Paris, 2019. Despite embracing the spectacle when displaying his wares, Karl Lagerfeld decided on the opposite when it came to his finale, his last goodbye. Not for him a send off at the Église de la Madeleine, where the ceremonies of the glamorous dead are staged. Coco Chanel for one, in 1971. Madame Pompidou planned something spectacular until the designer’s iffy war time allegiances came to light. Nevertheless here was Coco Chanel sealed in a casket shrouded by camellias, gardenias - her signature flower - orchids and azaleas. The pews filled with those that modelled her clothes. 'And you and your funeral,’ Lagerfeld was asked months before his death this year, aged 85, 'do you see it more in Sidi Bou Said like Azzedine Alaia, or at the Madeleine?’ Like David Bowie he opted for pure cremation, or what has been catchily termed in Britain 'direct disposal'. No ceremony. No rituals. Ashes to ashes. Lagerfeld requested that his ashes be dispersed with those of his mother, and the Birman cat that he cooed over as though it were a lover. The cat survives, clinging for dear life to its nine lives now it's heir to a share of a £150 million fortune.
Karl Lagerfeld was appointed Creative Director at Chanel in 1983. His first collection would have thrilled the company founder he said at the time. Years later his view had shifted: 'I do what she never did. I had to go from what Chanel was to what it should be, could be, what it had been to something else.’ Lagerfeld himself had transformed into something else. Despite knowing him for decades, Suzy Menkes says she was uncertain which of his personalities was the real “Kaiser”, as he was fondly referred to. Lagerfeld attributed his controversies and one-liners to a ‘persona'. In the wake of his death he was described, I think by Claudia Schiffer, as the Warhol of the fashion world. Similar to Warhol he claimed to be without any human emotions; 'a machine'. All of it ultimately, a joke. ‘Everything I say is a joke,’ he declared on various occasions. ‘I am a joke myself.'
He was serious about the work. The work was all. The staggering productivity - Creative Director at Fendi from the 1960s until his death; Chanel; his eponymous label etc etc - which meant he was held responsible for the unsustainable output other designers struggle with.
Then there was the look that somehow seemed as stately as a corpse long before he became one. The powdered pony tail emerged in 1976. It was dyed a snowy platinum because the natural colour was that of cloudy urine. Sunglasses worn as a ‘burka’. The white shirt which he considered the equivalent of the little black dress, and that he wished he'd invented. In this instance, Hilditch & Key shirts with detachable collars as high as a neck brace or a ruff. The gloves a response to his mother telling him he had ugly hands. 'When I was a child’, Lagerfeld recalled, 'my mother always told me that you could wake up in the middle of the night and be deathly sick, so you always have to be impeccable. I laugh about it now, but I think everyone should go to bed like they have a date at the door.'
This figure, this cartoon - as he described himself - had again changed into something else by the time the end came. A slighter frame than the fat man with a fan, as Lagerfeld saw himself among the beautiful people of the Paris demimonde in the 1980s. The diet that he embarked upon, and that became a best-selling book, attributed to his desire to wear suits designed by his friend Hedi Slimane. The decade in which the fat man with the fan first dominated the fashion world has been picked over again in recent collections, much to the chagrin of Karl Lagerfeld. 'We got so trapped by the problems of the ’80s, so petrified of the shoulder, so petrified of Lurex, so petrified of the excess, that we forget that some of the most interesting designers came from the ’80s,’ Jonathan Anderson has said. Just one of a number of contemporary designers that have returned the likes of Claude Montana and Thierry Mugler to the fold. Shortly before his death when asked what was the worst trend of recent times, Karl Lagerfeld replied: ‘The 80s as seen from now with the eyes of somebody who remembers.’
Do you remember?
London, 1983. So it’s 1983, and you’re young, poor and common. Soon ‘Elegance’ will reach your pricked up ears, with Paddy McAloon informing you that all the bullion in the world cannot transform what’s simply second rate. You’ve gone through the effete street and pop trends of the 1970s and 1980s and now you’d like to adopt one look; a uniform to see you through the rest of the twenties, the rest of your life perhaps. The equivalent of the starched white shirt, the little black dress. High end fashion is reaching out from the catwalks, and reaching the eyes of the masses, but it’s light years beyond their budget. Soon many of those you know will be determined to have it, by any means necessary. Whether it's saving, hoisting, buying knock-off, or forking out for something fake. For soon it will be the beginning of the ongoing logo-mania trend, one of many that Karl Lagerfeld is credited with instigating. ( 'If someone asks me what fashion is,’ the designer once said, 'I don’t know, but 30 years later it all becomes clear.’)
