William Middleton Recalls the Extraordinary Life of Karl Lagerfeld

According to the biographer, the Met’s Lagerfeld exhibition represents an opportunity for the public to reset their gaze on the quality and caliber of the iconic designer’s work.

A striking man in sunglasses and a fashionably eclectic suit stands next to a gray stone in front of a seated audience.
Karl Lagerfeld at the Chanel Ready-To-Wear Fall/Winter 2012 show as part of Paris Fashion Week at Grand Palais. Getty Images

For fashion insiders and fashion obsessives, May is Met Gala month. Everything surrounding the star-studded event is newsworthy, from the way it illustrates how fashion and art are indelibly intertwined—consider Kim Kardashian’s head-to-toe black Balenciaga, Janelle Monaé’s custom Christian Siriano or Jared Leto’s everything—to annual themes like punk, Catholicism, camp, La Belle Epoque, haute couture, Victorian dress and very occasionally, an icon.

Forty years ago, the 1983 Met Gala honored Yves Saint Laurent. Thirty years ago, the event celebrated Diana Vreeland’s journalistic and fashion career. This year, the late iconoclastic German fashion designer, creative director, artist and photographer Karl Lagerfeld was the focal point of the  Gala and the Costume Institute’s spring 2023 exhibition, Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty.

The peripatetic designer, who died in 2019, may have been divided if he’d known a Met Gala would be held in his honor. He did love attention, but he was also adamant that he would not reflect or become nostalgic about what he’d done—even his last season’s collection. Yet he also believed he was fated for greatness, and to that end, a collective of the most high-profile and au courant celebrities, models, designers and media stylecasters discussing his life and work would almost certainly delight him. He wrote in The World According to Karl that he’d always known he “would be this sort of legend.”

Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty, curated by Andrew Bolton, head curator of the Anna Wintour Costume Center at the Metropolitan Museum of Art since 2015, will showcase close to 150 of Lagerfeld’s designs, along with many original sketches, illustrating the designer’s ideas and the realization of his vision, which ultimately hinged on deep relationships between Lagerfeld and the hard-working atelier seamstresses. He always celebrated his creative team, from those seamstresses through to director Amanda Harlech and his music curator of decades, Michel Gaubert. Providing them a spotlight, which The Met’s exhibition does to some extent in its introductory gallery dedicated to premières d’atelier, would also have delighted him.

‘I don’t care about posterity.’

Renowned fashion editor and writer William Middleton’s Paradise Now: The Extraordinary Life of Karl Lagerfeld, released in February of this year, reveals the personal and professional trajectory of Lagerfeld from his birth in 1933 through to his death of prostate cancer at the age of 85. The book’s title is pulled from one of Lagerfeld’s many pithy quotes:

“I don’t care about posterity. Just don’t care! It won’t do anything for me. It’s today that counts: paradise now!”

From his apartment in Paris, Middleton reflects on the Met’s exhibition, and its emphasis not on Karl’s public image but rather his creative process. He’s excited, he says, that the exhibition, puts the focus back on Lagerfeld’s unique working methodology.

“In many ways, Karl was a pioneer of the modern fashion world,” he says. “Gabriel Chanel’s personality and presence became a part of her brand, so there were others before him, but it was something new to see how connected media, fashion success and celebrity were from the moment Karl stepped into the spotlight.”

Three covers of a biography of Karl Lagerfeld featuring him in profile wearing his signature sunglasses, gloves and ponytail
The latest biography of iconic designer Karl Lagerfeld.

On Karl Lagerfeld’s sixty-five-year career

In 1955, a young Lagerfeld—possibly unrecognizable to many without his signature powdered white hair, black gloves and dark sunglasses—won the annual Woolmark prize with his exceptional fashion sketches and landed his first fashion job as an assistant to French designer Pierre Balmain. In the following decades, he’d freelance for major European fashion houses including Fendi, Valentino and Chloe, before landing at Chanel in 1983. There, his remit extended beyond clothing design, and he was central to the luxury brand’s perfume, jewelry, accessories, advertising campaigns and choice of famous ambassadors.

Personally and professionally, he was insatiable in his desire to learn, absorb and appreciate the world. Lagerfeld famously claimed to own 300 iPods in 2006, each full to capacity. His home was brimming with books in various languages. He collected with the eye of a curator and the passion of a treasure hunter.

