February 26, 2019

Who Even Was Karl Lagerfeld?

by The Cut on Tuesdays

Background show artwork for The Cut on Tuesdays

A cartoon, a genius, a man who hated sweatpants... Making sense of one of the greatest fashion designers of all time, with Vanessa Grigoriadis, Carl Swanson, and Cathy Horyn.

Where to Listen



From the Cut and Gimlet Media, this is the Cut on Tuesdays. I’m your host, Molly Fischer.


When designer Karl Lagerfeld died last week, his cat released a statement.

“He was a true icon who touched the lives of everyone he came in contact with, especially moi,” his cat told the public. “May Daddy Karl Lagerfeld’s memory live on forever through his work and may we never forget the creative genius who now sits in heaven beside Mommy Coco Chanel.”

 <<MUX IN>>

Choupette is a seven-year-old white Birman cat with 226 thousand Instagram followers. Karl Lagerfeld was the 85-year-old designer who, since 1983, had run the house of Chanel. 

If you close your eyes and picture the human embodiment of everything over-the-top and absurd about the fashion world, you are probably picturing Karl Lagerfeld. He had white powdered hair, likes an 18th century French aristocrat, and he wore tiny tight black suits and black sunglasses that he never took off, even indoors.

STELLA: Karl Lagerfeld is… like a physical logo of himself… 

That’s Stella Bugbee, the Cut’s editor in chief. 

STELLA: People can only remember three things about a person - he had reduced himself to those three memorable things.

White ponytail... black glasses… tight suit.

STELLA: Anyone who is capable of achieving that level of self presentation must understand on some level what they are doing with their image.

And in addition to looking like a cartoon, he was always saying cartoonishly terrible things, which the press would then seize on.

VO: He said he didn’t like Pippa Middleton’s face, adding she should only show her back.

VO: And here’s what he said in reaction to a magazine announcing they will use realistic women rather than skinny models. He said, “these are fat mummies, sitting with their bags of crisps in front of the television sets saying thin models are ugly. 

Criticizing heavier bodies was a particular theme, but his disdain was more wide-ranging than that. He’d tell reporters things like “I hate ugly people” and “Sweatpants are a sign of defeat.” He was relentlessly quotable.

KL: I just do what my inner voice  is telling me, I am like the Joan of Arc of design.

KL: I don’t deliver a description of my person. You have what you see, there is nothing more

KL I laugh about myself, I am my best cartoon

All the obituaries that came out last week were a blur of tidbits like these…  plus huge pronouncements about how this was the end of an era. And I was reading them, I realized I didn’t actually have a handle on why Lagerfeld was such a big deal. Did people LIKE Karl Lagerfeld? Was he sort of a joke, with the crazy hair and the famous cat, or was he serious? 

What was it that made Karl Lagerfeld so important, and why should people who don’t wear Chanel care?

One very lucky thing about my job is that I can just call up Cathy Horyn, who’s been writing about fashion for more than 30 years, and ask her. 

Cathy is the Cut’s fashion critic at large. She knows everything there is to know about this world, and she’s famous for being one of its toughest critics. 

CATHY: I remember Women's Wear Daily did a piece about me in the early 90s and the headline was The pitbull among the poodles.

Sometimes you just say things that designers get upset about - Armani banned me for about 2 seasons and then you come back in. 

Cathy followed Karl’s career for decades, and she spent a lot of time with him.

CATHY: I would sometimes listen to people describe this sort of cold brittle man or a marionette or cartoonish figure and I felt like well no I saw the other side of Karl I saw someone very warm and human and funny. 

In particular, Cathy remembers the visits she had with Lagerfeld at his house in Biarritz--a resort town in the south of France. This was about 20 years ago, and she was working on a profile of him for the New York Times Magazine.

CATHY: I was picked up at the Biarritz airport by an armor plated BMW on a foggy foggy day.

She was going to spend several days staying with him, talking and seeing his home.

CATHY: The interior is all white with a lot of dark wood. 18th century French was was his go-to era. I remember that house had a room just for ironing, it was a huge room with a huge table for ironing big sheets. But he was very open about showing you know letting you come in and look at his incredible collection of shirts or. 

