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KARL LAGERFELD: CONFIDENTIAL OR JUST PLAIN CONFUSING?

By Shine Anthony-Dharan

LONDON, 16 MAY 2008 - When a pre-pubescent Karl Lagerfeld informed his mother that he had been sexually molested by a man, her response was "It's your own fault - look at you!" Mama Lagerfeld apparently took the stance that Karl's dress and demeanor encouraged such attention and stoically said no more about it. Normally I would be wary of reporting such salacious gossip for fear of the dreaded Chanel lawyers, but as Karl himself happily recounts the story in his new documentary, I guess we are good to go.

Rodolphe Marconi's Confidential is a documentary only in the loosest sense of the term. Paid for by the house of Chanel, it is really more of a promotional video, albeit longer and shakier than most (think NYPD Blue in silk tulle). It was probably conceived in response to Alicia Drake's questioning of the designer's documented background in her 2006 book The Beautiful Fall. Lagerfeld's version of events purports that he was born into an immensely wealthy German family, had his own personal valet, and grew up as a "male Shirley Temple." Drake's account was rather less glamorous and Lagerfeld's attempts to have her book banned turned it into a bestseller.

Although Lagerfeld reasserts his story in Confidential, he does not tackle the question of why it matters. Who cares whether he grew up uber-wealthy or merely wealthy? To complicate matters further, Drake had also alluded to the notable lack of affection between Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent. The pair certainly have history. In 1954, Lagerfeld won second place in the International Wool Secretariat's search for the next great couturier; Saint Laurent won first. Three years later, Saint Laurent was hailed as a genius after taking over the helm of the greatest Paris couture house of the time, Christian Dior .


Rodolphe Marconi's Lagerfeld Confidential, 2007
Photo courtesy of Pretty Pictures, Paris

Lagerfeld's star took a little longer to shine and perhaps he has been making up for it ever since. As well as simultaneously designing for Chanel, Fendi and his signature line, he has photographed all of the Chanel advertising campaigns for the last nineteen years. Lagerfeld says that he was "born determined," but his dogged constitution may owe more to his mother's questionable childrearing techniques than to any innate sensibilities.

Lagerfeld describes her as a "cruel and frivolous" woman who made "slaves" of everyone around her. Is that why Lagerfeld grew up to be the grand master of every slave dedicated to the frivolous entity of fashion? Sadly, Confidential does not offer up much in the way of answers. Instead, Marcioni presents a glossy dossier of the designer's personal life. We are shown photographs of a muscled thirty-something Lagerfeld, an overweight fifty-something Lagerfeld, and a svelte seventy-something Lagerfeld. There is no explanation of what caused these dramatic physical changes, just a few hints towards a relationship that turned sour.

Lagerfeld once commented that unlike Valentino and Saint Laurent, he never sought to make his business partners his boyfriends. Valentino's relationship with Giancarlo Giammetti and Saint Laurent's relationship with Pierre Bergé lasted for decades. Both designers have gone on record stating that they could not have built their businesses without the support and acumen of their partners. Perhaps this goes some way towards explaining why Karl Lagerfeld's signature line never reached anywhere near the momentum of Valentino's or Saint Laurent's. In 2005, Lagerfeld licensed his name to Tommy Hilfiger for $29 million; the intention being to finally start up a successful label under his own name. Hilfiger turned out not have the commitment that a lover may have had and the deal recently collapsed. While Lagerfeld may have publicly brushed off the failure, in private he must feel the fact that of all his contemporaries, he is the only one not to have succeeded in his own line.


Rodolphe Marconi's Lagerfeld Confidential, 2007
Photo courtesy of Pretty Pictures, Paris

Most designers are control freaks but Lagerfeld's incredible cultural awareness sets him apart from the others. There are few facets of art, history and design in which he is not well versed. Lagerfeld is not an intuitive designer, but rather a planner, a researcher and an expert in fashion. For much of the film, Lagerfeld is knee deep in books and magazines on every topic under the sun. When asked about his love life he retorts, "solitude is a victory" and that he would rather read. He says he has never lived with a partner and has no desire to do so. In watching the film, such seemingly hollow words begin to ring true. There seems hardly a moment when Lagerfeld is alone. An entourage of assistants, cooks and hangers-on constantly surrounds him. Add to that endless travel and omnipresent deadlines, and a conventional relationship is probably out of the question.


Rodolphe Marconi's Lagerfeld Confidential, 2007
Photo courtesy of Pretty Pictures, Paris

Lagerfeld emphasizes that he is not lonely and perhaps this life suits him. Anyone who can reinvent himself with a 93-pound weight loss in thirteen months must possess the mental acuity to start dating if he wants to. Different arrangements suit different people. Lagerfeld's "bodyguard," the handsome twenty-something Sebastian, is a constant fixture in the film. The fashion world has been speculating for months that the relationship between the two is more than simply professional, and the two certainly seem very attached to each other.

Lagerfeld raised many a botoxed eyebrow last Spring by casting Sebastian in his runway shows and look books. (As these books are sent out to the entire fashion press, it was the fashion equivalent of announcing their engagement.)

Every haute couture season, a piece of gossip envelops the fashion pack. This time it was the story that Lagerfeld had bought Sebastian a red Lamborghini. Word on the street is that the Chanel press office started the rumor, so who knows?


Rodolphe Marconi's Lagerfeld Confidential, 2007
Photo courtesy of Pretty Pictures, Paris

At least Lagerfeld is able to laugh at himself. At the Dior Homme store he gauges the reactions to a ridiculous gold leather jacket. A dazed looking Sebastian stutters that it's chic looking, whilst Chanel consultant Lady Amanda Harlech excitedly (but not very convincingly) declares it "fabulous." Lagerfeld shrewdly takes this all in and buys it anyway. He adds that while it seems acceptable for designers to wear old jeans and t-shirts while designing couture (Ricardo Tisci, are you listening?), those who "love fashion wear fashion." Well, until his recent weight loss, Lagerfeld did not wear fashion. He wore tent like creations from Comme des Garçons. True to form, Marcioni does not go there.

When Lagerfeld presented his first haute couture collection for Chanel in 1983, he was criticized for making clothes for old ladies. Well, Lagerfeld does design for ladies. At seventy-four, he is the last of the breed of Parisian designers who grew up at a time where fashion was the preserve of exceedingly wealthy women. Elements from that first show continue to permeate Lagerfeld's collections for Chanel today. The neat boucle wool suits, the tiered chiffon dresses and the pleated blouses have become synomonous with Chanel thanks to Lagerfeld's rewriting of the house's history. Lagerfeld has constructed his past because he understands that the public wants their designers to be somewhat other worldly. Who wants to buy an $8,000 suit from the guy next door?


Rodolphe Marconi's Lagerfeld Confidential, 2007
Photo courtesy of Pretty Pictures, Paris

Nobody today remembers the years Coco Chanel spent shacked up with a Nazi in the Paris Ritz after the war. Some things just do not make good copy. Confidential may just as well be renamed "Confusing." Lagerfeld is
weaving his legacy just as delicately as the seamstresses in his ateliers weave his couture. At least he is doing it with a sense of humor. At one point the cameraman walks into the restroom at Chanel headquarters to find a chicly printed poster stating, "Si tu pisses partout, t'es pas Chanel du tout." (If you piss everywhere, you are not very Chanel.) Now that's classic Lagerfeld.

Shine Anthony-Dharan is a British fashion writer and designer based in New York. He covers fashion, beauty and interior design for Culturekiosque.com. Mr. Anthony-Dharan last wrote on the Fashion Collections: Fall 2008 in Paris and London.

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