portraits by JUERGEN TELLER
interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
An interview with Karl Lagerfeld is an artistic performance — an unbroken flow of ideas, stories, jokes, word games, asides, fashion criticism, and good advice. He’s totally honest and he speaks his mind. And he loves to laugh. Of course, he does have the power of his position, and he has been gifted with the confidence to say what he really thinks. He’s always fully present and will talk for as long as stimulating questions are posed to him. But he’ll recoil if you delve too deep.
The most important thing about Karl Lagerfeld is that he’s probably the last real giant of fashion. He’s been intensly involved in the last five incredible decades of fashion history. Yet he only looks to the future — without a trace of sentimental nostalgia.
He works non-stop, reads non-stop, travels non-stop. He never seems to sleep. He’ll take photographs all night long if that’s what it takes. And he has never — ever — lost his vision or his ambition. He loves the game. Maybe that’s why he excels at it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s your favorite occupation?
KARL LAGERFELD — Everything I’m doing: fashion, photography, books, drawings. I couldn’t ask for more. Not watching the clock. Reading, working, photographing without worrying about the time.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s true. How do you organize your days?
KARL LAGERFELD — In the morning I draw, at home, until it’s time for a late lunch. Then in the afternoon I go out for errands and to fittings. I like having my mornings free to draw, read, look at the newspapers, and to recharge my batteries. I sleep seven hours a night.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I’ve gotten faxes from you at 5 a.m. You sometimes read and work until 6 a.m.
KARL LAGERFELD — As long as I’m excited or amused, I’m never tired. Except when I’m annoyed or when things aren’t yet going the way I want. I see that those who eat and drink alcohol get more tired than I do, although they’re all younger. I eat healthily with no sugar or fat, don’t drink, and don’t smoke. All this gives me a certain feeling of lightness. I have the feeling my head is a crystal ball. At the same time, I always feel like I’m behind a glass wall, separated from the world, and I can’t pierce it the way I’d like to. But I think that the day I do break through, it’ll all be over.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re known for your lateness.
KARL LAGERFELD — Yes, but my lateness comes with an excuse: when I’m with a person who has had to wait, I make the person after him or her wait too, since I don’t look at the time. I don’t have a date book with the hours parsed out to the last minute. When I’m with someone, I forget that others may be waiting. It’s my politeness that makes me late. Like that saying, “Punctuality is the politeness of kings.” I’m not a king, in spite of that film [Lagerfeld Confidential] in which I was described as a solitary king. I enjoyed the film, but not that word, “solitary.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — Really? Aren’t you a solitary person?
KARL LAGERFELD — What do you mean, solitary? I’m surrounded by people at work all the time, and I work non-stop.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, I perceive you as being alone, even in the middle of a crowd, of your entourage, of society.
KARL LAGERFELD — Yes, but I like it like that. Since I detest familiarity, it suits me quite well to seem alone amongst others. But I have no problem in my relationships. I’m quite comfortable with other people. It’s because I’m trilingual, and rather more cultivated than my colleagues in fashion or in photography.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s true. You are extremely cultivated.
KARL LAGERFELD — I’m very well-informed, but I’m not an intellectual. In fact, I didn’t really exploit my intellectual potential. But I hate intellectuals. They have strong opinions, often about subjects about which they know nothing. I dislike intellectual discussions. There’s a fantastic Schopenauer saying, “Happiness is when you’re not bored.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re not an intellectual, but you like to have discussions about a variety of topics.
KARL LAGERFELD — That’s why I’m so good at small talk. I’m rather good at high society, too. But I think I’ve done enough in that area. I’m at ease everywhere. I’m certainly not shy. My mother used to say, “Don’t sacrifice yourself, since I’ve sacrificed myself for you.” So I think first of myself, which allows me to think of others. That’s how I was raised. My mother was a major manipulator.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You started taking photographs in 1987, when you were at Chanel with Eric Pfrunder.
