The designer Karl Lagerfeld emerges from a back office into the bright, white expanse of his showroom with its concrete floor, towering windows and bouquets of white roses. He moves through his days with an entourage of assistants, publicists and pretty people who are all dressed in black and who hover just outside his personal space. When another member of his publicity team arrives wearing a rose-colored coat, she receives a subtle but caustic glance from a colleague. She immediately sheds the offending outerwear, revealing a nondescript black ensemble, thus returning the loft to its sleek black and white perfection.
For designers, appearances are always a matter of concern, but for Lagerfeld -- at this crucial moment in his professional life -- they are the most essential part of his story. He has a new collection to sell, one that bears his name. And unlike almost all his previous work, it is a contemporary line created for mass consumption. With a pair of slashed jeans for women that cost $395, men's straight-leg jeans priced at $250 and a $150 silk-screen T-shirt, the collection is not cheap. But it is far more accessible than the designs Lagerfeld creates for his employers at Fendi and Chanel, where the simplest jacket costs thousands of dollars.
Lagerfeld, 67, built his reputation as a hired hand creating dynamic collections for already established brands and by transforming himself into one of the fashion industry's most memorable characters. Through his work for Chanel, where he has been since 1983, he became one of the most influential designers of the past 20 years. Long before the resurrection of Gucci, Lanvin or any other dusty old design house, Lagerfeld resuscitated Chanel, which had grown stale and bourgeois after its founder's death in 1971. He elevated Chanel signatures such as the tweed jacket and the little black dress into modern fashion mythology. And he cultivated the provocative notion that fashion could bubble up from the street as easily as it could trickle down from the atelier.
"He's an authentic genius," says Peter Marx, president of Saks Jandel, who has known Lagerfeld for 20 years. "There's something unsettling and special about him."
Yet a successful signature label has eluded Lagerfeld. He has designed under his own name before -- but with only mediocre results. A half-dozen times such ventures have petered out, often collapsing from his own inattention.
Other times, the clothes have been so esoteric that they've made little sense to anyone but the designer himself. His most enduring financial success under his own name has been the Karl Lagerfeld group of fragrances.
But in January 2005, Lagerfeld sold his name to Tommy Hilfiger for about $29 million. Later that year the American sportswear company was acquired by Apax Partners, a private equity firm, for $1.6 billion. (For a brief period, it was rumored that Wal-Mart was going to buy Tommy Hilfiger. The mere possibility that the highfalutin name of Karl Lagerfeld would be owned by the world's largest and cheapest merchant both horrified and amused the fashion industry.) Hilfiger, who made his name with preppy sportswear, oversize jeans and patriotic logos, has no creative input in Lagerfeld's collection. But for the first time, there is a large-scale, focused effort to turn the German-born designer into a global brand name in both men's and women's wear.
The Karl Lagerfeld collection was launched this past February with a runway presentation that closed New York Fashion Week. For fall, the collection will be available at such stores as Neiman Marcus, Saks Jandel, Bergdorf Goodman, Intermix and Nordstrom. The new owners have invested millions of dollars wooing top stores, opening an aggressively minimalist showroom and assembling a support staff with the ultimate goal of building a lifestyle brand, which could include anything from housewares to travel accessories.
To make that happen, Lagerfeld is not simply selling his design aesthetic -- he's selling his image, his reputation and, ultimately, himself. The fashion industry is breathless -- no, practically quivering -- with anticipation.
"He is one of fashion's idea men," says Ken Downing, fashion director of Neiman Marcus. "When he says he's going to do something new, you want to see what he's up to. He has his fingers on the pulse of what's happening."
Those in the industry attribute their enthusiasm to Lagerfeld's reputation for being a Renaissance man. He speaks German, English and French. He is a bibliophile with his own publishing imprint. And he is a devotee of the iPod, claiming 100 in his collection. He collects art and antique furniture. Twenty years ago he began to dabble in photography. He now photographs the press kits for Chanel as well as fashion spreads for magazines such as Interview and Harper's Bazaar. He refused to pose for a photograph to accompany this story, instead insisting on providing a self-portrait. The photo is essentially the silhouette of a very thin body topped by a large gray orb.
