Two days before the Chanel couture show last July, Karl Lagerfeld and I were talking in the Chanel studio on Rue Cambon. After four months of incessant rain in Paris, it suddenly was beautiful outside, and the windows were open. Amanda Harlech and Virginie Viard, two of Lagerfeld’s intimate collaborators, were working on fittings. A photo shoot for W starring both of them—along with the rest of Lagerfeld’s muses—had taken place a few days earlier, and at his suggestion, they had all agreed to be photographed dressed as cats. Lagerfeld has an 8-month-old kitten named Choupette, who increasingly plays a central role in his emotional life, and I started to wonder—not without reason—why Lagerfeld had wanted the women to resemble Choupette.
Jamie Bochert had just finished her fitting. Twenty-nine years old, long and austere, with a mien like Patti Smith’s, Bochert is more musician than model, but Lagerfeld was so infatuated with her that he used her as his only model for the couture-collection press kit. “She’s going to star in a film I plan to make on the life of Catherine Pozzi, the mistress of the poet Paul Valéry,” Lagerfeld told me. And then he started to recite fragments of poetry. To hear him suddenly declaim “Mon coeur a quitté mon histoire” (“My heart has left my story”) seemed to illuminate all the contradictions in which Lagerfeld finds himself embroiled: He is a man whose exterior protects a heart that some believe went off course many years ago. But did it truly? I’m not so sure. “It’s lovely, right?” he said of the line, staring at me from behind his dark glasses.
In the interest of full disclosure: Though I don’t work at Chanel, I have known Lagerfeld for more than two decades. In the early eighties, when I was in my 20s and a model, I met him during his tenure at Chloé. He was heavier, his hair was longer and already in a ponytail, his eyes were masked by dark glasses, and he held a fan that evoked the Versailles court. (Of course, the fan has since been replaced by the signature fingerless gloves—there’s always something to hide with him—but we’ll come back to that). When he first met me, he exclaimed that I resembled Françoise Dorléac, Catherine Deneuve’s older sister, who died in 1967. The comment was at once flattering and peculiar. There was—and still is—nothing more repulsive to Lagerfeld than death and all it entails: funerals, weakness, illness, the past. Every one of the women close to him—the Chanelettes, if you will—whom I met with agreed on this point. Lagerfeld, though, has no difficulty whatsoever squaring his denial of death with an equally pronounced habit of invoking the past—in particular, female figures of bygone eras who are imbued with a beauty or spirit that he believes transcends their time.