KARL LAGERFELD — Yes, it’s all Eric’s fault. The people doing our press kits weren’t very good — terrible, in fact. So Eric said to me, “If you’re going to be this difficult, maybe you should just do it yourself.” People didn’t really create their own press kits then. But we rented some cameras and got an assistant and we shot the first press kit. Three months later we did some print ads for Vogue. It all just happened. I worked for American, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, British, and Spanish Vogue, and now for the second time I’m doing an entire issue of German Vogue, for its 30th anniversary. They chose three photographers and Vogue’s doing three different issues for the anniversary. Bruce Weber is doing one. He has mostly worked on showing the influ-ence of German immigration on American culture. I’m working on my Germany.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Were you confident in your photography skills when you started?
KARL LAGERFELD — No. In the beginning I wasn’t sure I would be able to do it. Some people pay dearly to learn the skills, since you do have to learn your way around. But I had a vague vision of what I wanted to do. At the time you had to take Polaroid shots before shooting. It wasn’t like today with digital photography. So I worked a lot with Polaroids, and in the end I surprised even myself.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you feel your photography has evolved?
KARL LAGERFELD — Of course. Ten years after I started my neighbor in Monte Carlo said to me, “Your first photographs had a wonderfully naïve freshness, but now you’re a professional like the others.” But I’m never content. It’s the same with the collections. I’m always hoping that the next one will be better. I live in a sort of permanent dissatisfaction. I think that’s the secret to doing things well. I’m never happy. I never think I’m worthy. I’m always cross with myself. Sometimes you can see it. I do try to control it because others aren’t responsible for my mood swings.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So photography is now a professional vocation for you, like fashion design?
KARL LAGERFELD — Yes, but they intersect and run parallel to each other. I’m not an artist. I create images, that’s all — images of fashion. Society portraits. But I’m not really a society person. However, I would never dare to photograph the poor, crouched in some street. I wouldn’t even approach them. It’s a physical thing. They would feel like some cartoon character was descending on them. I think it’s indecent to shoot people who are destitute. It’s indecent to expose them in photos they’ll never see, and for which they’re not being paid — photos that criticize the system.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How would you define your photographic style?
KARL LAGERFELD — My esthetic is neo-classical. In fact, I’m a Puritan, because only the Puritans mitigated vice with beauty. It’s not depravation because it’s esthetic. That’s what the German philosophers said.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But isn’t your position as a society photographer also a little bit like being a voyeur?
KARL LAGERFELD — Yes, I don’t want to be personally involved.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But you do like associating with a certain set of society people?
KARL LAGERFELD — Yes, I do. But I don’t really see many people, because I work all the time. I used to be more socially involved. It’s a past I’ve forgotten. And when I see portraits people call society pictures — from shots of Nicolas Sarkozy to the Monaco royals — well, when you’re well-known yourself, it’s easier to shoot them. When you’re talented but unknown, and you just show up where the stars are, it’s much harder. You have to fight to get your shots. I don’t have to fight.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Sometimes you’re more famous than your subjects.
KARL LAGERFELD — Yes, and sometimes that creates problems for me — with men, never with women. With men I sometimes have the “just because you’re more famous than we are doesn’t mean we’re not worth as much” problem — especially from actors. Not with French ones so much, but I’ve annoyed some German actors.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is it easier for you to photograph women?
KARL LAGERFELD — Yes, much easier. In fact, shooting portraits of men is quite difficult. Perhaps I’m not as curious about human beings as I should be; perhaps it doesn’t go beyond esthetic interest. I’m somewhat indifferent to their deepest truths, because my greatest problem in life is my indifference to the outside world.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is that your greatest personality flaw?
