I first met Karl Lagerfeld in December 2004 on a cold winter’s day in Tokyo. It was just after the Chanel spring/summer 2005 Maxi show in the Hibiya Tent. Karl had recreated the Paris show in Tokyo to tie in with the re-launch of the Ginza store. He was in a wonderful mood, very effervescent and happy to chat to me backstage at the show tent. This was well before the days of social media when I had to tape record the whole interview. When I asked him if he had a succession plan (he was 71 years old then), he told me that he didn’t have a protégé, and that it didn’t really matter as no one would do it the way he did. He was candid when asked about what would happen if he left Chanel, saying that it was not his company and hence not his problem. In the end, he never did leave.
Yesterday, he died in Paris still holding the title of Creative Director at the brand with the famous double Cs, after being at the helm for over 36 years. During his tenure at the French House, he created such incredible fashion that words can’t really do any of it justice. As the years passed and Chanel grew into a fashion behemoth (Forbes lists the company at over $9 billion in annual sales), the shows at Chanel grew in both size and stature.
Similarly, Karl had grown and changed, becoming bigger and larger than life while receding further and further away from us mere mortals. He was no longer the man one could just approach backstage and chat with. I met Karl again in Singapore when he was here to stage the global Cruise show in May 2013, and I sat for 90 minutes backstage in a conference room at the Raffles Hotel, quietly observing as Karl put the final touches to the collection. He was distracted, busy with work yet responsive to friends, sharing new pictures of Choupette, his adored cat, on his iPhone. The man who used to give me such pithy, barbed quips—the man I met nine years ago—seemed to be gone. He did stop to share his opinion on the two 2009 Chanel movies (Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky and Coco Before Chanel) though, telling me that both Chanel muse Anna Mouglalis and French actress Audrey Tatou had been disastrous in their roles.
I missed his generous servings of bon mots, parlaying his secret to great style—“Never buy something bigger; buy the smallest size.” I also asked him if he loved making politically incorrect statements and he answered “Yes, of course. I never ask myself the questions; I just give the answers.” And when I asked what downtime was for him, he said, “I don’t know that word. I don’t want to know anything connected to ‘down’… I’m only for ‘up’.”
And up he is indeed now—high above the clouds in fashion heaven, looking down on all of us and probably, having the last laugh.