He arrived in Washington on a Friday afternoon, directing the limousine that met him at the airport to the National Air and Space Museum, or, more accurately, a hot dog vendor outside the museum.
"It was too late for lunch, and besides it would take an hour or more in a restaurant," says designer Karl Lagerfeld, who had discovered those particular, fat hot dogs on an earlier visit. "It was perfect, just as I remember. The only thing I like is junk food. In France junk food isn't good, because you have to have good food or you cannot eat it."
There was little time for junk food during Lagerfeld's five-day stay here, which included dinners in his honor at the homes of Jennifer and Laughlin Phillips and Evangeline Bruce, the Kennedy Center Honors and all the parties that went with it, the gala benefit show of his designs for the Phillips Collection and, finally, a dinner at the White House.
Yet such a frenetic pace does not disturb the designer who creates, simultaneously, three of the leading fashion collections in the world and slides gracefully among three languages without pausing for breath. He speaks so rapidly, leaping from politics to art to history and occasionally fashion, that a listener may lose sentences, subjects, even centuries, and still hear a lot.
"My mother told me as a child I said boring things and to make it short and quick," he explains. He is sitting in his suite at the Watergate Hotel, a burning heliotrope candle strongly scenting the room. Dressed immaculately in a navy pin-stripe suit, a white-collared shirt and brown wing tips, he is the image of a proper banker -- except for the ponytail. Which is the point. He started it about eight years back, when his curly hair began turning gray. "It is the only way to be impeccable and not look like a banker because I am not a banker," he says.
He is teasing, or isn't teasing. It is often hard to tell, and this time it doesn't matter. He is also wearing sunglasses -- "my removable makeup, my eyeshadow. It makes the world more beautiful, hmmm?" -- as he always does, picking the colors to tint the day.
He slows down only slightly to savor the parts of his visit that were special, such as the Phillips Collection party. During the show he stayed downstairs in the pantry, where the models were dressing. "It was like when we were children and the parents gave the house over to us for a party. At age 14, all we could get was the basement."
He enjoyed showing his collection, sponsored by Saks Jandel, for the Phillips, and even added $10,000 to the $40,000 raised. But museums are not for fashion, he says quickly. He saves nothing from previous collections, no sketches, no clothes. "A designer should not work for museums but should work for women," he states.
He refuses to conjecture about what his very fitted, very sexy clothes say about women today. "You can only wait and look back to see that meaning. You can't say it at the time." But he makes them because "if you look around there is nothing else but fitness." The focus, he says, is on "being well with yourself," and he designs clothes to cover fit bodies.
And to be provocative? "That is fun, no? You play with fire," he says, then adds, "You play with words."
He doesn't feel burned by one of his word games -- "Shaped to be raped" -- that appeared in the press release for his new Fendi collection. The London papers reacted violently, he says, testing for a reaction. Chastised in one editorial ("If you make jokes of rape then no one will care anymore and the victims of rape will not benefit from your jokes"), he wrote in to explain his use of the words. "I got 50 responses approving," he says with a smile.
Is he teasing? "I used the phrase as a warning -- there is a risk if you go somewhere in such a shapely dress, perhaps it can be dangerous." Surely now he is serious. "The boy who rapes a girl does not get the idea through fashion information. But easier through porn movies, war movies and other movies that everyone sees." And now he jests. "I'm saying, sexy dresses, they could attack you."
The new KL collection is sexy -- shapely, streamlined, either short or very long, nothing in between. One group called "Latin Lover" skinnies over the body and ends in an uneven hem. There are also short shorts, jackets that don't button, high-rise skirts and dresses meant to slip off the shoulder and open almost to the waist.
Such styles, he suggests, are for everyone who is in shape, including the successful career woman. "One should not play with your body in the office," he says, "but finely cut men's clothes show the man's body, so" -- the end of the sentence is too quick to follow.
His clothes for women begin with classic ideas of jackets with lapels and so on, "but they show the body of a woman, because they are for women. Through the centuries women showed their body in a more provocative way -- look at the 18th century! Why can't women show the way they are?"
He stops. It is okay with him if they don't. "We shouldn't take ourselves so seriously," he says. "You don't have to wear this kind of thing every day, but sometimes you are in the mood for that and why not?" There are plenty of alternatives, he adds, "enough strange unbody-conscious fashion around that a woman who wants unbody-conscious fashions can have them too. No one is forced to buy those things. You don't need them like one needs bread and potatoes."
No bread and potatoes for the woman who wears his clothes, however, which "look skinnier than they are, sometimes by design."
An associate interrupts to ask if he wants cold water added to his tea, as usual. "The only thing I like hot is dresses," he laughs.
That the models' hair styles in his show here looked like those of Boy George was no coincidence. "Boy George is a huge fashion influence. He doesn't like to look like a cute woman but puts it in another direction. He doesn't imitate women, nor use typical symbols of sexiness in womanhood. Men are allowed to have fun, too, no?" he says. Serious? Probably.