KARL LAGERFELD — Yes, indifference and a certain taste for revenge. It’s very bad. But since I didn’t have a religious education, you mustn’t hold that against me. “Turn the other cheek” is not in my repertoire. But I never start things. I’m always the sweetest lamb in the room. But if someone is stupid or mean enough to do me wrong, I will hit back hard and often. One of my favorite characters is Hélène, in Robert Bresson’s 1945 film, Les dames du Bois de Boulogne, which is my favorite French film. It’s also about vengeance. A wealthy socialite, Hélène, is about to be ditched by her lover, Jean, and she swears vengeance. She meets an old friend, Madame D, who with her daughter Agnès has fallen on hard times in Paris, and she offers them an apartment. In fact, her true motive is to humiliate Jean, using Agnès as both bait and victim. She engineers a meeting between them at the Bois. Jean is smitten. Agnès first evades his advances, but then falls in love with him. Hélène toys with Jean, reserving her final revenge for his wedding, which is held at a little church filled with men. She wears a long Balenciaga dress. After the ceremony Jean asks her, “Who were all those men?” And she replies, “Oh, you didn’t know? They’re all her former clients. You married a whore.” And they scream at each other, until she actually has a heart attack. So, for me vengeance is quite normal. But I never start fights — I’m above that.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s true that you are unfailingly polite and kind with the people who work with you.
KARL LAGERFELD — Yes, I don’t argue a lot. I know lots of people who are nice to celebrities and horrible to the people who work for them. I am exactly the same with important people as I am with everyone else. I need my maid a lot more than I need celebrities.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Let’s talk about your interest in words. You love to argue, no?
KARL LAGERFELD — I prefer the snappy retort.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you work on the skill of producing them?
KARL LAGERFELD — No, I don’t have to. It’s natural and spontaneous. I don’t even think about my answers — though perhaps I should. It’s amusing when you can do it in three languages. You could say that three languages isn’t much. But I don’t know that many trilingual people. And I have a rather large vocabulary in all three languages. I speak French, English, and German in my own bizarre voice. People immediately recognize my way of speaking. Once I got a letter from a professor of literature who said, “Your German is admirable!” But it isn’t really. It’s from another time, because I left Germany when I was still in school. I left before the German language became degraded. It’s been damaged much more than French. But I write better in English than in any other language.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You clearly have a taste for witticisms and jokes.
KARL LAGERFELD — Yes, and for worse. In fact I’m very fond of contrepèteries [spoonerisms, transpositions of sounds, generally rather vulgar or obscene]. I like them because they express an idea. They’re amusing. An idiotic story is still an idea.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Like the children’s tale that you wrote and illustrated, about the prince who was changed into a pig.
KARL LAGERFELD — It’s like swine flu: when people talk about it, I like to tease them by saying, “I understand why you’re worried, since obviously it’s the only flu you’re likely to catch.” That’s nasty, isn’t it? Anyway, my story is about a king of a little northern kingdom in the 18th century, who’s recently been widowed and is very unhappy. All the women in the court would love to make it with the prince, but he’s lost in his memories and spends all his time with his chamberlain who consoles and cajoles him. There is one virulent old lady who would also like to become the prince’s mistress but he doesn’t bite. She isn’t young and she isn’t pretty. So she seeks vengeance. She goes to see a witch and asks her to change the prince into a pig. The witch sneaks into the castle, helped by the old lady, and does the deed. The prince is in bed. The chamberlain has given him his goodnight kiss and closes the bed curtains. In the morning he opens them and screams, “There’s a pig in the bed!” Then, in the voice of the pig the prince says, “I had a terrible dream. Someone changed me into a pig. Horrors!” The chamberlain says, “I’m so sorry to have to tell you this, Sire, but that’s what’s happened.” He holds up a mirror and the prince says, “What do we do? I do have my head, but it sure looks terrible.” The chamberlain says, “I’ll say you’re ill. I’ll call the tailor. We have to deal with it.