MOLLY: That’s so Gatsby 

CATHY: Very Gatsby, but charming..

CATHY: It was an August evening it was a little damp and Karl is sitting there not in a jacket. It was the first time I’ve ever seen Karl wear a cardigan sweater. And he starts talking about his mother, her name was Elizabeth. She was the second wife of Carl's father. Carl was her only child and she was tough, there was a lot of tough love. I mean telling him that you know you should never smoke because you have ugly hands. 

CATHY: I remember him saying to me. Did she ever go. I asked if she ever go to any of your shows. and he said no. Her reply was I never went to your father's office either. You know so I think there was a very I think he learned a lot of discipline from his mother. It gave me tremendous insight into Karl 

Lagerfeld’s parents were wealthy Germans. He would sometimes exaggerate exactly HOW wealthy -- describing them as aristocrats, when actually his father ran a condensed milk company. 

Lagerfeld left Germany for Paris as a young man. He won a international fashion competition for a coat he’d designed--Yves Saint Laurent, who’d become a lifelong rival, won in the dress category. The couture house Balmain hired Lagerfeld as an assistant.

CATHY: The 50s was a quite exciting time because you know the war is over. The magazines have returned to Paris. There was a group of designers who were qualified to be called couturiers. They were the centerpiece of what French fashion was all about.

Couture means “sewing” in French. And being “couture” doesn’t just mean that something is expensive or that it appeared on a runway--it means it was individually custom-fitted, made by hand. Couture is the most old-fashioned corner of the fashion world, and Lagerfeld started his career learning those traditions. 

CATHY: He told me you know I worked in the 1950s but I was trained by people who were themselves trained in the 1920s and 30s. 

Most of the clothes you see at fashion shows today are what’s called “ready-to-wear.” That means that, yes, maybe it’s unbelievably expensive, but theoretically you can still just walk into a store and buy it. 

When Lagerfeld was first starting out, ready-to-wear wasn’t taken very seriously--the fashion world looked down on it in comparison to couture. But by the 1960s, that was starting to change. And Lagerfeld dove into that new realm as a freelance designer for hire, at places like Fendi and Chloe. 

CATHY: He sort of perfected that bohemian, feminine soft look that still surfaces in Chloe today. 

In the early 80s, he took on the task that would define his career: Reinventing Chanel 


Back in the 20s, Coco Chanel had been revolutionary--she streamlined the fussiness of women’s fashion with her simple sailor tops and little black dresses. By the time of her death in 1971, though, the brand was a relic: Chanel No. 5 was still famous, but the clothes were just dowdy tweed suits that nobody was particularly excited to wear.

CATHY: I think in his mind, in his very nimble mind, he saw that it was an opportunity. That there was more to do with Chanel than people believed.

There was a whole visual vocabulary associated with the Chanel brand: camellias, tweed, pearls, quilted bags with chain straps. Karl Lagerfeld played with those elements and made them look new. He piled on chains and ropes of pearls until the effect was S&M. He embroidered delicate fabric to look like heavy tweed. He even revamped the famous Chanel suit. 

VO: He showed a certain lack of respect for the Grand Dame when he exposed the one thing she hated the most: the knee. And it was a smash.

This happens all the time now: Old, dusty, semi-forgotten brands bring in hot young designers and try to stage a reinvention. But Lagerfeld was the first one to do it--he created the template for people like Tom Ford at Gucci or John Galliano at Dior. Not every designer or every house can pull this off, but the shining example of Lagerfeld’s success makes it irresistible to try. 

CATHY: I think he popularized luxury and he used Chanel as the medium and then quite ingeniously he never ever let Chanel lose its its haute couture legacy. 

In the three decades that Karl Lagerfeld was at the helm of Chanel, he kept his doors open to Cathy… and to lots of other people, too. She remembers him working constantly. 

CATHY: I also remember you know going up to the Chanel studio which was a kind of ritual in Paris for a number of editors. He would do previews and it was just you know yeah I appreciate the fact that it was an open door you know a lot of designers today it's like you got him you know you've got to plead to get in some times to see them when they're guarded or the PR is sitting there and with Karl that was not the case. 