No fashion launch is guaranteed success, but with this one, it's hard to find a naysayer. Lagerfeld's past failures do not seem to register. No one is pointing to the high-profile departures of designers Jil Sander and Helmut Lang, who sold their brands, then soured on the new owners. Lagerfeld's obsession with narrow, lean cuts is not viewed as problematic in a marketplace filled with wide, round customers. The glut of celebrity fashion brands is no worry. The emperor's clothes are, apparently, beyond reproach.
Yet while Lagerfeld has an outsize reputation within the industry, among those not well versed in fashion minutiae, Lagerfeld's celebrity lies somewhere between Ralph Lauren and "who?" Even many media-savvy consumers may recognize Lagerfeld solely as a designer with a ponytail and a penchant for wearing sunglasses indoors.
Unlike Lauren or Calvin Klein, Lagerfeld has not starred in his own advertising campaign. Unlike Donatella Versace, his life is not fodder for a regular skit on "Saturday Night Live." He never had his own reality show, although he did author a diet book, which has sold more than 200,000 copies.
A Look All His OwnIn the weeks before he debuted his collection on the New York runway, Lagerfeld dedicated himself to publicizing the event, and the fashion industry dedicated itself to reiterating the importance of the debut. The designer's life was documented in a feature in New York magazine. He took questions from journalists representing retail markets from San Francisco to Palm Beach. And he sat across the big oak table from Charlie Rose and engaged in a lengthy conversation about fashion, the long-term impact of his brutally candid mother and the fact that he has never voted because, as he told Rose: "I know too much about the backstage of politics." Because of his thick German accent and staccato speaking rhythm, about 80 percent of the exchange was comprehensible. That in no way detracted from Lagerfeld's enjoyment. "I like to be on TV. I love to be on TV," he says.
Lagerfeld was born in Hamburg in 1938 and was the pampered youngest child in a well-to-do household. He describes his mother, with her impatience for childish stammerings, as tough-minded and aloof. His father, whom he called "the sweetest man in the world," made a fortune introducing condensed milk to Europe.
Lagerfeld emigrated to Paris in 1952 to finish school. Three years later, he designed a coat on a lark for a wool association contest and won first prize. The coat was produced by Pierre Balmain, and Lagerfeld became the designer's assistant. Afterward, he worked for Jean Patou, freelanced for a host of fashion houses, became an accomplished illustrator, designed for Chloe and in 1962 signed a contract to create furs and ready-to-wear for the Rome-based Fendi. (He was not responsible for the brand's popular baguette handbag.) Twenty-one years later, he was hired to modernize Chanel.
Lagerfeld lives primarily in Paris, although he has several homes including an apartment in New York. He has never been married, has no children and has talked about the death of his longtime companion Jacques de Bascher in 1989 from complications of AIDS as devastating.
For an interview in his headquarters on the Far West Side of Manhattan, Lagerfeld makes an entrance from the opposite side of the room, allowing ample opportunity for inspection before he is within hand-shaking distance. He walks chest forward and with short strides. An observer, who happened to catch one of Lagerfeld's television appearances, describes his walk as a "Prince meets Ron Wood pimpalicious strut." Before the eyes settle on his attire, the nose takes note. Lagerfeld smells vaguely floral, with a hint of powder. He has spritzed himself with Iris Nobile by Acqua di Parma. It is a woman's fragrance owned by LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the same company that controls Fendi.
The designer wears skinny black trousers with seams crisscrossing his thin legs, a snug-fitting blazer the color of porcini mushrooms, a charcoal gray striped scarf and a pair of high brown boots. Instead of dark glasses, he wears a pair with lavender-tinted lenses. One wonders why he is so intent on obscuring his face. It is perfectly pleasant.
"I see myself as a hardworking professional person," he says. "But in another way I'm lucky that I can use myself as a kind of puppet."
For a long time, Lagerfeld was a heavyset man who dressed in avant-garde, Japanese-designed black suits that scorned symmetry and body consciousness. He favored bespoke shirts with high starched collars that made his head look like a boiled egg balanced atop a porcelain cup. He powdered his ponytail white and carried a fan in the manner of an 18th-century courtesan. "I have curly hair and I don't like it," he says. "I'm afraid to cut it; it may not come back."