He designs his Memphis-like prints with snips of colored paper. The jeweled Hawaiian shirts are from a book. "I haven't been to Hawaii -- looking through a window is better," he says. The fireworks embroidery is from a display outside his window in Monte Carlo. "I like to take the most banal things in daily life and use them in another dimension."
For each collection he forces himself to do something new. "You must destroy the old," says the German-born designer, who started his career 30 years ago when he won a prize for a coat design. "If you try to compete with your own past you will get into trouble one day. You changed, the world changed. What was okay five years ago was okay five years ago; what you do today you can't say is better or worse than you did before, because it is not in the same context."
Without taking a breath he shifts gears and says slowly, or slower, "I fight against established scales of value for myself. I am always ready for the next thing and I tried to find my way of doing it."
His personal look has changed, and he periodically redecorates his various residences, holding on only to the Biedermeier furniture that he inherited. "That is part of the game," he says. "It's normal. I don't ask myself but just do it. It is unhealthy to stay with something forever . . . Then you get the mind of a spinster in the end."
Yet some things that he treasures never change. "Every year, only in December, I use the perfume Christmas Night from Caron, a smell I adore for handkerchiefs. You can only get it in Paris."
Suddenly he's back in overdrive. "If you start to regret and you are fixed with standards that this is it and nothing else will ever fit it, like certain notions of what is elegant and so on, then you have lost your way. You become boring."
Lagerfeld is never boring. In his 20 years at Chloe (which ended last year), 10 at Fendi, and even the two years at Chanel, he made significant changes in each collection that have influenced the rest of fashion.
" Chanel hated to show the knee and in her day she was right because perhaps the knees were not that great. Now you can show your knee just as you can show your elbows," he says. "The woman changes. If Chanel would be a young woman today doing what she had done in her time, she would do the same thing I did because now legs can be shown."
The rules are the same no matter which collection he's working on. "It's only a difference in the mood. KL is more myself, not using elements of somebody else's work. Chanel is a part I play . . . but I play it my way," he adds with a smile. "It is like movie stars who are always the same even when they play other parts."
He never thinks of his customer while he is designing. "If you design what you think the clientele wants then the clientele is bored. They think they know what they want but they don't or they would all be designers. They want something what is different and what surprises them. And in the end you only flatter one group and then they go to someone else."
The work always begins at home, early in the morning when there are no telephone calls to interrupt his concentration. "I can't stay in an office. I have to battle with myself. I don't want nobody around." It is "a dirty job," he says, "all those dirty pencils, and very often my fingers look like those of a 12-year-old just back from painting classes."
In Washington he used a set of 60 colored pencils he had packed to make sketches one free morning, but his best things are created under pressure. "I am good in last minute. That doesn't mean I don't think about it. I can stay in bed and do nothing and work in my head -- even when reading a book I can think about something else." He is always making notes on scraps of paper and shoving them into his pockets, eventually sorting everything in folders. "This can go here, that can go there. And then the last minute I take the folder . . . and hope for a miracle and put it together."
Once the sketches are complete, he fits the clothes not on a model but on a special friend. "On a model even the worst dress looks good," he explains. "On a woman with no arranged hair style, no makeup and no special attractive look, you really see the dress."
He loves to see women wearing his clothes. Evangeline Bruce, whom Lagerfeld considers one of the most elegant women in the world, wore to the dinner at the Phillips a romantic fur cape he designed years ago for Fendi. "On her it looked like a designer's dream. Models never look that way. When she slipped out without saying goodbye, it was a dramatic exit like Sarah Bernhardt."
He draws on all the centuries and the places that fascinate him, taking something of timeless beauty and exploding it with something modern -- as in the provocative advertising campaign he created with Bruce Weber. For the photographs, spiritlike models romped in the woods around Lagerfeld's castle in Brittany while wearing his new clothes. "I like the idea of the woods, the strange atmosphere in Brittany, the 18th-century mood of the castle with very modern clothes . . . the essence of the past and the spirit of the future. That isn't easy to capture in photos and make it understandable . . . particularly for advertising."
One photograph showed a woman carrying branches on her head. "It was like 2,000 years ago in Brittany but at the same time very modern. The branches on the head are like jewelry before jewelry was invented."
Along with the chateau in Brittany and an 18th-century house on the rue de l'Universite' in Paris, he has apartments in Monte Carlo and Rome. He keeps track of his friends, shops, suppliers, galleries and more in an incredible "optical address book," as he calls it, which includes pictures along with the phone numbers.
He was tempted to add a new address for himself -- in Washington -- when he left Evangeline Bruce's Georgetown house last weekend and saw a "For Sale" sign in front of a house across the street. "I love Washington. I love the houses," he says. "I never felt as ease as I do in this city. You don't have to make an effort." And it is familiar to him, "a bit like the northern part of Europe where I am from. A little like being at home."
For the moment, at least, he is back in Paris, designing for three collections -- plus a new American sportswear line, a menswear collection, a new fragrance for men, and for Puccini's "La Rondine," to be staged in Monte Carlo. "I don't like the idea of being just one person, the designer of one thing. I want to be kind of an 'Orlando' designer . . . not the sex changes," he grins, "but to be all-over different . . . and going on for centuries."