Though Lagerfeld often claimed he wasn’t interested in looking to the past, Middleton contests that sentiment because Lagerfeld held such admiration for fashion history. He might not have wanted to focus on his own past—”because he felt that was an admission that the present isn’t interesting”— but when he came into Chanel and saw there was very little in the way of archives, he began building a museum-quality collection of Chanel.

“Karl was opposed to a retrospective while he was alive,” Middleton muses, “but now he is a part of fashion history.”

And what a colorful history it is. In April of 1973, the Sunday Times of London labeled the designer “Fashion’s King Karl.” At that time, Lagerfeld was proving his capacity for turning stagnant, heritage brands into desirable, covetable labels that attracted media, celebrities and stylists.

Though Lagerfeld’s professional life was skyrocketing and he was accumulating houses and apartments in the most luxurious destinations, his personal life was rife with trauma. His lover Jacques de Bascher was diagnosed with HIV in 1984 and died of AIDS five years later with Lagerfeld by his side. Lagerfeld battled grief and loneliness long afterward but kept his suffering private, maintaining his rigorous work ethic and even drawing inspiration from his pain. In 1990, Lagerfeld bought a house near Hamburg that he named Villa Jako, and in 1998, he created a fragrance called Jako in tribute to de Bascher.

‘Karl liked people who did things’

Though Lagerfeld was often depicted as a loner by the media, and he certainly craved time alone to sketch, read and dream, he cultivated long and loving friendships with many women known for their independence, glamour and intelligence. Carine Roitfeld, Catherine Deneuve, Ines de la Fressange, Amanda Harlech, Anna Mouglalis, Princess Caroline, Paloma Picasso and Vanessa Paradis were among his ambassadors, collaborators and friends.

“Karl liked people who did things, including [the late Vogue Italia editor] Anna Piaggi,” says Middleton. “He liked people who worked; Karl was a worker. Karl admired authenticity in people because the world of fashion has so much inauthenticity. His persona was very stylized and unreal, but how he was as a person was very authentic and he responded to that in people.”

Middleton was the Paris bureau chief overseeing Women’s Wear Daily and W magazines when he met Lagerfeld in 1995. Though Middleton left Paris in 2000 to return to the U.S., he maintained contact with the designer for the remainder of Lagerfeld’s life. In the early days of their friendship and professional relationship, Middleton and his team were often the first to see Lagerfeld’s collections and to photograph and report on them. The designer’s collections were always immaculate, Middleton recalls, and his runway shows were spectacular. Which, I ask, moved him most?

“Of the collections I saw, it was his 1996 and 1997 haute couture collections at The Ritz,” Middleton recalls. “It was a time when Lagerfeld brought Amanda Harlech to Chanel because she wasn’t being cared for at Dior. There was new talent with Galliano going to Dior and Alexander McQueen coming to Paris: an important fashion moment, and Karl put on these extraordinary shows for Chanel.”

Middleton brings up the 2013/2014 Metiers d’Art show at the Texas State Fairgrounds in Dallas next. He was living in Texas then, and he went to that show not having seen a Chanel show for ten years. “It was amazing to see the scale of it, and to see how Karl was interpreting American style in a very Chanel way.”

One of the last shows Middleton recalls, and which we both agree to re-watch after our interview, is a bittersweet one. Lagerfeld looks frail, but elated, at the final bow.

“His Trip To Hamburg Metiers d’art show in 2017 is beautiful. Karl was towards the end of his life, he had cancer and was dying when he put on that show in his home town. I find that incredibly moving.”

But according to Middleton, what made Lagerfeld’s shows amazing was not only that the fashion was impeccable but also that the productions—and the power of the ideas behind them—were so incredibly influential. For Middleton, the Met’s Lagerfeld exhibition represents an opportunity for the public to reset their gaze on the quality and caliber of the designer’s work, rather his media-baiting quotes.

“Part of what made Karl so extraordinary is that he constructed this persona, which is super interesting,” says Middleton. “As I wrote in the book, Karl said ‘I’m like Scheherazade, I know what to do to make sure the Sultan never falls asleep’. He knew how to keep people excited, and he honed that public personality. That harshness or bitchiness was completely performative. The real Karl, behind the scenes, was not like that. I hope the exhibition and the Gala remind people of the significance of his work.”

Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty is on view at The Met from May 5 through July 16. William Middleton Recalls the Extraordinary Life of Karl Lagerfeld