We can’t do anything else.” So the tailor comes and measures him and they make him a tiny wig and a tiny suit. They paint his little hooves red. The prince does his job and no one dares say anything. Because, after all, he is the prince. They know it’s his voice. And he even seems more intelligent than before. And just like other fairy tales, someone must love him for himself — and kiss him in order for him to be changed back. So everything is going along fine — so well that one of his allies, a neighboring prince, thinks he might let his daughter marry the pig, if she falls in love with it, and he announces a state visit. He says to his daughter, “Of course, I can’t force you to marry a pig. He’s cute, but clearly that isn’t enough.” Naturally the pig does indeed fall in love with the princess but her father, the king, says, “No, really,
I can’t let my daughter marry a pig. Imagine the children they might have. I prefer sacrificing my kingdom. I will not sacrifice my favorite daughter. No way.” So they leave. And the pig is even more unhappy, crying all the time, and the chamberlain finally says to him: “Look, the only person who really loves you is me.” He kisses the prince and boom! — the prince becomes a prince again. So the prince says, “My problem here is that I’m not gay. You will be my prime minister for the rest of my life, but I want to marry that princess. I’m in love with her. Go tell them a witch put a spell on me. I’m a prince again.” And so he marries the princess.
OLIVIER ZAHM — There is always something we want to find out in your stories.
KARL LAGERFELD — It’s the same for my stories as it is for me.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Because people are curious about you. People want to know what’s behind the persona.
KARL LAGERFELD — There’s nothing. I’m just what you see. A façade, that’s all. I remember when Annie Leibovitz photographed me for The Hall of Fame in Vanity Fair. She showed up in Monaco with two assistants and said, “I need to spend two or three days with you in order to get to know the real you.” And I said to her, “No, you’re wasting your time — even if I did have something to hide, it would be extremely well hidden.” It’s like a glove I never take off.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What I like a lot about you, Karl, is your ability to have a genuine conversation with anyone — anyone that sits next to you at a dinner.
KARL LAGERFELD — There are three things that killed conversation and salon society: the cell phone, the ban on smoking — which means people have to go outside to smoke, leaving half the dinner table empty — and politically correct conversation, which is the opposite of French wit.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I know you don’t like political correctness.
KARL LAGERFELD — Not at all. One day I said to a very well-known French writer, who thinks of himself as being politically left but who lives his life politically right, “I’m working with class, but I’m working class.” He was appalled, and said, “How can you say such a thing?” But I said, “You can make jokes like that at a certain level. But I wouldn’t say that to actual workers.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — Speaking about political correctness, how do you see the world today?
KARL LAGERFELD — We’re living in an absurd, illogical world. I don’t mind political correctness as an action, but I don’t like it as discourse. Everyone gives lessons in morality. Someone who works with a charity said to me once, “You never make any donations to us.” I answered, “Maybe not to you, because I’m not crazy about your organization. I sense there’s too much corruption.” The guy said, “Even if only five percent makes it to its destination, we still have to do it.” I never talk about which, but there are charities I do give money to. But I don’t want to spread myself too thin. It’s good to be generous, but don’t talk about it. The worst ones are those who think that as long as they denounce something, they are exempt from acting, from actually doing something about it. It’s horrible.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re well thought of by people outside the fashion world. I remember you went to shoot pictures way out in the Paris suburbs and you had no problems. You aren’t afraid to go into areas other famous people don’t dare go.
KARL LAGERFELD — Yes, I don’t have problems with anyone. Obviously, I wasn’t allowed to go out there alone. But I didn’t feel any danger. There’s also the fact that I do not physically resemble the establishment types. I don’t try to copy them. I’m on my own. I can tell when I go someplace that I’m not the same as others. I look kind of like a Martian in a crowd. I could show you a photo of me as a kid and I was the same.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I read that you refused to mingle with your class in school, that you wouldn’t hang out with the other kids.
KARL LAGERFELD — No, I hated other kids when I was young. I thought they were all idiots. What were they going to teach me? They were only good for cleaning my bicycle, maybe.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Were you always kind of a loner?
