Karl Lagerfeld Unzipped
By Nick Haramis
Since taking over for Chanel in 1983, Karl Lagerfeld has become one of the biggest names in fashion. He knows this, of course, and his public appearances are always met with spastic camera shutters. His denim is tight, collar Edwardian, and rings plentiful. His hair, tied back, is singularly white. And those glasses, Bismarck, those glasses. Despite his ubiquity in the world of couture, however, Lagerfeld has managed to keep his personal life surprisingly quiet. For this reason, Rodolphe Marconi‘s Lagerfeld Confidential has fashion circles atwitter. Lagerfeld, it turns out, isn’t always the stoic, stern face of contemporary design. He laughs, reads, shares stories with his friends. In short, Lagerfeld has a human side. In the capable hands of Cannes award-winning director Marconi, the revealing documentary proves that persona and personality are often at odds with one another. With over 350 hours of footage, and two years spent alongside the man himself, Marconi has crafted a finely-attuned portrait at once beautiful and exposed. Marconi sat outside Chez Jacqueline in Manhattan’s West Village to talk about Daria, drug addiction, and Karl’s thighs of steel.
BLACKBOOK: What did you hope to uncover or dispel by documenting Karl. RODOLPHE MARCONI: I didn’t want to make a typical documentary. I wanted to get as close to Karl as possible, but I didn’t want to manipulate anything. When I first met him, he asked me, “What kind of film do you want to make?“ and I told him I didn’t know. BB: Did you enter into the film with preconceptions about the man?
RM: I was fascinated by his personality. I thought he was very mysterious, very severe. I was surprised to discover someone very human, generous, and polite. BB: What was it like working alongside such a presence? RM: When I went to see him, I told him that I would have to stay with him for four months. In fact, I stayed for two years. He gives you this feeling like nothing is ever finished. He was like a drug, and I was like a drug addict.
BB: Was he different when you weren’t filming?
RM: You won’t believe me, but he was the same on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. He was the same whether he was alone or out working. Sometimes he forgot I even had the camera. The only difference was one day, when he spoke about losing the love of his life [French aristocrat Jacques de Bascher, who died in 1989], and the camera was turned off.
BB: He never asked you to paint him in a certain light?
RM: It was very strange, but he never spoke with me about what I was doing. He would speak about everything else’this car, that table’but he never told me to shoot certain things. Even still, during the editing process I decided to stop my relationship with Karl. I needed distance. I was too close to him.
After one year of editing, I called to let him know that the film was finished. I got scared, because I was sure there were two or three moments in the film that would anger him. And the problem is, when Karl is upset he cuts things off. So we went to the screening’just the two of us in a huge movie theater’and I was on the edge of my seat the entire time. But, after it ended, he said, “It’s beautiful, modern, and poetic. But wait, I’m not that kind, I’m not that kind.“
BB: Is Karl a snob?
RM: Sometimes, yes, but he can also be so simple. The first day I met him, we went for lunch. He took my hand, and I felt warmth from him, as if we’d known each other for years. But he does have that other side, most definitely. BB: Journalists often emphasize Karl’s eccentricity’he pulls the pages out of books after reading them, he own hundreds of iPods. Did you find him to be especially idiosyncratic?
RM: No, he’s just himself. One day he said to me, “People think I’m cultivating a character, but that’s a huge mistake.“ He wakes up, has a papaya milk bath, dresses for an hour, and that’s normal for him. He was raised on discipline.
BB: What about his collection of rings? He must have thousands. That seems a little eccentric, no?
RM: Maybe for you and me, but not him. But let’s say, for example, that I brought you to Paris for my birthday party, and you arrived wearing those sunglasses and that bow tie, people would take me aside and say, “Your American friend is very eccentric.”
BB: Was he ever emotional in front of you?
RM: He’s a very sensitive man. He wears sunglasses to protect himself, because if he didn’t have that protection, he might die. He brought me to tears at times, like when he spoke about the love of his life, and his loneliness.
BB: Is he dating now?