He worked hard, but he never made it look like work. Cathy remembers evenings hanging around the studio

CATHY:  Karl always remembered everybody's families. He could be very flirty with the with the models and very kind of sweet and charming a little bit naughty. he'd you know take off his glasses and talk to you. So eye to eye. He would walk you to the elevator and sometimes take you down in the elevator and walk you to the front door of Chanel that sort of graciousness was something actually unique. I don't remember other designers actually doing that. 

<<MUX IN>>

Within the cloistered, elite world of Parisian ateliers, Lagerfeld had already changed the way the fashion business worked.

CATHY: as early as 1976 he said you know I think the term designer is inadequate he said you become an enterprise. 


By the early aughts, he was on the cusp of something bigger. He was about to go from the runway to the mall, and become a worldwide brand.

After the break: 

VANESSA: Lindsay Lohan was like Karl is a genius


Welcome back to The Cut On Tuesdays. This week, we’re trying to get our heads around Karl Lagerfeld. He was probably the most recognizable designer in the world when he died last week. And in the decades that he spent at Chanel, he’d devised a new template for fashion success: reviving and reinventing old brands. 

By the early aughts, he was also reinventing Karl Lagerfeld. This is the period when you really see him honing himself down to a sharp logo of a person. In 2000, he went on a diet and lost a ton of weight--he later wrote a diet book about his methods. So, he hadn’t always been the man in the tiny tight suit... But then tight suits became fashionable, and if 90 pounds were what stood between Lagerfeld and a tight suit, he’d get rid of 90 pounds of himself. He was determined to stay immersed in what was new.

Cathy remembers him working as diligently to absorb pop culture as he worked at everything else.

CATHY: One of the things that was funny about the Biarritz house there were flat screen TVs everywhere.There was one in the front entrance when you came in. and they were usually playing MTV. 

It was really in the last fifteen years that he started to focus his ambitions beyond the usual confines of the fashion world. Luxury had always been what Lagerfeld was selling. But he was also willing to expand the definition of luxury… and that goes way beyond moving from rarefied couture to ready-to-wear. 

In 2004, he was the first designer to launch a fast-fashion collaboration when he created a capsule collection for H&M.

It’s almost strange to remember, but at the time this seemed like a risky move. If you’ve made your name selling an unattainable fantasy, does going downmarket ruin the appeal?


 Lagerfeld actually hit this question head-on in an ad for the H&M collection

It’s in black and white and shows a lot of fancy-seeming old people looking scandalized, gossiping and asking each other what Karl can possibly be doing. Finally, one of them confronts Karl, who is unfazed. 


 MAN: Karl, is it true!?

 KARL: Of course it’s true.

 MAN: But it’s cheap!

KARL: Cheap… what a depressing word. It’s all about taste. If you are cheap, nothing helps. 

This wasn’t Chanel for H&M; this was Karl Lagerfeld for H&M--he was the brand. And he was out there in the ad campaign, poking fun at the snobbiness of the fashion world, without quite letting go of his own snobbery. He had the sense of humor to remake himself as a media star--

CATHY: It brought him to a different level.

Cathy Horyn again.

CATHY: I was there I was at H&M. And the line went around the corner. it was like a thousand people went through the door in the first hour. 

Now, of course, these collaborations happen constantly, from Missoni for Target to Uniqlo by Jil Sander. But Lagerfeld was the first. 

CATHY  It also made him seem that he was game to try something new and Carl would say that he was game all along to try things. He you know he lived the life that he wanted to live and then in the last 15 years I think he kept upping it. It was it was great to realize that Karl you know was appreciated by all these young women.

VANESSA: I really was very struck because I had done all these stories about pop stars 

That’s Vanessa Grigoriadis.

VANESSA: and Karl it was like the way that you know a Shakira or somebody rolls.

Vanessa spent time with Karl Lagerfeld in 2006 for a story she wrote for New York Magazine. She wasn’t a fashion person—but this was the period when non fashion people were starting to pay attention to Lagerfeld. Celebrities were Vanessa’s usual beat, and Lagerfeld was now a celebrity.