KARL LAGERFELD — Yes. I preferred older people. They were more fun. The only things I did were draw, learn languages, and read. We mustn’t forget that I spent a large part of my childhood in the countryside.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You have changed your life, but you’ve had many different lives.
KARL LAGERFELD — I wouldn’t survive otherwise.
OLIVIER ZAHM — When you go from one life to another, do you cast off a part of your personality?
KARL LAGERFELD — I don’t have just one personality. I have several! I’m like those salesmen who work for many firms. You don’t have to be obsessed by personality. I’m like a weathervane whose only job is to be a weathervane, and who is quite happy about it, because he doesn’t think it was better before. It’s just different now. It’s bad to stop and think about it. You can think about it when it all stops, but while I’m on the battlefield, while I’m a mercenary, I’ve got to keep going forward.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What do you mean by “mercenary”?
KARL LAGERFELD — Well, I work for those who pay the most, those who offer me the best working conditions. Chanel and Fendi have ideal working conditions. At Chanel it worked because there was no discussion. I don’t have meetings. I never have. It’s only me, Bruno Pavlovsky [President of Chanel’s Fashion Department], Virginie Viard [Director of Chanel’s Creative Studio],
and Eric Pfrunder [Chanel’s Image Director] — just the four of us. We do what we want. We report to no one. Everyone advised me not to go to Chanel in 1983. They said, “Don’t do it. It’s dead over there.” But I met with the owner of the company, Alain Wertheimer, and I liked it there from the very first minute. Alain said, “Look, this house,, as it stands is doing me no good. Take it and do what you want or I’m going to sell it.” And I said, “I see it evolving like this …” And it worked. There were no limitations of any kind, except my own extravagance.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But you never stopped designing Karl Lagerfeld collections.
KARL LAGERFELD — I never gave them up because I didn’t want the people who work with me to be left without a job. That’s the only reason.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you ever meet Coco Chanel?
KARL LAGERFELD — Fortunately, no.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I read Paul Morand’s biography of Chanel and I found so many similarities between her personality and yours.
KARL LAGERFELD — Yes, but my personality came from my mother.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You do realize that you, like Coco Chanel, have a tendency to be abrupt?
KARL LAGERFELD — Yes, but Chanel was also quite charming. She was into charm. In that film with Audrey Tautou [Coco Avant Chanel] she was completely lacking in charm. You got the feeling she’d read Beauvoir’s Second Sex 30 years before it was published. She wasn’t like that at all. Chanel could make anyone do anything. She could be quite disagreeable, but people still said, “thank you.” I’m not quite at that point yet.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Still, it’s interesting how you and Chanel share some of the same personality traits.
KARL LAGERFELD — Yes, it’s amusing. It’s why it all works. But I’m not unpleasant to my staff.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did your mother agree with your decision to work in fashion?
KARL LAGERFELD — At that time fashion wasn’t as glamorous as it is now. She never saw one of my collections. She would say, “No, I’m not going to see the people my son works for.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did she think you were an under-achiever?
KARL LAGERFELD — Yes, she’d say, “You’re lazy, you didn’t study, what else can you do?” Of course, she was quite lazy herself, spending most of her time lying down and reading. She would also tell me, “You’re like me but not enough.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — But, of course, you loved her very much.
KARL LAGERFELD — Yes, she was really wonderful. My father, who was a hundred times nicer, wasn’t any fun. But my mother was great and funny. I would take her side even when she was wrong, which was 80 percent of the time. She was very pragmatic, and I love pragmatism. It’s so odd to be talking about this. It’s as if it were another life. It’s prehistoric.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is fashion a way for you to stay in touch with the youth of today?
