet for his birthday. The boy took dance instead of gym and eschewed sports for fear he’d harm his drawing hands. Karl was an artist. In 1949, staying at a hotel while the family home was renovated, according to Middleton, Karl “wandered down to” Christian Dior’s first German fashion show. The designer’s “new look” was just two years old: rounded shoulders, a cinched waist, a very full skirt. Described by Lagerfeld, “It was the height of chic.”

He became fluent in French, bought French fashion magazines and at 18 announced, “I’m leaving to become a fashion designer in Paris.” Karl arrived in St. Germain, a good looking young man in bespoke suits. Haute Couture was at its apogee. Dior had grown to 1,000 employees. There was Jacques Fath, Pierre Balmain, Balenciaga, Schiaparelli, Givenchy. Coco Chanel planned a comeback. (The young man attended her collection in 1954.)

In the summer of 1956, Karl on the beach in Deauville with model Victoire Doutreleau. In the original, sitting on sand on the left, was a young Yves Saint Laurent who Karl had banished from the photo.

Though he enrolled at Cours Norero for fashion illustration, his work showed design talent. Exposure began with the winning of first prize for a coat in the International Wool Secretariat competition. Three years younger, Yves Saint Laurent won in the dress category. They became fast friends, but later had a falling out when Yves had an affair with Karl’s amie. (The Beautiful Fall by Alicia Drake, over which Karl unsuccessfully sued, tells their tale.)

A job requiring long hours for low pay at Balmain offered entry into the business. Karl quickly became the veteran’s assistant. The house of Jean Patou was next. At that point it was producing two collections a year. “…I traveled, drove around in flashy, drop dead cars, I was tanned all year round; I night clubbed non-stop.” Still, Karl didn’t know what to do with all his ideas. Not feeling challenged, he became a freelancer working for Charles Jordan, Krizia, and Valentino among others.

At Chloé, melding couture and ready to wear, Karl invented “prêt a porter de luxe,” defined as ready-to-wear in a couture mood. A contract for fur design with Fendi introduced the use of mole, rabbit, and squirrel pelts into high fashion. The designer eliminated linings, padding, and hemming from voluminous, thin-fabric garments, introducing comfortable, layered silhouettes.

Karl’s drawing of the elegant line of Jacques de Bascher, 1975- Karl’s chateau in Brittany, Grand-Champ.

In his 30s, Karl earned sufficient income to emulate the style of 18th Century France to which he aspired.“I had an image, grandiose and idealized, of France,” he said. There are mouth-watering descriptions of interiors throughout the book. His “uniform” developed: tight black pants, a flouncy shirt, a wide belt with silver buckle and, at that point, hair just over his collar. Fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez, designer Paloma Picasso, and artist Andy Warhol became his friends.

At 39, Karl began the most meaningful relationship of his life with 20 year-old aristocrat, model Jacques de Bascher, a dandy with zero ambition who drank, did drugs and indulged in excessive sex – the opposite of his admirer. He was, according to Karl, “the devil incarnate with the face of Garbo.” The designer’s friends found Jacques snobbish, superficial, and talentless. (He would die of HIV at 39 after almost two decades with Karl. The loss took a lifelong toll.)

January 1983, Karl is named artistic director of Chanel and is immortalized by Helmut Newton on the mirrored staircase where Gabriel Chanel once perched.

Karl began creating for films. Actresses Stephane Audran and Anouk Aimee were clients and friends. To christen grand new apartments, under the auspices of Jacques, he hosted 900 guests. The invitation was for “the entire night of the 24th through 25th” – tragic black attire obligatory. Karl stayed an hour. By now he had grown the ubiquitous pony tail. Signature apparel included a three piece black suit with a black foulard and white wing collared shirt. Trendy Paris magazines ranked him at the top of Paris nightlife. Fendi and Chloé styles changed from soft and feminine to bolder styling reflecting the late 70s. “His clothes are filled with humor and never boring.” (Marian McEnvoy – Women’s Wear Daily.)

André Leon Talley, then 27 and six feet five inches tall, interviewed Karl in the former’s first fashion job. He’s always been a great interview. The designer gifted him two memorable shirts, one purportedly used to secure the young man’s next position. “Being a friend of Karl was like having another vocation,” he’s said. (Leon Talley would move to Paris to edit WWD and eventually become influential Editor at Large for Vogue.) Though a rift separated the dear friends much later, the younger man never spoke ill of him.

Coco Chanel died in 1971. At that point, the fashion house depended on its perfume for sustenance. Karl was approached as a fixer. His contract with Chloé prohibited designing ready to wear for anyone else. At 49, having not designed couture in two decades, he relaunched Chanel Couture.

Claudia Schiffer, photographed by Karl for the first time, for the advertising campaign for Chanel, 1990.

