Once more to the Grand Palais, to mark an industry’s salute to Karl Lagerfeld, in the place where he treated so many to his spectacular transports of imagination with his Chanel shows. The opera director Robert Carsen had shouldered responsibility for the impossible task of encompassing the mercurial intelligence and vast, multifaceted career of the greatest polymath ever to work in fashion.
Karl For Ever was a celebration of the life of the designer who always wittily rebuffed anyone’s attempt to define him, who never wanted to look back, who laughed at pretentious conceptual fashion conversation and constantly lived in the present, yet was simultaneously the most deeply learned, voraciously well-read authority on history, art, literature, philosophy, poetry and music; who sketched, photographed, made films, was a publisher and political cartoonist, lover of new technology, and of a blue-eyed Birman cat named Choupette… Where to begin?
The walls of the Palais were lined with towering black and white portraits of Lagerfeld, from his youthful entry into Paris as the young German winner of the Woolmark Prize in 1954, through every phase of his climb, through Chloé in the ’70s, Fendi, Chanel, and his own Karl Lagerfeld brand, to becoming the most famous fashion personality on the planet.
Many of the people who worked with him at Chanel, Fendi, and Karl Lagerfeld spoke on video; there were performances on stage and readings from literature by Tilda Swinton, Cara Delevingne, Helen Mirren, and more. Pharrell Williams sang and the pianist Lang Lang played. Tango dancers tangoed—we learned it was his little-known passion.
Ultimately, though, the only person who could possibly clinch the portrait of Karl was Karl himself. A patchwork of footage taken from his many televised interviews started with a hilarious film of Lagerfeld interviewing himself—dismissing his own questions on his deep psychological motivations with exactly the same technique he always used on journalists: “You have what you see, there’s nothing behind!” In an excerpt from a documentary made at Versailles, we heard him give the most penetrating quote on the human centrality of fashion to defining any culture: “Clothes are the first thing you think of when you imagine an era—you think of pannier dresses when you say the 18th century, before architecture or anything else.”
We saw him throw out quip after quick-thinking quip, aphorism after Lagerfeldian aphorism. “I live in total unreality, while being a down-to-earth designer.” On his love of Latin-American dance: “Tango—that’s my rap.” Explaining his adoption of the fan as his trademark: “It’s my logo, and mobile air conditioning.”
We watched him describe how designers capture the times, “We are similar to barometers”; discuss his belief that nothing good comes from overthinking, “one must be spontaneous,” and also, “the deadline makes things interesting.”
We saw him sketching and reading, with Choupette climbing all over his piles of books and sketchbooks at home. Interviewers often earnestly asked how he kept up with so many roles, so much work, so much pressure? “ It’s not work,” he declared. “It’s luck.”
He made people laugh all over again. And the sign-off for the evening, which could have been sad and heavy, but instead was dazzlingly witty and uplifting and life-affirming, was the surprise of seeing the humanity of Karl Lagerfeld, caught in outtakes for some solemn voiceover someone was trying to tape. Whatever the script was, he couldn’t get it right. The lasting memory everyone took home was the picture of Karl cracking up, laughing and laughing at himself.