KARL LAGERFELD — Yes, but I’m not obsessed by youth. It’s about the moment. It’s a kind of amnesia, a kind of moratorium on my own past, which allows me to live in the moment. When people refer to their past, it doesn’t interest me. I don’t get it when someone says, “Oh, in the good old days.” I’m thrilled with today. I almost never see the people from my past. I don’t hang out with vampires.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re not the least bit nostalgic?
KARL LAGERFELD — What interests me is the moment. Young people grasp it better because they haven’t yet lived through other moments. Older people compare. Memory embellishes.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What makes you jealous?
KARL LAGERFELD — I’m neither envious nor jealous, because I’m only interested in my own life. If it isn’t how I like it, it’s my fault, no one else’s. I can’t be jealous of someone who’s 18 years old and very handsome. No. There’s a moment for everyone. Then it passes. It happens to everyone. For example, the sexuality of the ’60s was all very different. But now, if those people are still around they have become very discreet. In any case, time passes quickly for everyone and you can’t be envious of youth.
OLIVIER ZAHM — People say you’re jealous of Yves Saint Laurent’s success.
KARL LAGERFELD — That’s another cliché. I didn’t have the same life. I learned different things and I had a different professional experience. I had freedoms Yves didn’t have. When Christian Dior died, Yves’s position changed drastically. I was friends with Yves and his group. Then one day something very nasty happened, but it’s not worth speaking about. The other day I ran into someone from his group who said, “Oh, so now you no longer embrace me?” I said, “No, I’d forgotten I know you that well.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you ever meet Christian Dior?
KARL LAGERFELD — Yes. One time, with Yves. We were at a nightclub. He was there with Madame Raymonde. He looked like one of those ageless country lawyers, yet he was only 52. But the fashion you saw in those years was the horrible façade you’d see in Vogue. What really went on backstage was pretty sordid. I could write a book about it. I said to myself, “This is not possible.” Then I thought, “You’re not here to be an art critic, you’re here to learn, so shut up. It would so please the others if you had to go back to Germany or to school.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’ve lived through five decades of fashion. Now, looking at the ’50s to the beginning of the ’60s, with Patou and Balmain, was it all as glamorous as you expected when you arrived from Germany?
KARL LAGERFELD — No. Reality is never as glamorous as one expects. The past is only beautiful for those who weren’t part of it. I did three years at Balmain and five years at Patou, and I realized that Couture was dying. I realized it had no real future, at least not with them after May ’68. It all seemed grotesque. But I could tell things were going to change, and when prêt-à-porter happened, I immediately saw that it was a sort of emergency exit for that other era — that the old idea of couture was over. Except for Chanel and Dior, there are almost no real couture houses left.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are you happy with what you’ve achieved in your work?
KARL LAGERFELD — There’s a famous quote from Armand de la Rochefoucauld, the Duke of Doudeauville — after someone told him he was a great writer: “Fortunately there are still a few of us here who have absolutely no respect for merit.” That’s how I feel.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What memories do you have of the ’70s? I’ve seen the photos by Philippe Morillon of you at those parties at the Palace. You’re also in a lot of Helmut Newton’s photos, with a beard, looking very chic. Were you having a good time?
KARL LAGERFELD — I’m still having a good time, but I don’t like to go out that much anymore. I enjoy myself differently in different time periods. The times have changed. The people and the circumstances are not the same.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you like the ’80s?
KARL LAGERFELD — I hated them! But I was very happy to start working for Chanel. But other things were less so. The AIDS crisis was horrible. Let’s not even go there. And I didn’t like the ’90s much either, even if things were going well for me professionally. Things went better when I decided to go on my diet. In fact, I’m like that classic song by Mort Shuman, “Le Lac Majeur,” where he sings, “J’ai tout oublié du bonheur.” [“I’ve forgotten all my happiness.”]
OLIVIER ZAHM — Karl, are you making fun of me?
KARL LAGERFELD — No, I would never allow myself to do that…
OLIVIER ZAHM — You just don’t like to speak about the past, right?