VANESSA: you've got five people with you or six people and they're all like this is your marketing person. This is your assistant. This is your creative person. This is like your weird friend from high school who's still hanging around you and you're just like an entourage. Yeah. You roll like that through the world and those people were with Carl and Carl me like a very big point to say to me like this is how I'm rolling now like this is how people are rolling. This is the modern way which is like you get this group of people and then you just go from city to city and you're like a mobile office you know and everybody does their work on their cell phones. Not that he used a cell phone or email or anything like that 

MOLLY: but the person at the center of that in the case of Carl is very different than like a glamorous young pop star. I mean he looks kind of nuts at this point 

VANESSA: He’s like the S&M Dave Navarro, with white hair, was what I thought. But back when people talked about Dave Navarro. 


Celebrity culture had reached a new fever pitch in the early aughts: famous people were replacing models on magazine covers and fashion editors in front rows. Lagerfeld put himself at the center of the party. Everyone Vanessa talked to wanted an invitation to wherever he was. 

VANESSA: Lindsay Lohan was like Karl is a genius. 

VANESSA: And you know Amy Sacco who ran like Bungalow 8 which was like one of the huge clubs at the time like you know is the only person who makes me shy. 

Karl Lagerfeld was the name to drop on the red carpet--

SARAH JESSICA PARKER: He’s sort of in an incredible universe of his own,// 

That’s Sarah Jessica Parker.

SJP: I think he’s been really smart about it and really interesting

RACHEL BILSON: I mean he’s iconic 

And Rachel Bilson.

RB: he’s just one of those people who’s really talented and timeless and classic and really really cool.

BLAKE LIVELY: His vision is so incredible 

And Blake Lively.

BL: and the fact that he’s able to reference back to Coco Chanel’s vision is really remarkable

Lagerfeld himself photographed Blake Lively for Chanel handbag ads in 2011. He was good at aligning with the people other people were interested in--whether that meant Nicole Kidman circa Moulin Rouge...or musicians like Devendra Banhart and Florence Welch…. Or celebrity offspring like Willow Smith and Lily-Rose Depp.

Here’s Vanessa again.

VANESSA: You know he was almost vampiric like that. Right.That I must remain young and youthful and I must know what people are talking about and who's hot and who's coming up like that was a lot of what he was really good at, just seeing those little trends in culture.

In the last decade, as social media changed the way people saw fashion, Lagerfeld reimagined his fashion shows for that zeitgeist. He made the runway a spectacle. He’d import an iceberg from Sweden for models to walk around. He’d build a fake supermarket where models pretended to shop. He had rocket ships and waterfalls and beaches and forests--anything that would make people take pictures and talk. 

CATHY: They were funny, these big shows, they were quite comical. 

Cathy Horyn says they were fashion shows made for an Instagram audience.

CATHY: Some of us used to complain to him: I miss the days Karl when it was a smaller venue when you would have the collection you know in the house or some other wonderful place and you could see the clothes and they were close to you. But I think Karl knew that is he is he said to me and you know we have stores all around the world we have customers all around the world and they want to see this too. You know it's not just for the intimates to see it. 

He produced a spring couture collection that showed last month in Paris, with models parading around the pool of a recreated Italian villa. The fashion press was shocked when he didn’t appear for the usual bow at the end--Lagerfeld was so tireless in keeping up with what was new, it was easy to forget he was getting older. Of course, he was also known to lie about his age.

CATHY: yeah, I once asked him about it because he'd always the official birth date was 1938. He's a virgo. And but then some German papers found out that it was supposedly 1933. And he said to me it's somewhere in between.

As a general rule, Lagerfeld prefered not to acknowledge his mortality or even talk about his legacy. But that didn’t stop journalists from trying. At the end of last year, Lagerfeld showed a Chanel collection amid the ancient Egyptian artifacts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Carl Swanson is an editor-at-large at New York Magazine--he thought the choice of venue HAD to mean something.

CARL: If a man who is about to die does a show at the temple of Dendur that is Egyptian themed you have to think that he was thinking about , if not eternal life, then at least his legacy, his pharoenic legacy. 

In December, Carl Swanson flew to Paris for what turned out to be one of the final interviews Lagerfeld gave. He’d done his homework; he knew Lagerfeld’s familiar stories and provocative one-liners. He’d even read the diet book. He was expecting to face off with the cartoon pop star, and was caught off guard by what he saw.

