Karl Forever: A Multi-Layered Tribute
On screen, Karl Lagerfeld was laughing from the depths of a wobbly stomach – in the days when he still had one – as he tried to express himself in all three of his languages: German, his mother tongue; French from a life in Paris and Monaco; and English from his international life.
“That was the moment that touched me the most,” said Silvia Venturini Fendi, who since the age of seven had watched Karl at work, joined the design team at 15, and worked directly with him from age 21 until two days before the designer’s death in February.
But Karl was still with us in all those bold images on the walls of the Grand Palais: Everywhere was that face with its juicy lips and thick hair, whether as a young man starting his career or more recently with silver hair to match his fluffy white Birman cat, Choupette.
Robert Carsen, an artistic director of dreams for theatre and opera, created “Karl Forever” – a tribute that was humorous, touching and did justice to his life at Chanel for 30 years and an unimaginable 54 at Fendi. On a minor key was the designer’s work for his own KL label.
The Grand Palais was filled with the famous, from Caroline, Princess of Hanover, to actress Tilda Swinton, who read from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando on stage, while Helen Mirren quoted extracts from the designer’s book for Flammarion, The World According to Karl.
The lively, nuanced and varied performances on screen – not least from the late designer himself – wove the story. “I feel everything I do is for the first and the last time,” was one of the designer’s aphorisms.
But the event also came to real, three-dimensional life with performers stepping out of the digitally filmed world. There was Pharrell Williams leading a merry song and dance on stage; and Chinese concert pianist Lang Lang playing live under the soaring glass dome of the Grand Palais. The grand piano was designed by Karl himself in 2003 for the 150th anniversary of the famous Steinway company, although the designer admitted that his love of music did not mean that he himself could ever be a performer.
The imaginative presentation was the essence of Karl; a designer restless for the new, living for his work and building around each house a trusted team of supporting workers, including, at Chanel, Virginie Viard, his right-hand woman, who has now taken over as creative director. The idea of including Team Karl from its most humble or private as well as the famous was a feature of the film.
“How can we celebrate this Renaissance man, taking inspiration from the past whilst always looking to the future?” was Carsen’s quest. He gave his own answer: “Through a tapestry of videos of him throughout his life, interwoven with numerous short interviews with people he inspired.”
This patchwork of stories from a varied spectrum of people gave an intimacy to the overall message and included the drama and fun that make up the fashion world. The overall show gave recognition to the humbler members of the support team, whose comments could be more revealing than those of the famous.
Amanda Harlech, the designer’s muse and intellectual provocateur, described Karl’s work as “dream steps”. But speaking after the screening, she revealed the designer’s tougher side. “He always called me super lazy because I didn’t just get on with it,” she admitted. “He would say, ‘Don’t hang around. Just commit. Get it out there.’”
The mix of the designer’s own sharp and often witty words with those of the on-screen contributors – who included, among so many, artist Jeff Koons and French actress Fanny Ardant – was exceptional enough. But the addition of a multi-layered audience, all of whom had been touched by the designer, added personal emotions.
Model Claudia Schiffer, still with the wicked smile that Karl first brought to the Chanel runway in 1990, reminisced on the steps leading up to the Grand Palais. “My best memory was being in Vienna for a campaign when Karl suddenly started a waltz, laughing hysterically in front of the whole team,” the model said. “He didn’t care about anything but dancing, because he loved waltzing and he could do it really well.”
Schiffer pulled out another memory stick of Karl as a dandy. “In the early days, for a campaign in Monte Carlo, he had a whole picnic set up in the very hot sun,” she said. “He would arrive fully dressed in his suit, saying, ‘I’m a bit worried because my hair goes fuzzy in the humidity.’ We, of course, were all in summer dresses. And he was fully dressed with boots at the beach for the picnic. And then he had the butler come in with the silver service.”
Ines de la Fressange, another model whose fashion life was kick-started by Karl in the 1980s, reminisced about their time together. “We were always escaping from fittings to go see a painting in some antique dealer’s shop or to just go for coffee, eat sausages and drink Coca Cola. Not the sort of sophisticated thing people would imagine,” Ines said. “But he taught me one sentence that I remember everyday: ‘You have to try. That’s why we’re doing fittings.’ It means you always have to risk a little bit, never do obvious things and never get bored. He didn’t think fashion was meant for museums. He always told me, ‘It’s not art; it has to be useful, we need sleeves and we have to wear it, and if it’s useful then it’s not art anymore.’”
Designer and family matriarch Rosita Missoni had yet another story, of Karl coming to stay in Italy where she watched his prolific sketching, when he would draw “every single dress”. “Then, when he was coming for lunch, he used to make a little drawing of me and my little black dog jumping.”
Huber Barrère, artistic director of Lesage Couture embroidery, supported by Chanel, explained what it was like to work with Karl – from age 17, saying: “He made me grow, grow, grow – always – more, more, more! He was an exceptional man.”
After the display of Robert Carsen’s sheer bravado and imagination, another thing that was striking thing about the event was the meld of executives, from Chanel’s CEO Alain Wertheimer, famous for keeping himself under the radar, to Bernard Arnault, chairman and chief executive of LVMH, who was seated front-row with the First Lady of France, Brigitte Macron.
Beside the executives were designers Ralph Lauren – fresh from receiving his award in London as Knight Commander of the British Empire – and Valentino Garavani with partner Giancarlo Giammetti.
On the Chanel client side of the row was Karl’s close friend, Princess Caroline, and her daughter Charlotte Casiraghi.
The words of Arnault summed up the spirit of the occasion and the essence of Lagerfeld. “He was the most fascinating and exceptional creator of our time,” the executive said. “He was our Picasso – he showed the movement of the new in each period. Karl said that the most important thing in life was to reinvent yourself and that he was eternally unsatisfied and never content.”
Most of the filmed interviews – my contribution included – were held in Karl’s Studio 7L, where the background was of books, books, and even more books, sometimes the same ones in multiple languages. That gave to the entire film the essence of Karl as a Renaissance man. But like those people who popped out from under the suspended screen – the actresses, performers and fashion models offering critical moments from the shows – the message was of modernity and a spirit in which, however erudite the internationally acclaimed designer, lightness was all.