KARL LAGERFELD — All of that is just retrospective. I don’t care about it. One of my favorite sayings is an old German-Jewish proverb, “No credit for the past.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — I think your sense of humor, your irony, conceals a certain gravitas.
KARL LAGERFELD — That is a question of politeness. Go ahead and be serious, my dear, but don’t bore me.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Six or seven years ago, when you were shooting for Libération’s Style Supplement, which I directed, I was astonished by your knowledge of aristocratic Paris.
KARL LAGERFELD — I know Paris like the back of my hand. I could be an architectural guide to Paris or Versailles. I have the useless ability to remember things. My memory is phenomenal. I myself can’t believe it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You know the history of every hotel particulier in the 6th and 16th arrondissements and who lived in them.
KARL LAGERFELD — Yes, I love the history of people I never knew. For me the past can be stimulating.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You have a great passion for books and magazines, don’t you?
KARL LAGERFELD — Yes. I also love advertisements. I would love to have an advertising agency. I’m fascinated by intelligent, brilliant ads: finding slogans that can tell a story in thirty seconds.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Like the way Warhol did?
KARL LAGERFELD — If there is one person with whom I have no association, it’s Warhol!
OLIVIER ZAHM — Warhol was a voyeur, like you are — looking at people, but not really participating.
KARL LAGERFELD — It’s rather Puritanical.
OLIVIER ZAHM — At the same time, as a photographer, you’re not afraid to fantasize, like you did for the story in this issue of Purple, with Baptiste Giabiconi shot as a Helmut Newton woman.
KARL LAGERFELD — I’ve done worse!
OLIVIER ZAHM — Like Warhol, you love taking pictures all the time, and you have a somewhat similar relationship with celebrity.
KARL LAGERFELD — Yes, but he’s more famous now than when he was alive, and I’m not particularly interested in celebrities. I like my own, but I don’t really think about that of others. Warhol was fascinated by people, which doesn’t interest me in the least.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You acted in Warhol’s underground film L’Amour.
KARL LAGERFELD — Yes, I knew him quite well, before society took him in. I’d known him since 1970, when he was doing research for his portraits. Before that he was a New York phenomenon. He was fun. It wasn’t that I was uneasy, I just didn’t like him very much though I think his work was brilliant.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You like contemporary design, and you’re surrounded by books, but you don’t
have any art.
KARL LAGERFELD — No. I’m not an art collector. I don’t have any room on my walls. The essence of things, you can have in books. I bought a lot of artwork in the early ’60s because it didn’t cost much. I bought George Segal and Tom Wesselmann. Warhol gave me some pieces and I bought others. The biggest Warhol I own is in my secretary’s office. I wouldn’t want it in my house. Then there was a Hockney, which I destroyed because I had a problem with him. And Lichtensteins, which I gave away as Christmas presents because I thought they’d gone out of fashion, like some dresses. At the big auctions, people sometimes sell the stuff I gave them. It doesn’t bother me.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You had a fight with David Hockney?
KARL LAGERFELD — Yes. He’d done a portrait of my friend Jacques de Bascher. There was a show at Galerie Claude Bernard, on rue des Beaux-Arts, and I bought one of the portraits. He was a very good friend of Jacques. So one day I got a letter from his secretary, asking, “Where is the portrait of Jacques de Bascher? He must be dead by now.” I was so offended. I wrote back, “I will never tell you where it is. Go fuck yourself.” He sent me a note apologizing, with a drawing as a gift. I tore up the drawing, put it in an envelope, and sent
OLIVIER ZAHM — But what about the portrait you bought?
KARL LAGERFELD — I didn’t like it very much. Jacques looked like he was drinking too much in it. He looked a little alcoholic. But the drawing is well known.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Wasn’t it used as the poster for an exhibition?
