But that generosity extends beyond the mere bestowing of presents and bijoux. Four years ago, Lagerfeld handed me a check for 15,000 euros intended for Birgitte de Ganay, a mutual friend whom he no longer saw but who was facing an extreme psychological and financial crisis. No doubt Lagerfeld remembered the fierce allure of this stunning Danish beauty, though when he wrote that check, de Ganay was far from the sparkling worldly figure he’d known. We’d just finished a day of shooting for Le Figaro, where I work, and were looking at the pictures. In a tone that I now understand was meant to eschew sensitivity, Lagerfeld summoned me unexpectedly into a hallway and brusquely stuffed the check into the pocket of my jacket. There was nothing patronizing about it—just an immense terror of being caught, in flagrante delicto, having a heart. (De Ganay committed suicide two years later.)
De Clermont-Tonnerre—who called Lagerfeld “Monsieur” when we started our conversation and later switched to “Karl”—has experienced firsthand this side of him. “At a difficult moment in my life, he forced me to hold up my head, to get dressed, to take care of myself,” she said. But like all the others, de Clermont-Tonnerre feels compelled to shine, to please, under Lagerfeld’s influence. “One day I wore pants and flat shoes,” she told me. “It was the first and last time. Karl looked at me with total disapproval and said, ‘But Marie-Louise, when one has your legs…’ I’ve never done it again.”
“He isn’t lacking in contradictions,” Mouglalis admitted to me. The extreme fear Lagerfeld feels about being unloved explains both the profound attachment he shows for his Chanelettes and the brutal fall from grace that certain people have experienced as soon as the threat of hurt or abandon arises. But one could argue that behind his facade is an immense need to love and to be loved, to give and to receive. In the end it occurred to me that, against all expectations and in defiance of his notoriously thick skin, Lagerfeld might just be a softie.
As I considered the thought, I was reminded of the words that had brought Viard to tears in the middle of our interview in the Chanel atelier as two young assistants sat nearby, neither of them daring to speak. Viard had suddenly recalled how 10 years ago, as her grandmother, to whom she was very close, neared death, Lagerfeld—seeing her sadness—approached her. “You know,” he said, “one day you won’t have me anymore, either.”
And what will she do then? Viard, along with the rest of Lagerfeld’s Chanelettes—having learned from the master—knows that the best thing is to not even think about it.