Having spent a year with the renowned designer, Susannah Frankel is better positioned than most to reveal what one can, and ought to, learn from the master
Karl Lagerfeld has been the creative force behind Chanel for more than 40 years, and at Fendi for more than half a century. It is safe to say, then, that he knows a lot, about fashion – but he is also the most cultured of men in that field more broadly, and he handles his wisdom with a lightness – read elegance – that is unprecedented. M Lagerfeld speaks and reads fluently in English, French and German. He read Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks when he was just six years of age. His favourite philosopher is Spinoza and his publishing house, L7, printed the complete, hand-annotated works of Nietzsche. He is equally – and famously – au fait with popular culture, claiming to see little difference between high and low, haute and humble. It is all, after all, part of his world. "I don’t want to play the intellectual. I hate that," is how he puts it. "I like to be informed. I like to know everything, but I don’t want to make pretentious conversation or have discussions about subjects that I’m not interested in knowing about. I like to know about all kinds of subjects, low and high, but I do it for myself. The last thing I want is to be a serious person. I can be serious but I don’t want to show it." Here, we examine the lessons we can learn from the master.
1. Be curious...
More than anything else, it is precisely Karl Lagerfeld’s insatiable thirst for knowledge that is inspiring. He devours the grandest and most impenetrable literature just as he does magazines and newspapers, and spends any limited free time that he might have reading. There is nothing arrogant about the way he chooses to share any learning, which he does constantly and often without those around him even realising it. It is worth noting, too, that he is open-minded enough to learn from them in return. At least part of the strength of the houses he works for springs from the fact that his inner circle includes those of his own age but also younger generations. Such is his confidence that he is more than happy to listen to people even a quarter of his age and in this way he makes sure that his work never dates. He’s boss, and there’s never any arguing with that, but Karl Lagerfeld asks questions too.
2. ...but not that curious. And hold some things back.
There are only 24 hours in a day, and a line has to be drawn somewhere. Though M Lagerfeld might never be described as a Luddite: "I don’t like the Internet but around me we have to do that. My assistants, my private secretaries, they all do it so if I need something I have it in a second," he says. "I personally don’t do Instagram because one has to maintain a vague mystère. I don’t have to send images of a toile every five minutes saying: 'now I’m doing that', this I don’t do. I like to live with my own imagination and my own images. I don’t want to be invaded." Without wishing to appear grand – oh alright then, I will – it was Marcel Proust who wrote that once one knows a person fully it is impossible to love them. We might assume, given his willingness to come forward, that we know all there is to know about Karl Lagerfeld but that is absolutely not the case. The self-perpetuating myth around the man is well recognised and understood – but the person behind that is, in fact, private.
3. The importance of good manners must never be over-estimated
Karl Lagerfeld has the manners of an 18th-century aristocrat. He is always, always aware of the people around him and careful to ensure that they are comfortable, happy and have everything they need. Backstage at his shows he gives face-to-face interviews to droves of press both for print media and TV, and answers all questions politely and as if he has never been asked them before – even though, it almost goes without saying, he invariably has been many times. The rudest of probing – about his age, say, or any potential successor – is answered with dignity, wit and grace. Any disrespect is met with the utmost respect. He did once ask me in particular: "Is that the best you can do today, Mrs Frankel?" after an especially poor opening gambit. But that was cute, and more than a little amusing.
4. With great power comes great responsibility
Spiderman knew this only too well and Lagerfeld, the greatest of all fashion superheroes, understands it also. Despite a workload that might render lesser mortals helpless, and the ease with which he appears to manage it, Karl Lagerfeld is light-hearted but never blasé. It is true that he is always late, often very late, but he is the first to admit that is simply because he gets lost in his thoughts and, in particular, his sketching. "I’m always late because I don’t look at my watch. You know, when I sketch time passes more quickly than I think. I think I’m there for an hour, in fact I’m there for three hours." Still, he works as hard, if not harder, than his team and is well aware of the fact that many, many people depend on him for their livelihoods. If he does his job well, then it follows that they will be able to do theirs well too. And if that sounds like the most obvious thing in the world it is by no means always to be expected of his profession.
5. Be generous
Just like Gabrielle Chanel before him, Karl Lagerfeld’s serpent tongue is legendary. He is master of the one-liner – the bitchy one-liner, in particular. "Chloé, isn’t that a T-shirt label," he quipped when Stella McCartney took over from him there in 1997. In general, though, he is extraordinarily giving of his time, his energy, his advice, his knowledge and, well, his gifts. The flowers he sends to friends and collaborators at show time are as big and bold as they are beautiful. He may offer a hand-treated photograph he’s taken of the Eiffel Tower one season, and an etching of the love of his life, Choupette, another. The sapphire-eyed white cat is perhaps the most frequent recipient of his considerable largesse of them all. She has her choice of any number of carefully chosen, home-cooked recipes, she has maids, bespoke luggage and access to everything from M Lagerfeld’s bed to his private jet. And she has a bank account replete with over a million Euros in case anything should ever happen to her owner.