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What was Karl Lagerfeld really like? By his friend and colleague, Natasha A Fraser

Blog | By Natasha A Fraser | Apr 26, 2023

Picture by Siebbi

NATASHA A FRASER

Karl Lagerfeld - or “the Kaiser” - was my first boss in Paris.

Though proud of this great feat, I won first prize as his lousiest assistant at the Chanel Studio. It was 1989, the height of the supermodels and the French luxury brand. Chanel’s tweed suits, little black dresses and handbags were whizzing out of their boutiques.

But, being Karl, he thought it was tremendously funny that I was a dilettante. “You spent your life on the telephone,” the German designer later teased me. Hard to believe but while he was adding pearls, satin camellias and other accessories to the lithe limbs of supermodels like Linda Evangelista, Claudia Schiffer and Naomi Campbell, I was busy gassing to my dark-haired, Notting Hill Gate-based girlfriends.

Occasionally, the then 56-year-old Karl turned in my direction and smiled broadly. Contrary to his sourpuss reputation, he favoured the different and had an infectious sense of humour.

Veruschka – the celebrated 1960s model - described him as a gent who wore his immense culture lightly and was both generous and affectionate.

A journalist’s dream, the well-read and charismatic Karl never forgot a name or an insult but seduced by being witty and outspoken in four languages: English, French, Italian and his native tongue. There was also the tremendous joie-de-vivre and urge to share. Reading the new book Hidden Karl and seeing Robert Fairer’s backstage photographs of the Chanel Years between the 1990s and 2000s, I was reminded of the euphoria Karl encouraged amongst his team and the models. “Fashion has to be fun, otherwise what’s the point,” he often said.

True, Karl lied about his age – born in 1933, he knocked off five years - but it’s hard not to agree with Marie-Louise de Clermont-Tonnerre, the retired Chanel executive that “he was a godsend” for the fashion house:

“I was working there when Gabrielle Chanel passed away and the bloodless atmosphere was compared to the Kremlin, just after Stalin died,” says the spritely 80-year-old.

Indeed, Karl’s winning flare, Teutonic discipline and precision, revolutionised Chanel. For 36 years, he revamped the house’s heritage and codes and turned Chanel into a must brand from 1983 until 2019 when he died at 85, with his boots on.

It was Anna Wintour’s idea that I work for Karl. As was her way, she faxed Gilles Dufour, Karl’s bras droit, in September 1989.

A meeting was arranged but although every Parisian I met enthused, ‘Karl will looove you,’ I wasn’t so sure. He’d had a much publicised bust-up with Ines de la Fressange, his former muse, and then, after two months, it happened. Or rather Anna intervened.

My first meeting with Karl took place in November 1989 at the Chanel Studio on the Rue Cambon. A receptionist called to announce his arrival. Among my Chanel Studio colleagues - namely Virginie Viard, Victoire de Castellane, Armelle Saint-Mlleux and Franciane Moreau – I noticed jewellery was added, lipstick was applied and high heels were slipped on. Suddenly, a fleet of white canvas tote bags appeared, delivered by Brahim, Lagerfeld’s then chauffeur (who was eventually fired for flogging handbags on the side.)

Karl was sporting a forest-green Loden coat. Quite plump and small, he refused to look at me in the eye. Instead, Karl pushed his sunglasses up, peered down and chose to comb through a tote packed with papers, crayons and pencils. While placing his coloured sketches on his desk, he revealed that he’d met my mother – the writer Antonia Fraser - and my grandmother – the writer Elizabeth Longford – at the house of George Weidenfeld, their Austrian-born book publisher.

Seasoned to the creative, I instinctively liked Karl. I decided that he was irked by the disruption, being keener to work. Yet, in spite of the mild gruffness, he was touching. When he was leaving, Gilles needed to help him put on his coat. Karl blamed his surprisingly short arms on an unfortunate family characteristic. Nevertheless, I kept such thoughts to myself. Karl was a king, surrounded by courtiers eager to repeat stories and win favour.

A few days later, Karl looked at my decoupage jewellery and scarf designs. After choosing two pairs of earrings, he focused on my fabric that depicted a teapot pouring out jewels. Taking an A3 piece of paper and thick pen, Karl sketched and marked out how the teapots should be placed. The teapots were splashed across a black satin silk fabric, manufactured by Cugnasca in Italy, and used for Chanel blouses, jackets and skirt linings.

Two more prints followed. One showed hand-drawn double-C cards mixed in with pearls and diamond tears The final one boasted double-C clocks flying on jewelled wings.

Apart from these three successful yet unpaid endeavours, I was more of a studio mascot than helpful assistant. Karl described me as “a good-natured belle-époque actress”.

Having begun photography, he took my portrait several times. He lived in his Paris apartment or Lamée, a country house outside Paris. An enthusiastic collector of the 18th century, Karl was a walking encyclopaedia about the period. He was a skilled host, too, among his soignée and international guests.

Looking back, those soirées captured how high fashion was still wrapped up in Parisian society. Karl straddled both worlds, seamlessly. As did his ex-friend Yves Saint Laurent. The designers had fallen out over Jacques de Bascher, Karl’s boyfriend, and the rift further widened. There was even a sense that Paris was divided between Yves’s camp and Karl’s one.

Meanwhile, the only time I was cattle-pronged into action – usually by Gilles - was when Karl produced his Chanel shows.

During those periods, Gilles distributed his original sketches to the various ateliers. Two personal favourites were Monsieur Paquito – responsible for Chanel’s couture suits – and Madame Edith who’d worked with Mademoiselle Chanel and created ready-to-wear flou dresses.

Meanwhile, a lengthy portable screen was pinned with photocopies of Karl’s sketches. If only I’d photographed it. It was coloured with Chanel make-up, while the buttons and trim were accented with a gold pen.

Karl used to say that Antonio Lopez had no equal, with regards to his fashion drawings. However, Karl was capable of sketching and imitating every single designer’s style. Swiftly achieved, it was fascinating to watch.

Naturally, there were dramas. During the 1991 fall winter couture show, Linda and Christy Turlington brandished Lesage-embellished redingotes and matching, thigh-high boots. Certain flaps had not been closed. Ravishing as they looked, their underwear was revealed. The show was unveiled at the Ritz.

And I remember overhearing Princess Caroline of Monaco joke, “Well, I guess, next season, we need to show our panties.”

Poor Colette – in charge of the offending atelier – was fired. It seemed odd for such a professional seamstress and I wondered if the looks had been sabotaged. Karl had never liked Colette.

No question, there was a darkness to Karl. Yet, in general, those days were light-hearted and fun. A twilight period in Parisian fashion, it was a time when individual creativity reigned. The design of clothes outshone handbags. Parties were spontaneous, raucous and inclusive. Eccentric and or bratty behaviour towards the press was tolerated.

Four years later, it would totally change. Hubert de Givenchy was the first to retire in 1995. He sold his house to Bernard Arnault – the luxury titan – who had already acquired Christian Dior, Christian Lacroix, Louis Vuitton and Celine. It was the beginning of major money in fashion and major corporations offering their Faustian pacts to creators.

He shed 65 pounds and forced Chanel to go global. Mastering the internet helped his cause, as did spectacular fashion extravaganzas and an addition of commercial collections such as Cruise.

As Robert Fairer’s photographs attest, Karl Lagerfeld was utterly unleashed when he reinvented Chanel for the 21st century.


Natasha A Fraser co-produced The Mysterious Mr Lagerfeld