It’s 1983. The Kaiser, having parked himself at Chanel, is placing the interlocked ‘C’ of the brand on bags, belts and buckles. And you're young, poor and common, living at home in London, the city of your birth. Crossing the river to the west end and the world of these high end stores, you spot the interlocked ‘C’ on the lampposts of Westminster (‘City Council’). You want to believe all that you read, even though one day it will be exposed as myth; that this is the extent to which the Duke of Westminster was infatuated with Coco Chanel, back in the 1920s when her and her understated elegance were making headlines.
You read more, and discover the rue Chambon apartment of Coco Chanel, with its winding staircase set against a wall of mirrors. You stare at photographs of it, and the ever-deceasing images it produces. You love it. It brings to mind the cover of 'No Pussyfooting'. And soon, soon, on the wrong side of the river, between the new builds, the remnants of old bomb sites, and slum clearance still evident in the 1980s, local wide-boy entrepreneurs are introducing shops between the tanning salons and the stalls flogging Club Sport track suits, that have a touch of the foreign in their titles: Homme. Moda. They introduce earthy football casuals to logos that transcend the Lacoste crocodile. They are plumbers, roofers, electricians heading for self-employment and home ownership; they are as much a part of the 1980s as the lucrative anti-Margaret Thatcher industry that turned so many performers, comedians, writers and musicians into millionaires. For the Tories remain the party of the south, and here in the south the Labour movement is drifting away from the demographic that gave birth to it. Within its London councils fringe policies and identity politics bubble to the surface. One day these snowflake hobbies will totally destroy the movement’s relationship with its traditional supporters. At which point - today, actually - your average white, heterosexual, male gentile pulls up a chair and watches as the competitive victimhood of the intersectional Olympics causes the ‘progressive' mindset of the ‘modern’ left to implode. This is the way its worldview ends - not with a whimper but a bang.
It’s 1983. Labour issues the longest suicide note in history as its election manifesto, and it’s beginning to look like - confirmation comes at the fag end of the decade - the right is winning the economic argument, with the left taking silver or bronze, by way of the cultural one. And yet, the latter will largely come about because of the former. And this is a fact that was so, so self evident, it is worth repeating: the latter will largely come about because of the former. It’s down to what the French semiotician Roland Barthes cited as the liberation that comes with consumption. Can I get a witness? Well, the pink pound, for one. This did more to bring the queer outsider in from the cold than a thousand pride marches in built-up areas.
What was it that cyberpunk author William Gibson said about the future? It was with us, but unevenly distributed? Well, in the 1980s, it was more widely distributed than ever before. And there’s the rub. The pedigree, status, privilege that united the old monied right and the radical left, rose up against the proles that were in pursuit of filthy lucre, with their mortgages, satellite dishes, foreign holidays and logo clothes. From the House of Windsor to the upper class lady bountiful squatting at the top of a Guardian column, this pitiful ambition was mocked: we read of the red-braced, ruddy-faced ‘barrow boys’ of the city. We laughed at Harry Enfield’s ‘Loadsamoney’ character. These were the jumped up pantry boys who never knew their place. To the old guard, whether a royal or a revolutionary, the proles simply didn’t have the taste, the class, to carry it off no matter how much money they got their grubby hands on. It was as if their betters were channelling Coco Chanel, who believed that luxury and elegance were not the opposite of poverty, but vulgarity. And maybe Paddy McAloon too.
Paris, 1983. For many, the city of lights remained the epitome of style and elegance, and yet it was clinging to former glories from earlier golden ages: La Belle Époque; Les années folles. Even for those of us that skipped school to watch Tony Hancock in 'The Rebel’ on a damp, English afternoon in the 1970s. But as the 1980s got under way it was coming up on the outside and overtaking London and New York. Le Palace had opened in 1978, a year after its stateside equivalent, Studio 54. Its staff were kitted out in crimson and gold tunics created by the young Thierry Mugler. Along with clubs such as Les Bains Douches - which Marcel Proust had attended during its years as a palatial bathhouse - it was the centre of a hedonistic Parisian nightlife. Suddenly the city was akin to those previous epochs, central to Woody Allen’s ‘Midnight In Paris’, where every boulevard was its own special art form: 'I mean come on, there's nothing happening on Jupiter or Neptune, but from way out in space you can see these lights, the cafés, people drinking and singing. For all we know, Paris is the hottest spot in the universe.’