At the start of this next important chapter and, Karl said, in order “to wear the designs of Hedi Slimane,” Karl lost 22 pounds in 13 months. Meeting a model on the stairs, he asked her waist size, delighted to discover his was an inch less. He hired Ines de la Fressange to be the exclusive face of Chanel, a first in this practice. As with many French couturiers and their best model friends, she evolved into muse, then collaborator.

First to be changed was the familiar boxy silhouette. Shoulder pads were added to cropped jackets, skirts became shorter and tighter. The next show showcased fur trim, crown shaped jewelry, embroidery and dozens of chain necklaces and belts. There was almost a showdown with then president of Chanel Kitty D’Alessio over control. Karl neglected to come out for a bow. A new sign above the studio door read: Creation is not a democratic process.

When he didn’t like the house’s commissioned photos, Karl began to shoot them himself. Taking over advertising campaigns was a new and important phase of his career. Americans flew in for collections. Socialites Nan Kempner and Lynn Wyatt became clients and friends. The designer was then putting out eight shows in two fashion capitals within 12 months. Descriptions of these are vivid.

Stella Tennant, photographed by Karl in the Hotel Ritz in Chanel 1996/1997 Couture.

It was Karl who got The Grand Palais to host what to many was a commercial venture for the first time acknowledging couture as a French art. In the eighties shoulder pads grew disproportionately, suits were constructed, heels high. Design risks were taken in fashion and furnishings. While every doorknob in his Paris apartments was 18th century French, candy-colored Memphis Design decorated Karl’s Monte Carlo home. Other abodes were meticulously styled Rococo and Art Deco. “I hate rich people who live below their means.” he said. “Money needs to circulate.”

In 1991, the eponymous Karl Lagerfeld label was launched. The first show was not a success. The designer remained undaunted. “I hate playing the role of victim and I’m horrified of windmills. What matters most is survival,” he said. His second arrived “colorful, authoritative, and witty.” He hired 18 year-old Claudia Schiffer and eventual icon, Linda Evangelista. Two perfumes were introduced. Various assignments put him in charge of 15 collections a year. “I’m like Scheherazade,” Lagerfeld said. “I know what to do to make sure that the sultan never falls asleep.”

During an era of blatant sexuality, Karl stood aside. “For me sex has never been particularly interesting.” In light of his use of corsetry, girdles, and S & M accoutrements, this is fascinating. When Leon Talley sent him pornography videos, Karl would comment on their production values.

Karl’s drawing for Nicole Kidman of a Chanel haute couture evening gown for the Chanel No.5 commercial directed by Baz Luhrmann 2004.

Two years later, the designer began publishing a series of books of his photography. (More than 50 exist.) He then founded his own imprint beginning with Grace: Thirty Years of Fashion at Vogue which celebrates the work of art director Grace Coddington. He also began acquiring what he called “little suppliers of craft,” artisanal companies who served couture, so that the house would be vertical.

Karl met the 21 year-old son of a mover and took to him. Unlike Jacques, the young man was cheerfully acquiescent. He started as a driver, then became social secretary, appearing at every public event with Karl. (They would be together until Karl’s death.) Like his first “companion,” the designer denied sex was a component of the relationship.

A risky line for H&M provoked stampedes upon store openings. “It’s never too late for a new life,” he observed. Karl hired iconic architect Zaha Hadid to design a mobile art pavilion for Chanel that would travel the world. He acquired the cat Choupette (a Birman) who he declared “made me a better person.” Choupette traveled with her master accompanied by Karl’s housekeeper who became the cat’s nanny. She inherited the beloved pet and some two million dollars.

Karl’s reimagining of The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen.

“Kaiser Karl”, as Women’s Wear Daily editor and publisher John Fairchild called him, would never participate in marketing meetings, but according to associates, was always aware of business figures. High standards of loyalty and behavior sometimes created a breach, but he could apparently be as kind and generous as he was driven, a sensitive side hidden behind dark glasses. There are abundant references to the nature of long term friendships and instances of the designer’s being particularly sweet with children of clients and employees.

When diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2015, Karl continued to work as long as he could, eventually from a wheelchair. He requested no formal funeral but rather cremation with ashes spread at secret locations alongside his mother and  Jacques de Bascher. “My own grave? Quelle horreur! Burn-tossed-done!” The Grand Palais hosted “Karl For Ever,” a celebration of the designer’s life. There were 2,500 guests. As Colombe Pringle, former French Vogue editor declared, “He created his own mythology, which is incredibly rare.”

Middeton’s Paradise Now is a detailed and entertaining book, particularly for aesthetes.

Cover portrait of Lagerfeld by Jean-Baptiste Mondino
Author portrait by Solve Sundsbo

All images courtesy of Harper Collins

Paradise Now – The Extraordinary Life of Karl Lagerfeld by William Middleton
Harper – An imprint of Harper Collins Publishers

About Alix Cohen (1510 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.