The butler manned the ringing phone and the door. Perfectly suited women from the offices of Chanel Inc. buzzed between a box of chocolates and a pile of business papers. Like so many planets and one brilliant sun, Karl Lagerfeld and his entourage encamped at the Four Seasons Hotel the week of Dec. 8.
Mr. Lagerfeld, who recently renewed his contract as the designer for Chanel until at least 2003, held court at a large round table and received a visitor the afternoon of Dec. 9. He removed his sunglasses and opened a wood portfolio. Inside were the nudes he had photographed in his Paris studio this summer for Visionaire, the limited-edition art and fashion journal, published in time for Christmas (about $95). Photographed in color negatives, then printed on black-and-white paper, the pictures are elegant and alive.
“Nothing freaky. Freaky was only amusing for a while,” said Mr. Lagerfeld, whose passion for photography over the past decade has become as significant to him as his fashion design.
For Visionaire , there’s Demi Moore, Rupert Everett, model Kristen McMenamy pregnant and Amber Valleta, among others. A handsome French soldier. A joyous Linda Evangelista showing her scars from lung surgery. A certain Paris fireman. The actress Julie Delpy. “It’s called the ‘drop dead,’” Mr. Lagerfeld said, describing the diamond fixed under the foreskin on another proud subject. Mr. Lagerfeld did not include a self-portrait. “I’ve taken my picture in the past, but I’m not my favorite subject.”
“I waited for your call,” cooed a British woman whose rose-shaped tones could launch a thousand Merchant-Ivory projects. Amanda Harlech, the young, aristocratic muse for Mr. Lagerfeld’s millennial Chanel, had arrived. She greeted Mr. Lagerfeld at the table, then slouched girlishly in her chair.
Lady Harlech, wearing black, sparkled like sable in sunlight.
Mr. Lagerfeld explained he had lunched at Jayne Wrightsman’s. Oscar and Annette de la Renta were giving a dinner that night.
“Fun is not the word,” Lady Harlech enthused, talking about the previous night’s Costume Institute gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art honoring Gianni Versace. “It was the greatest party.”
“It was a great mix, no?” Mr. Lagerfeld added. His rapid sentences regularly conclude in multilingual question marks. Strangers might feel the need to answer. They shouldn’t.
“But I was shocked by one thing,” Mr. Lagerfeld continued. “Madonna saying in her introduction of Donatella that Donatella slips diamonds into her pocket. She can say, if she likes, that Donatella gives her diamonds, but to say she ‘slips them into her pocket’ makes it look like Donatella is buying friendship from some singer, no? This ruined my evening. And she looked like a housewife. Nothing. No style. This was over the borderline, huh? She’d better make a good record.”
“But it was also a very touching, moving speech,” said Lady Harlech. “Madonna meant well.”
“I’m not sure she meant well,” said Mr. Lagerfeld. “She’s a very rude person.”
“I think we should just leave it,” Lady Harlech said, looking in the journalist’s direction.
“I think I’ll send something diamond, something expensive to Donatella for Christmas,” Mr. Lagerfeld finished.
Lady Harlech smiled. She will spend the holidays with her children at the Mount, the ancestral Harlech house in Wales. “What would you like for Christmas, Karl?”
He didn’t know.
“Someone to put your houses into perfect order?”
“Impossible,” said Mr. Lagerfeld, who has places in Paris, Monte Carlo and Biarritz. An avid reader, he employs a librarian full-time just to keep his books sorted.
“Christmas is coming on a very bad day this year,” Mr. Lagerfeld said, sounding almost wounded. He and Lady Harlech are in the middle of preparing the Chanel couture collection, to be shown on Jan. 20 in Paris. “I should go with Ingrid Sischy to Elton John’s in the south of France, but Christmas is a horrendous day,’” he explained. “We must work. But Wednesday, the 24th, we cannot ask people to stay late, the 25th is a legal holiday, and Friday will be impossible to get anyone to come to work!”
Lady Harlech laughed. She rolled her eyes.
Mr. Lagerfeld shrugged. Sat up straight again. Regarding the couture collection, it was “still a little early to say what we are thinking about except the theme is: no references. Because there’s too much fashion parade these days. It may end up a little differently. For the moment, over the door is a sign that says ‘No references.’ The idea is to make it modern.”
“I have a meeting,” interrupted one of the Chanel ladies, softly bidding Mr. Lagerfeld so long.
“Everyone has a meeting,” the designer responded. He rose and kissed the woman goodbye. ” Courage, ” he said. French was spoken. Everyone was speaking French now like so much spun sugar.
Mr. Lagerfeld was 12 when he came to New York for the first time. He stayed with his parents at the Waldorf-Astoria before traveling by train to Chicago and the West Coast. “It was the American dream come true,” Mr. Lagerfeld recalled. “New York was like Chagall meets Walt Disney. It was another world in 1950. But never complain, never compare.”
Mr. Lagerfeld’s father, a Swedish entrepreneur who lived in Germany, made his fortune selling his condensed milk company to Carnation. Seven years before the Lagerfelds’ trip to New York, they were evacuated from the bombing of Holstein to a dairy farm in the countryside, where Mr. Lagerfeld was mesmerized by an 18th-century-style painting of Frederick the Great that hung in the farmhouse. Its scene of a court dinner in the rotunda at Sans Souci launched his dream of fashion. At 14, he was sent to art school in Paris. At 16, he and Yves Saint Laurent both won prizes in the same fashion contest. One of the judges, Pierre Balmain, offered Mr. Lagerfeld his first job.
This year, Mr. Lagerfeld consolidated his varied business affairs and licensees, stopped designing for Chloe and put his Lagerfeld line on hold, while continuing to design for Fendi and Chanel. “My new formula is to open the Lagerfeld Gallery,” he said, explaining the Rue de Seine emporium that will sell his exclusive fashions, favorite books and exhibit his photographs. “Andrée Putman is designing the space, and it’s supposed to be ready in March, but Madame Putman is a little slow, you know,” he laughed.
Mr. Lagerfeld once said he came to fashion “a wolf among lambs, but I’ll probably leave out of boredom. But I’m still not bored at all because of the way my photography gives me such satisfaction and affects my view of fashion.”
Wouldn’t Mr. Lagerfeld make a dream professor? “I tried it once in Vienna. A class in fashion. I hated it,” he said. “I’m only here to learn, not teach.”
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