The fashion world was this week saddened by the passing of Karl Lagerfeld, the brilliant and charismatic designer who presided over the houses of Chanel, Fendi and his eponymous brand.
At 85, he was one of the last great designers to have experienced the old world, the style and glamour of the 1950s and ’60s, when the chi-chi Paris salons were full of impeccably dressed socialites, princesses and movie stars.
Not that he was nostalgic for that time: he constantly embraced the new, and was completely in touch with contemporary culture. In 2003, when I was the editor of Vogue Australia, I reached out to his Paris office and asked if he would consider guest editing the December issue and, to my great shock and surprise, he accepted.
He had never been to Australia, but he was fascinated to know more about it, and to work with talented, high-profile Australians such as Cate Blanchett, Baz Luhrmann, Kylie Minogue and industrial designer Marc Newson.
Our correspondence in the beginning was via fax – he hated talking on the phone and he wouldn’t use email, so I would receive long handwritten faxes detailing our project in his beautiful script.
I then spent time with him in Paris, and on one occasion had lunch at his house, a beautiful hôtel particulier on the Rue de L’Université. I had just seen an exhibition of Marlene Dietrich’s wardrobe and when I mentioned it to him, he regaled me with funny, personal anecdotes about her.
He. Knew. Marlene. Dietrich.
He was the most fascinating conversationalist – witty, warm, clever, enigmatic, moving from English to French to German with ease. I treasured every moment I spent with him. Quite a few critics have come out in the past week to accuse him of being a terrible person, fat-phobic and misogynistic. And, unfortunately, the quotes are there, as he had tendency to overshare.
“No one wants to see curvy women,” he said in 2009, when the issue of plus-size and inclusivity was raised. He went even further on another occasion.
“You’ve got fat mothers with their bag of chips sitting in front of the television saying that thin models are ugly. The world of beautiful clothing is about dreams and illusions”. He once said the singer Adele was “a little too fat”.
This may have come from a place of self-hate, as Karl was fixated on his own weight, having shed 42 kilograms on a diet of clean food, no carbs and litres of Diet Coke (served on a silver tray by a butler). And believe me, in the world of high fashion, he’s not the only person who is fat-phobic. He just happened to vocalise it.
In my dealings with him, I found him to be kind, and respectful. And oddly down- to-earth for someone worth $150 million. I recall one meeting with him in Paris, when my stylist couldn’t make it, as she had another freelance job.
“Where is Charla?’ Karl asked. I hastily explained she had to work, apologising profusely.
“Oh, no, please don’t apologise,” he said. “We all have to make a living.”