“Karl Lagerfeld has passed away…are you ok?” read my cousin’s Whatsapp message. He works in the rural development sector, and is totally not into fashion. So clearly he has more things to worry about than the state of my heart at the passing of a fashion designer halfway across the globe. Still, he is genuinely worried.
But why? It’s not like I’ve gone through the last 17 years of my professional life proclaiming Kaiser Karl as my inspiration. He doesn’t even know I’m a fan. So there’s no reason that he should want to ask about my well being at the passing of this monochrome man, this colossus of couture, this inexhaustible engine of ingenuity. But he is right to be concerned. As I type ‘I’m fine’ automatically, I feel like the world is a lesser place, suddenly.
And while it would be too presumptuous of me to claim any personal loss in Lagerfeld’s passing—I only met him once—I am incredibly sad at the creative loss that all of us who are part of this global industry must now bear.
We’re on a dhow, and have taken off from a jetty point in Dubai, headed to what is literally a man-made Chanel fantasy island. On it, a huge square structure is covered in the famed interlocking-Cs latticework in sandy-beige. It looks like Arabic filigree from a distance, and inside is the meticulously luxurious setup of the Chanel Metiers d’Art resort show. This time, the city Lagerfeld has chosen to grace as his inspiration is Dubai, and I’m one of the few Indian journalists invited to witness the spectacle. Lagerfeld has been at Chanel since 1983, since before I was born. For some reason, I really want to tell him this; I hope he stays for the party later, but he doesn’t. As he appears to take his bow at the end of the show, you can see he is a frail man. Strong in his starched collar and dark glasses, but brittle, like porcelain. Still, I think he is perfect.
14 months have passed since I last saw him, and this time we rendezvous in Paris. Fendi is celebrating its 90th year as a label, and 50 years of Lagerfeld at the helm of its womenswear collections. Now, at the Theatre des Champs Elysees, he is showing Fendi’s first ‘Haute Fourrure’ collection for Fall 2015 amid tight security even as PETA activists protest outside. After the show, the garments are put on mannequins and displayed in the gallery of the theatre so all of us can have a closer look.
But like the rest of the crowd, I’m not really interested in the clothes now. Because halfway across the gallery, there’s a distinct vortex of people forming as if drawn by a magnet. Kaiser Karl has arrived. And this time, I get lucky. As he progresses through the crowd with Silvia Venturini Fendi at his side, I get introduced to him. I don’t remember what I said to him…something banal about how magnifique the collection was, I’m sure. And I can hardly bring up my little Chanel factoid here at the Fendi show. But for those five seconds, as he holds my hand and says, “Thank you for coming, Monsieur Rana,” I have a sudden urge. As he begins to walk away, I say: “I do wish you would have done those 24-carat gold furs you did in 2008!” He turns, briefly, and then walks on. I realise I was just trying to show off, and should have known better than to ask the great Karl Lagerfeld to repeat himself.
It is January, my birth month. And I have just received a copy of ‘The Beautiful Fall’ by Alicia Drake as a gift. The chronicle captures the heady 1970s and the famous friendship-turned-rivalry between Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent, both outsiders to Paris—both mocked at first, and later venerated as upholders of French chic, instrumental in cementing that city’s reputation as the beating heart of the world of fashion.
There’s juicy gossip in that book that contrasts starkly with the Lagerfeld I grew up reading about. After all, I had no idea who he was till I joined the National Institute of Fashion Technology in 2001 at the age of 17. By 2013, though, I had been to both Milan and Paris Fashion Weeks several times, and seen his collections for Fendi and Chanel regularly over the years. By that time, the 1970s-edition-Lagerfeld of Alicia Drake’s description had vanished, replaced by the slim (he lost over 40 kgs between 2000 -’01 just to be able to fit into Hedi Slimane’s designs for Dior menswear), almost-vegetarian, asexual, workaholic Lagerfeld we all revered.
The only thing that remained of the old Lagerfeld was the controversy, ever following in his wake. He called singer Adele ‘a little too fat,’ and said that supermodel Heidi Klum was ‘no runway model’. ‘I don’t like the sister’s face,’ he said of Pippa Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge’s sister. And of his own predecessor Coco Chanel, he said she was ‘never a feminist’ because she was ‘never ugly enough for that’. At the height of the #MeToo movement, he told ‘Numéro’ magazine that models who had complained about stylist Karl Templer touching them inappropriately should not have become models to begin with. ‘Join a nunnery, there’ll always be a place for you in a convent.’
In 1994, he embroidered Chanel garments with verses from the Quran, which he had reportedly picked up from a book on the Taj Mahal, thinking—so he claimed in his statement of apology later—that they were verses of love poetry. As recently as 2017, when Germany began granting asylum to Syrian refugees, he went on air on a French talk show and said: “You cannot kill millions of Jews and then take in millions of their worst enemies afterwards, even if there are decades (between the two events).”
The Western Gaze
However, what Karl Lagerfeld—over the course of his idiosyncrasies and controversies, his talent and his constantly-evolving work—stood for always was the way he looked at the world through his Germanic-French eyes. His devotion to that idea of perfection allowed, nay forced, him to reinterpret everything he touched into what an ideal Euro-centric audience would find, at best, exciting and disruptive, and at worst, commercially acceptable. He broke boundaries with his materials and his cuts, certainly.
In 1997, he took on the mammoth task of supporting over 10 of Chanel’s artisanal suppliers, buying them over to ensure they wouldn’t go out of business (the Metiers d’Art shows were created for this express purpose). But at a deeper level, Lagerfeld remained a European designer in an increasingly cohesive, boring, global, insular world. This, unsurprisingly, worked to his advantage both at Chanel and at Fendi. After all, today we are seeing a return-to-the-roots movement aimed at preserving local crafts everywhere, ensuring uniqueness of design. For Karl, this was how he functioned. Maybe this was coincidence, or maybe he really was, like we all grew up believing, far ahead of his time.