On Being Karl Lagerfeld

Everyone was so hyped up about the extraordinary, long New Yorker feature detailing the hunting and killing of Osama Bin Laden, that well, obviously, I couldn’t post about it at the time. But I was so pissed at Helmut Lang for shredding his 6,000-piece clothing archive and turning it into mediocre sculpture, I knew I had to put things into context. See the bigger picture. Figure out what’s really important. I had to go back and re-read John Colapinto’s extraordinary, long New Yorker feature on Karl Lagerfeld from 2007. Specifically this scene:

The fitting model strutted forward in a new outfit and posed in front of Lagerfeld. He scrutinized her through his dark glasses and frowned. He said that he did not like the way the assistant had arranged the neckline of the sweater the model wore. Several assistants converged on her and began to tug uncertainly at the fabric.
“Non, non!” Lagerfeld said.
He uncapped a black marker and, rings clacking, made a quick sketch on a pad in front of him. Lagerfeld derisively describes many of his colleagues as “playing the designer,” because they drape fabric on a model or a dummy; he conceives his collections at a kind of platonic remove, in multicolored drawings on paper, and only rarely touches fabric. The picture he produced–a swift hash of lines suggesting a soignée woman–reflected his skill as an illustrator. (His work has been published in numerous books and magazines.) An assistant looked at the drawing and hustled to the model to make adjustments. Lagerfeld ripped the drawing from the pad, crushed it in his hands, and tossed it into a large wicker hamper, which, over the course of the evening, filled with similar small masterpieces. “I throw everything away!” he declared. “The most important piece of furniture in a house is the garbage can! I keep no archives of my own, no sketches, no photos, no clothes–nothing! I am supposed to do, I’m not supposed to remember!” He smoothed a gloved hand over the empty page in front of him and visibly relaxed.

The whole piece is just a mutant rollercoaster ride of journalism, down to the last “hmm?” Here’s another awesome scene:

Finally, Lagerfeld stopped talking and agreed to give a tour of the house. After warning, “You will think I’m a madman,” he led the way up a grand curving marble staircase. The second floor is composed of huge rooms with soaring ceilings, ornate plasterwork, wood panelling, and fifteen-foot-high mirrors. The furniture, a mixture of antique and modernist pieces, was almost impossible to see, hidden under hundreds of magazines, CDs, photographs, promotional brochures, and books, which lay in heaps spilling on every surface, including the floors. Scattered through the rooms were dozens of iPod nanos of every hue. Each one was loaded with songs that Lagerfeld listens to when designing his collections, which he does, he says, usually in the mornings, while dressed in a long white smock. Surveying the scene through his black glasses, Lagerfeld said serenely, “Normal people think I’m insane.”

He says that again later, after visiting his dressing area and the room with his five hundred suits, and then, “He shrugged. ‘I don’t know what ‘normal’ means, anyway.'”
In Colapinto’s telling, Lagerfeld’s voracious excesses of cultural consumption are designed to stave off boredom. The sustained investment in financial, human, and emotional capital required to keep Karl Lagerfeld entertained–and entertained enough to produce a new mountain of luxury goods year in and year out–is staggering.
And in a way, a good way, boredom was part of Lang’s stock in trade. His clothes felt like an antidote to relentless fashion stimulation. At least they did at the time. For a customer. For Lang, though, who can say? He may have had some issues with the whole thing. Here’s what I wrote about his first artwork, a giant disco ball which was exhibited in 2007 as “found,” but which actually came from Lang’s shuttered SoHo boutique:

Which completely changes the question of the disco ball from, “Where the hell’d he find it?” to “why the hell’d he keep it?” A glittering symbol unceremoniously yet sentimentally hauled out and dumped on an 18-acre beachfront estate in East Hampton and left to weather away in over-fabulous isolation. With a 4-foot disco ball in tow. [ba dum bum.]

Ultimately, Lang’s problem maybe is not boredom, or not even that he’s too normal, whatever that is, but that he’s not Karl Lagerfeld. And for that, I imagine Lang is thankful.