Thirty Minutes With Karl Lagerfeld

Karl Lagerfeld on the runway after his Chanel fall 2011 show. Like an Energizer Bunny in black shades and biker gloves, Karl Lagerfeld just keeps going, somehow finding time to photograph fashion stories, film short...


Like an Energizer Bunny in black shades and biker gloves, Karl Lagerfeld just keeps going, somehow finding time to photograph fashion stories, film short movies, and publish art books—all on top of designing two clothing lines. Directing commercials has become his latest passion; and last Thursday his series of three-minute spots for Magnum Ice Cream, each starring Rachel Bilson and her sweet-tooth, debuted as part of the Tribeca Film Festival. Earlier in the day, W had the opportunity to sit down Lagerfeld, and over sliced pineapple and Diet Coke, discuss everything from who ought to design Dior to the one thing he actually can’t do.

Lagerfeld: What can I tell you?

Well, let’s start with this ad campaign you’ve done for Magnum Ice Cream. I’ve done many ads because that’s my new career. It’s an inspiring extension for my mind. I always loved advertising. If I hadn’t been in fashion, I’d have been in advertising. I like everything about it. I think it’s an interesting expression of the culture of the moment. I just put out a huge book about the history of German advertising from 1900-1920, because it was the best period. It’s not very well known, but there were great artists. And those posters—when they show up, there are hardly any left—sell for fortunes. It’s a very interesting book, I must say. In fact it’s a box with 12 books.

So why ice cream? Don’t forget my father was a milkman. He produced Carnation milk in Europe under different names, so I like to say he was a milkman. And ice cream is made with milk, no?

Do you eat it? I would love to if I was allowed to eat sugar, but my doctor told me that sugar wasn’t needed for me so I haven’t touched it in ten years. I also did the ad for Dom Pérignon and I don’t drink alcohol, but I think it’s a very civilized drink.

Do you crave sugar? No. Gone. But I like chocolate. I don’t eat it, but I like the smell of it. People can drink with their eyes; I can eat with my nose. I would love to have a perfume based on chocolate.

Eau de Cocoa. I love the idea.

You’re a busy man. I’m always busy. You know, the more I do, the more ideas I have—that’s the funny thing. The brain is a muscle, and I’m a kind of body-builder.

Do you ever take vacations? I’m not an employee who goes to the office every morning at the same time. Then, vacations are needed. I’m like a rock singer with one-night stands on the road. I’m here for two days in New York; I leave in the morning early. I come back for Anna Wintour’s party at the Met, then again at the end of May for a prize I get from the Gordon Parks Foundation. I’m lucky that I can do all these things in the best conditions. I don’t have to struggle for that. I don’t have to discuss budgets. I don’t do meetings. At Chanel, there are no meetings. At Chanel, we do what we want, whenever we want and it works. And Fendi is the same.

What music are you listening to now? A lot. But my favorite at the moment is the album that just came out from The Kills. It’s very good. I buy the CD because I think one should buy them. It’s very important. Musicians have to make a living, no?

What are you reading right now? For the moment, on the plane, I was reading a very well-done biography of Edith Sitwell.

Do you ever think about cutting your hair? No, because I’m afraid it won’t grow again. And I’m not very gifted for hairdos. This is the quickest thing in the world. It takes less than five seconds.

Do you do it yourself? No, I have someone who comes to the house and washes it, puts in the dry shampoo, and takes care if it because I have no time. I don’t even have time to go to the dentist. I’m busy but in a pleasant way. I’m the one who wanted to do all of it, so I can’t complain.

What are your thoughts on Dior? Who should take over? Well I’m not a consultant there, but I think Riccardo Tisci would be good, and then Haider Ackermann at Givenchy—not because they are friends of mine, but because they are good.

But I read that you wanted Haider to succeed you at Chanel? Not especially. It’s not his world I don’t think.

What about Balmain? Forget about it! This was a job done by a fashion editor. I don’t even know the name of the man who did it, so don’t ask me about that.

You’re a designer, photographer, book publisher, filmmaker. Is there anything else you’d like to do? You don’t think four jobs can do?

Is there anything left that you want to do? Is this a political question?

You don’t even vote! No, I never ever vote because I know too much about the backgrounds of these people. No, but for me the advertising world is a new country to conquer. When you want something you haven’t done before you have to think it’s the most important thing. If you see it only as a room that leads to another room, you might make a mistake. I don’t want to cross the room. I want to stay there.

So we’ll be seeing more ads from you. I saw newspapers saying that maybe I do too much because I work with big companies—Coca-Cola, Sky TV, Magnum, Schwarzkopf, which is like L’Oreal in Europe. I’m not going to calm down, because that’s not my nature. But I don’t have to think about what’s next. I think that’s a very healthy thing. The Ivory Tower in the end will kill you.

Is there anything you wish you were better at? Yes, playing the piano.

Can you play at all? No! Forget about it. For one year I had lessons and then my mother threw the thing on my fingers and said, ‘Start sketching—it makes less noise.’ She was right. She was a violinist and couldn’t stand poorly played music.

You seem to have a love/hate relationship with technology. You have hundreds of iPods but you don’t use a computer. You correspond by fax. There are people who only have a fax because of me.

Well, because it’s so outdated! Well, I don’t want to be in-fashion.

But, really, why do you still fax? It’s very easy to explain: For me, sketching and writing are the same thing. I like to write. It’s a physical thing—I hate to be without paper and pencil in hand. And I write like a talk. I can put my way of talking on the paper exactly the same way. The machines they tried to make where you write directly on computers are not perfect. The minute they’re perfect, I will use them.

So will we ever add writer to your list of occupations? I’m not a writer, and I don’t want to be a writer because I have nothing to say.

A memoir? I’m living my memoir, I don’t need to write it. But I do write a lot of prefaces for books.

You’ve famously worn Dior Homme, Tom Ford. What menswear designers do you like now? Tom Ford is not as good on me as younger men. And you know why? Because I wore the same kind of clothes thirty years ago—Italian-made by Caraceni. I love the way Tom Ford suits are made. They’re chic; they’re elegant. But on my younger entourage, they look better than on me. I wear Dior Homme—my old Hedi Slimane suits. The ones they do today, too, as long as they don’t get too flou. And a little Lanvin. I used to love Margiela, but it’s not him anymore and it shows a little. I used to buy quite a lot of Japanese labels, too, like Undercover and Number (N)ine, but that one disappeared. Mister Hollywood does well-made clothes. You know, I hate made-by-order clothes. It’s up to me to fit into them, not to buy some orthopedic stuff to get the body into. I never had one button touched on a Dior suit. Size 48 is my perfect size. In the past you had to do fittings because there was nothing really good. But when I went to Caraceni thirty years ago, there was one fitter for waistcoat, one for jacket, one for pants—it took hours. You needed three months to get the clothes. No, no, no. I like things immediately.

How do you like a woman to dress? It depends on the circumstances, her look, her life. There is no rule that I could reduce to two lines.

Is there one thing that you don’t like a woman to wear? I’m not mad for thongs.

The fall Chanel collection was rather dark, apocalyptic… It was three days before the earthquake in Japan. It was right for the moment. But that’s what I felt. It’s instinctual. A collection is about what one feels, whatever it is.

When are you happiest? Happiness is like a fever. I don’t take the temperature.

When was the last time you cried? I’m trying to think of the last time I had onions.

Photos: Runway: Fairchild Archive; Magnum event: Magnum