At its hub, hot new money ushers in a new high society. It’s reminiscent of the change Marcel Proust witnessed and portrayed in his celebrated and weighty tome. And now, this new scene needs someone to attempt something similar; to sketch satiric portraits of the equivalent of the nouveau riche replacing the fading aristocracy within the artistic salons in the Paris of the past. Oddly, the job falls to Roland Barthes. Having been dispatched to these night clubs, he reveals that they are a special art form. He wonders what Proust would have made of them. In the absence of dukes and duchesses from that other age, fashion designers, photographers, supermodels, socialites decked out in Azzedine Alaia. Barthes writes: 'I seemed to recognize, transposed to the modern, something I had read in Proust: that evening at the Opéra, where the house and the boxes form, under the young Narrator’s impassioned eye, an aquatic milieu, gently illuminated by aigrettes, by glances, by jewels, by faces, by gestures suggestive of those made by undersea deities, amid which sat enthroned the duchess of Guermantes.'
And there sat enthroned the Kaiser, Karl Lagerfeld. As stately as a duchess concealed behind an extended fan, as photographers flapped and circled, like so many things attracted to a flame. Like Warhol, he was watching and absorbing. Viewing this art form that will inspire him to turn the catwalk into a theatre, the fashion show into an art spectacle that will further assure him a place as a major influencer in popular culture. He will install icebergs, waterfalls, space rockets, a casino, a private jet’s interior, and at the New York Met in 2018 - ancient Egypt.
It’s 1983, and the Japanese designers are big, with their formless, size-less designs. Lagerfeld seems at odds with this, riffing on the Chanel staples, still associated with Madame Pompidou, while adding his own touches to the cropped wool suit jacket. Even then the work is everything; even then he is the work. Advisors and colleagues congregate, as though Warhol’s acolytes in the days of the Factory. 'I’m into making public disappearances,’ Lagerfeld says years later, while dispatching staff to report back on the world outside. But back then there was a ‘companion’: Jacques de Bascher. Lagerfeld says he is the opposite of him, and he is. A gigolo without ambition who uses his charisma and connections to keep him in the style which so many have allowed him to become accustomed. He was a devil with Garbo’s face: 'He was impossible and despicable. He was perfect.’ Strangely, they were never sexually intimate according to Lagerfeld. Not for the 18 years they were together. It was the physical charm of this so-called ‘Proustian dandy’ that seduced him. To delve beyond it would break the spell, destroy the fantasy. And here, Monsieur Proust himself could have whispered something in the designer's ear: Desire makes everything blossom; possession makes everything wither and fade.
Paris, 1919. Three years ago an exhibition was staged at the Pompidou Centre in Paris entitled ‘The Unbearable Lightness, The 1980s’. Photographs throughout the show reminded us that although the decade had been about fashion, and names such as Alaia, Montana, Mugler and of course, Karl Lagerfeld, it was also defined by other, more major, developments. There was the end of the cold war in 1989, when confirmation came that the right were winning the economic argument and the left the cultural one. There was the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, which in that same year would take the life of Jacques de Bascher. A loss that Lagerfeld would never recover from. Despite the triumphs in a life, even when they outweigh the losses, it's the losses that survive. ‘To look back… forget about it. Fashion is now and tomorrow’, he said. The stiffened collars grew, and the sunglasses thickened as he embraced the idea of being a machine without human emotion. His words. Now he's gone, without a fanfare, a grand finale or even a funeral at the Église de la Madeleine, like his predecessor at Chanel. What’s lost, beyond the witty, erudite, fashion designer is something rare these days: a figure who seldom apologised for the little controversies he caused or the opinions he held. 'You want to create boredom?’ he said. 'Be politically correct in your conversation.' He evoked the holocaust in reference to the immigration policy of fellow German Angela Merkel (‘One cannot – even if there are decades between them – kill millions of Jews so you can bring millions of their worst enemies in their place.’) He slammed the #MeToo movement. Shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attacks he recreated a celebration of French culture on the catwalk, to remind us that Paris had been, and could be again, the hottest spot in the universe.
For the A/W 2019 show, in the wake of his death, and in the absence of a funeral the courtiers assembled for the spectacular goodbye he had denied them. On each attendee’s seat was a message from Lagerfeld himself, apparently: The words ‘The Beat Goes On,’ above an illustration of the Kaiser with Coco Chanel. Models walked as slowly as pall-bearers, with the final celebrity carrying a single white rose. ‘Heroes’ played. A touch of class or a touch of crass? What was lacking was the humour, the lack of respect, that Lagerfeld believed was required to make a legend last.
It was the ceremony that he, like David Bowie before him, was determined to avoid when they chose to leave the world with a whisper rather than a bang. Because of these two men, so many of us have a similar fate planned after illness has taken us out, or we’ve taken ourselves to the river clutching the brick, or the unabridged Proust, that will takes us down. The show was proof that Coco Chanel was right, luxury is indeed the opposite of vulgarity, and Paddy McAloon too: All the bullion in the world cannot transform what’s simply second rate.