In 2000, motivated by fashion rather than health, the designer lost in the neighborhood of 100 pounds. He took to wearing pencil-slim trousers, tight-fitting jackets with high armholes, motorcycle boots, fingerless gloves and enough silver jewelry to short-circuit metal detectors. He no longer carries a fan. But he still powders his ponytail, a grooming quirk that at close range can leave the uninitiated wondering if the designer has a particularly aggressive form of dandruff. He continues to wear shirt collars as wide as a neck brace.
The image, he says, has "come naturally. If I work on it, then it's marketing."
"It's good to have an image like this. You meet a person with a big smile and they are the meanest person in the world," he says. "It's good to be seen as unapproachable sometimes. People won't bother you."
Lagerfeld can be both pleasant and polite, witty and direct, catty and cruel. And on this promotional tour, he is unfailingly patient, willing to talk until his voice gives out. Given the designer's loquaciousness, it seems like a fine opportunity to ask about the recent fashion kerfuffle in which actress Reese Witherspoon was lent a Chanel dress for the Golden Globes that had already been worn by Kirsten Dunst to Globes afterparties in 2003.
The problem, he says, was a fresh transition in the publicity department at Chanel. "That woman at the press office left no files. You have to have files to know who bought what," he says, using the term "bought" very loosely. "I don't think you should give these girls recent vintage. The dress was only three years old. It's nobody's fault but the stupid cow who had no files." Oh my.
Lagerfeld is an extremely wealthy man, and so launching a new brand is not a long-awaited opportunity for fame and fortune. "This thing, I'm not doing it for money. My Chanel contract is more than enough for one person. For me, it's doing for doing."
But there is some hubris and ambition involved. The designer likes the idea of showing Fendi in Milan, Chanel in Paris and Karl Lagerfeld in New York. "I wanted an American adventure. I felt isolated in Europe," he says. "I felt it was the moment to do it. It's a new challenge. New spirit. New people. I like new. Maybe I'm very superficial."
Lagerfeld prides himself on being forward-thinking in his design work, never dwelling on the past. Indeed, his stature hinges, to a great degree, on the fact that professionally he scorns nostalgia and sneers at the idea of combing flea markets in search of ideas. In short, this means that he is appalled by 90 percent of what is produced by the fashion industry.
"Inspiration is not something where I do India this season, then I do Russia. That's not inspiration, that's lazy. That's too easy," he says. "I don't go to the flea market. . . . Vionnet, Balenciaga, I don't think they went to the flea market," referring to Madeleine Vionnet and Cristobal Balenciaga, two of the most influential designers of the 20th century.
Even within the traditions of Chanel, the collections are focused not on reviving the past but on taking an established aesthetic and riffing on it, putting it into a new context. He has a sensibility akin to that of a jazz musician or a hip-hop producer -- not a cover band.
"If there's something I don't like or don't understand, I say it's my problem, not the problem of the times. I have to adapt to it. I have to find my niche in the moment that's going on," he says. "Don't compare yourself to what happened before. Don't compare your life to what happened before. Every day has to be different. Don't compare. Don't compete. Don't think it was better before, because it was better before only if you think it was."
The new collection, he says, evokes the spirit of New York -- or more specifically the part of Manhattan that is south of 14th Street. It's important that the collection is based in New York, he says, because the surroundings give rise to specific sensibilities. It makes a difference in the ultimate image, according to Lagerfeld, if a dress is photographed against a white backdrop in Paris, or in New York.
"Here is my vision of what I think of New York. Paris is what I think of Chanel. And Fendi is my idea of what I think I would be if I was Italian. I like to play with personality. I take the spirit of the place, the spirit of the people, and use it," he says. "What I do in New York should be done in New York and couldn't be done in Paris."