RM: No, I mean, he’s 74. Actually, I asked him if ever wants to kiss his males models on the lips. He didn’t answer. BB: Is Karl a family man?
RM: He doesn’t have any family anymore. He says he has a half-sister who lives in the U.S., but I’m not sure if that’s true. He has three or four friends who act like his family, but he’d rather be alone with his own ghosts. BB: Is he someone who ends friendships on a whim?
RM: Yes, for sure. 50 percent of my energy went into making this film, but the other half was worried about getting on his bad side. He will throw you away without thinking twice. But, if you are respectful of him and his work, then he’s okay.
BB: Karl went to Studio 54 and hung out with Andy Warhol when he was younger, and yet he maintains that he abstained from drugs. What do you believe?
RM: One day, he told me this: “Everybody goes to see my doctor, and asks to be healthy like I am. To be like me today, you have to stop everything by the time you are thirty. At thirty, you have to stop drinking and taking drugs.“ I’m not sure what’s true. BB: What is Karl’s biggest crutch?
RM: For him, it’s photography and eating. He loves eating. BB: Does he have a sense of humor about himself? Does he know that he straddles the gap between icon and caricature? RM: Maybe, but he doesn’t care. Today, he doesn’t care what you think about him. One day, I said, “Lots of people hate you,“ and he replied, “That’s fine. It protects me having to spend time with so many bad people.“ BB: Is he funny?
RM: It was the biggest reason I stayed with him as long as I did. He’s crazy. He’s so crazy.
BB: Do you think he understands the extravagance that surrounds him?
RM: No. But it’s very easy when you have a lot of money to say that you don’t care about money.
BB: In the film, Karl refers to models, I believe, as “five brats.“ But he really seems to care for Daria and Brad Kroenig. How does he treat his models?
RM: He loves Daria and Brad. When he said that, he was preparing for the biggest fashion show in the world. Ever. There were 120 models, and nobody has that. Each model walked down the runway once. When he said that, he was kidding. But he really doesn’t care much about models, except for Daria [Werbowy], Mariacarla [Boscono], and Gemma [Ward]. But the others, he doesn’t care.
BB: What happens when Karl gets behind the camera?
RM: One day, Karl photographed me, and in two minutes, I was ready to do anything he asked. He’s so charismatic. When you’re with him, the world around you could crumble, and you wouldn’t care. Normally, when someone takes my picture, I’m like this [crosses arms bashfully], but when Karl shot me, I was like this [lies on back, legs splayed, head tilted provocatively]. You feel like you can do anything, and so you do. BB: Did you ever get the impression that he was flirting with you?
RM: You’re first the person to ask me that, and while the answer is no, I did often think, “If he was twenty years younger, I might try something with him.“ He’s so sexy, the way he dresses and carries himself. I loved shooting his back, because he always, like [gets up from his seat and sticks out his backside], Elvis Presley. Sometimes, you just want to… He’s got these thighs, such strong thighs. He can lift up tables with his baby finger.
BB: He extols the virtues of being ephemeral, being an apparition. Do you think you now know the real Karl?
RM: Yes, because everybody think he’s a mysterious icon. He’s an icon, but for me, he’s no longer mysterious. He has his private life like anyone else, but he’s just Karl.
BB: Did you get to know Anna Wintour at all during the filming? Was there anything that surprised you about her?
RM: She is the only person who never says, “Oh, Karl, you are wonderful! Oh, Karl, I love you!“ She’d come to the Chanel show, with her sunglasses and her bag, and she was always serious. So many fashion editors in New York keep telling Karl that he’s the best, and she never did that.
BB: Colombe Pringle, the editor of French Vogue from 1987 to 1994, once explained, “You can never say you’re a friend of Karl’s. He can only say that about you.“ Would you say, at this point, that you’ve become friends with Karl?
RM: I think she’s right. You are never really friends with Karl. Never. Photography courtesy Koch Lorber Films; Lagerfeld Confidential opens October 24 at Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, 212-727-8110.