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Vogue

KARL LAGERFELD

TOP OF THE HEAP

Lagerfeld and his Birman cat, Choupette, at home in Paris.

KARL LAGERFELD MIGHT BE the original boundary-breaking fashion designer. Raised in bourgeois comfort in Hamburg, he set off for Paris and Pierre Balmain’s studio when he was a teenager and his work caught the attention of the couturier. Soon bored at Balmain, he left to become the head designer at the staid house of Jean Patou, but he was soon bored there, too, and, disillusioned with the world of the haute couture, left for Rome to study his favorite composer, Bellini. In 1965, however, he met the quintet of formidable Fendi sisters: By his own estimate, he has since traveled to Rome 800 times. In 1982, Alain Wertheimer hired Lagerfeld to revamp Chanel. “When I came to Chanel, I said to Mr. Wertheimer, ‘Let’s make a pact, like Faust with the Devil,’” Lagerfeld says. “But we don’t know who is the Devil and who is Faust.”

In 1992, when the supremely erudite Rosamond Bernier went to call on Lagerfeld, she noted that the designer owned seven houses in four countries, each furnished with museum-quality antiques, state-of-the-art contemporary commissions, and a quarter of a million books. Now he lives with his beloved cat, Choupette, surrounded by the tools of his work and food for his mind.

“I have so much to do that I’m not so much for traveling anymore,” Lagerfeld says. “For Chanel alone I do ten collections, and I do it all myself, all the sketches.” Those Chanel projects include showcasing the Métiers d’Art collections around the world, drawing attention to the skills of the great fashion fournisseurs that Chanel has acquired to ensure their survival—among them the embroidery house of Lesage, the feather-and-flower establishment of Lemarié, shoemakers Massaro, and milliner Maison Michel—and initiating the trend for exotic destination presentations. After forays to Mumbai, Salzburg, Dubai, Seoul, Havana, Singapore, and Linlithgow, in Scotland, Lagerfeld staged a triumphant homecoming in Hamburg last year.

Savagely unsentimental, relentlessly un-nostalgic, he remains, in his ninth decade, fueled by his insatiable curiosity and a passion for the present and the future. “I have a strong survival instinct,” he says.

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