Kaiser Karl : The Life of Karl Lagerfeld was originally published in French last year by Editions Albin Michel, and was a bestseller. To mark the first anniversary of Karl Lagerfeld’s death, the English version of Kaiser Karl has recently been published by ACC Art Books. Written by Raphaelle Bacque, a respected investigative journalist, the book reveals the man behind the mask. Bacque is best known for her books on former French President Jacques Chirac, and former Head of IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
For their first interview (for a piece Bacque was writing for Le Monde), Lagerfeld arrived two hours late but then spoke with Bacque for three hours. This was to be the first in a series of long interviews. After the designer’s sudden passing in February 2019, Bacque spoke with former friends and colleagues who were reluctant to speak about Lagerfeld during his lifetime. He was notoriously private, and had refused all offers of biographies or indeed, autobiographies. The result is Kaiser Karl – a detailed, sometimes shocking, sometimes sad, sometimes hilarious look at a fashion genius
A large and absorbing portion of the book centres on the 60s/70s period during Karl’s friendship and subsequent rivalry with fellow designer, Yves St. Laurent. Reading some of the jaw-dropping stories and first-hand accounts of events, readers gain plenty of clues as to why Lagerfeld was so secretive and avoided relationships later in life. Lagerfeld’s longtime partner, Jacques de Bascher, is portrayed as a bit of a scamp. He caused the designer a great deal of heartache, and yet Karl was ever forgiving and always defended Jacques.
Emotions veer from pity to admiration as humiliations unfold, and yet thoughout it all, Lagerfeld never deviates from his compulsive workaholic nature; season after season, usually designing 14 collections a year. An author and publisher himself, Lagerfeld was a huge bibliophile; he bought French books, English books, poetry books, signed books, first editions, and monographs. A photo from 1969 shows the beginning of his collection:
Lagerfeld’s clever understanding of PR helped him forge relationships with some of the biggest luxury manufacturers in the world, helping him to amass a considerable fortune. Taking heed from his friend, Andy Warhol: “Don’t pay any attention to what they write about you. Just measure it in inches.” Lagerfeld once claimed: ‘I’m an intelligent opportunist”. Having rescued Chanel in 1983 from the ghost of Coco, the genius marketeer used the interlocking Cs to establish the brand across the world, placing Chanel at the centre of a multibillion-dollar luxury industry.
If you are an aesthete looking for a beautiful photo-laden coffee table book about Karl Lagerfeld and his designs then this is not the book for you. But if you are looking to find about the man who lay beneath the outwardly supremely confident and extremely determined designer, then Raphaelle Bacque does an expert job in peeling away the layers, uncovering the designer’s personal demons, and charting Lagerfeld’s remarkable journey from the house of Chloe to Fendi to Chanel.
Kaiser Karl is is also a sad reminder of just much this incomparable doyen of fashion is missed.