The fall collection is distinguished by a palette in black, charcoal and bark. Whether the clothes are for men or women, they are lean and nonchalant. The sweaters look as if they have been stretched and artfully marred with holes and runs. There are trench coats, long skirts, T-shirts, cotton vests, denim and peacoats. The clothes look lived in. They are the kind of studiously lackadaisical clothes that celebrities wear when they are trying hard not to look like they're trying at all.
But despite Lagerfeld's insistence that they embody the spirit of New York, they look more fuzzily international than something that might have sprouted directly from Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx.
The clothes have a bold toughness to them, says Michael Fink, senior fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue. "There was wonderful knitwear and wonderful coats, but the denim was very expensive for that market and the collection wasn't well-rounded enough to make the kind of impact we need it to make on the floor." The store passed on the collection for fall -- a rare example of reluctance in the face of the Lagerfeld juggernaut.
Lagerfeld oversees the collection from Paris. His creative director in New York is Harper's Bazaar senior fashion editor Melanie Ward, who was once a consultant to Helmut Lang. Ward keeps her long ash-blond hair in a ponytail. She does not powder it. She dresses in an artful mix of black and white jackets and shirts with flapping vestigial tails and plackets.
As an indication of her importance to the collection, she accompanied Lagerfeld down the runway when he took his bows after the show.
The presence of Ward raises artistic concerns within the industry, not because she is untalented but because she is not Lagerfeld. And now he is in Paris and the collection is in New York. And the designer makes no bones about his lack of interest in the business side of this venture. "I'm not a business person," he says. "I don't want to run the business myself." In fact, he claims complete ignorance about things such as production and distribution, leaving that to Lagerfeld company president Ann Acierno.
In the end, though, it doesn't really matter who makes the decisions about button placement as long as the collection has a point of view that connects with customers.
Saks Jandel is among the stores that will stock the collection for fall. "It had a look," says Marx. "We assumed with this new ownership, we assumed something great would happen and it looked like the beginning of something. . . . We noticed some rumblings, and we believe in Karl Lagerfeld."
Building a Brand Much of the enthusiasm surrounding the Lagerfeld line has to do with the success of a one-off collection he created for the throwaway fashion merchant H&M in 2004. Customers lined up before the stores opened and the pieces sold out. When Lagerfeld visited Tokyo that year to open a Chanel boutique, fans reportedly went berserk, giving him the kind of welcome typically reserved for rock stars. The fashion industry is betting that he can translate the enthusiasm of bargain-hunting fashion fanatics and the Chanel customer base into a successful midpriced brand.
Robert Passikoff, founder of the market research firm Brand Keys, conducts an annual survey that looks at whether a brand is important to the average consumer. "Chanel always shows up," Passikoff says. "Lagerfeld does not."
On last year's Women's Wear Daily list of the 100 most recognized apparel brands among women 18 to 64 with a household income above $35,000, Chanel -- with its history and high profile -- ranked only No. 35. The Lagerfeld name didn't even make the list. Among these mass market consumers, Hanes ranked No. 1. Calvin Klein was the only designer label to crack the Top 10.
Passikoff acknowledges Lagerfeld's reputation within the industry and his talent. But he encourages healthy skepticism.
The fashion industry uses the term "brand" and "label" interchangeably when they are not the same, Passikoff says: A label is simply a name on a tag. A brand, he says, stands for something. Chanel can be equated with a single concept, such as luxury, or with a particular garment, such as a tweed jacket. Ralph Lauren stands for preppy or a polo shirt. It's murkier what the name Karl Lagerfeld conjures. "He's attuned to what's happening in the street," says Neiman's Downing. "He's a blend of urban and couture."
How that plays out as a design aesthetic is unclear. A teaser collection debuted for spring at Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus. On the fifth floor of Bergdorf, around the corner from the brightly colored slacker sportswear from Marc by Marc Jacobs and across from the graphic and spangled tunics from Tory Burch, hang a few pairs of cigarette jeans in black and indigo, denim miniskirts with fabric-covered buttons, and chiffon tunics in black. A white cotton tank top has a silk-screen image of what appears to be Lagerfeld's fingers covered in silver rings.
The label above the rack identifies the collection as Karl Lagerfeld. But so far, nothing clearly distinguishes the brand.