KARL LAGERFELD — Yes, that’s the one. But there are two of them. The other one I lent to Jacques’ mother for life. Personally, I prefer photos I took myself, because when I photograph them I know they’re looking at me, not someone else. He was very photogenic. However, it’s terrible to know someone who knows he’s condemned to death. At that time, people suffered horribly when they died of AIDS.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Why don’t you buy art anymore?
KARL LAGERFELD — The most beautiful paintings are in museums or private collections, or they’re absurdly priced. Besides, the art I like isn’t the kind you can hang in a living room. It’s more like installation art. One of the artists I like most today is James Turrell. One of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen is the Shinto temple he and Tadeo Ando transformed, on an island in an interior sea in Japan. That isn’t for a living room. I’m not a designer who has his own museum or a foundation. It begins with me and ends with me. I don’t have archives. Nothing. Zero. What I like is making things.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Does this explain your passion for houses and architecture?
KARL LAGERFELD — Yes, but now I prefer doing houses for others, not for myself. I no longer physically have the time to do it. I’ve abandoned so many of the houses I designed for myself. There are even some I never even lived in.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The last house you decided to buy is in Vermont, right? What made you choose this remote area of the United States to buy a house and, moreover, to shoot the last two Chanel campaigns?
KARL LAGERFELD — Yes, that one is a sort of storeroom for the things I don’t feel like selling. I don’t go there very often. It’s very pretty, but it’s modest, very Emily Dickinson, very American — a Greek revival house from before the arrival of Vanderbilt and company. It’s made of wood and brick. Vermont is a miraculously preserved state. I also like my apartment in New York because it’s located near where E.B. White, my favorite American essayist, journalist, and writer, used to live. Alfred Stieglitz lived next door. Edith Wharton was born near where my building is, and she had a house called The Mount in Massachusetts, not far from Vermont. It’s an America that I like very much. It’s a place where I find a different inspiration for my work than in Paris.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you deal with the invasion of technology?
KARL LAGERFELD — The cell phone changed the world. I personally don’t use them much. I don’t have the time. I keep everything in my head. The other day I bought a new computer, the latest model. I was playing with it, and suddenly realized I’d lost an hour. I said to myself, “Oh God, this isn’t for you.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — In any case, when you need to know something, you know which book to consult.
KARL LAGERFELD — Exactly. I know where it is. On Google, information isn’t always correct. It’s rushed, it lacks sensitivity. I love the physical presence of books.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What does death mean for you?
KARL LAGERFELD — It’s nothing. The deaths of others are far more disturbing than my own. Since I won’t know when it happens, it isn’t so serious. We don’t remember life before birth, either. What’s ugly is sickness, degradation. But death itself — if it’s quick, it’s okay. There’s no urgency, so for me it’s a non-subject. It gives value to things. If we lived eternally, or even for two or three centuries, it wouldn’t be good. Things have value because of their ephemerality. I have no particular fears. I’m rather indifferent to these things.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Your extreme activeness is perhaps a way of defying death.
KARL LAGERFELD — Without wanting to be impolite, in my opinion that’s a total cliché. I work because I enjoy it. That’s all. What else can I do? I’m lucky enough to be able to do what I love in the best conditions. People say I’m cheating death? Not at all! They overestimate me!
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you believe the soul survives?
KARL LAGERFELD — No. My mother hated storms because she said she’d died in a storm in another life. There’s obviously no proof of that. Personally, I hate birds, and they say that men who do once died on a field of battle — at the time when they couldn’t do much for the dying. Vultures would circle around waiting for them to die.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Some people believe that the spirit survives.
KARL LAGERFELD — I like the idea, but it’s hard to believe. Do you believe in it?
OLIVIER ZAHM — I think I do.
KARL LAGERFELD — I hope it works out
well for you!
OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s the current state of your spirit?
KARL LAGERFELD — Do you think I have a spirit?
OLIVIER ZAHM — I think you have a great deal of spirit.
KARL LAGERFELD — I’m not a dictator — I don’t have a state for my spirit.
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