CARL: He was older than I thought he would be because I was so familiar with his image. I walked in and he was sort of slouched over and he had you know I guess he puts all this stuff in his hair to sort of make his hair white as opposed to, I guess, gray. So like that was sort of on him. And and you know he was wearing these you know he kissed his finger gloves that you know I mean I don't know if part of why he did that it was. I mean you know is it a kinky thing. Is it a fashion reference. Is it just so you don't see that his hands look old. 

He found himself thinking about how Lagerfeld might have come to cultivate his distinctive look.

CARL: He sort of did what a lot of young queer boys do which is you know it's a mix of incredibly formal and also like formal like old fashioned kind of elegance. Yeah and something more feminine. And I think that in that because he was trying to find like well who is he. I think there's this fabulous creature who didn't fit in but as he said to me once he said you know I knew I was going to be famous like myself when I was 6 years old. You are going to be famous. and a lot of when you don't fit in. That's what you decide instead.

Inside his entourage, he was always alone.  Cathy Horyn says Lagerfeld would say very little to anyone about his private life. For years, for example, he was believed to be in love with a socialite named Jacques de Bascher… a man who then had an affair with Lagerfeld’s rival Yves Saint Laurent.

CATHY: When I was talking to Carl about it, He was very clear that you know that's what he wanted to say that Jacques de Bascher was never his lover it was never a romance. But I think Jacques was the great love of his life. 

Jacques de Bascher died of AIDS-related complications in 1989, and Karl Lagerfeld was never romantically attached to anyone again, at least publicly.

CATHY: He said I'm I'm not going to tell you, but I also didn't go to the bushes, meaning that he wasn't promiscuous. He said that I don't think someone who is doing something as elegant as high fashion should be doing things like that. 

Carl Swanson had a different theory about Lagerfeld’s choices.

CARL: He was precisely in the demographic where everybody in his world died of AIDS. Yeah everybody and he didn't, you know. And whether that is through luck or self-control. My guess is probably a lot of the second, it does speak something to him and that damage that was done to him also which also made him like the only one of the only people of that generation that lived is also something that I find very touching about him. 

When he went to talk to Lagerfeld last December, he was hoping to get him to reveal some of that vulnerability. He was hoping that this 85-year-old man might offer some reflection on the things that lay behind him and ahead.

Lagerfeld wasn’t going to play ball, though. The facade he’d been building for decades was as strong as ever. There was only really one moment when Carl Swanson caught a glimpse of human tenderness.

CARL: he pulled out the phone and took his sunglasses off, the one time he took his sunglasses off, to like kind of peer and scroll through his phone to look at pictures of Choupette. Or

MOLLY:  It's funny because it seems like on one hand it's like encapsulates all the most over-the-top about him like the fact that he has a cat who is also famous and has like branding deals everything. But on the other hand you're saying it's something that was humanizing about him like his relationship to this animal. 

CARL: I think that's the only way he knows how to love. 

MOLLY: Yeah. 

CARL: You know is through branding deals. I got a sense he was a sad lonely person…and gotten rid of in that way people and things would hold him back.  And all of that is fine and not pitiable by any means, extraordinary life, he sort of broke my heart a little bit. 

White ponytail, black glasses, tight suit--Lagerfeld kept it up to the very end. He made himself into a cartoon, but he also transformed fashion: taking the traditions of the early twentieth century into the twenty-first, he reinvented luxury for a new era. 

Along the way, he amassed a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Choupette is rumored to be among his heirs.

That’s it for this week’s show. We’ll see you next Tuesday. 


The Cut on Tuesdays is produced by Sarah McVeigh and Olivia Natt.

Our senior producer is Kimmie Regler.

We’re edited by Stella Bugbee, Nazanin Rafsanjani, Caitlin Kenney, Lynn Levy, and Alex Blumberg, who has nothing whatsoever to say about Chanel.

Mixing by Emma Munger and Andi Kristins, our music is by Haley Shaw and Emma Munger. Our theme song is PLAY IT RIGHT by Amelia Meath, Nick Sanborn, Molly Sarle, AND Alexandra Sauser Monig. 

Special thanks to Valerie Steele, and Shoshi Shmuluvitz.

The Cut on Tuesdays is a production of Gimlet Media and the Cut.