Karl Lagerfeld was one of the most prolific and widely popular designers of the 20th and 21st centuries. He died in Paris at the age of 85 on the 19th of February 2019.
He was a creative director, fashion designer, photographer and caricaturist who lived in Paris. He was known as the creative director of the French fashion house Chanel, a position held from 1983 until his death. He was also creative director of the Italian fur and leather goods fashion house Fendi, and of his own eponymous fashion label. He collaborated on a variety of fashion and art-related projects. He was recognised for his signature white hair, black sunglasses, fingerless gloves, and high, starched, detachable collars.
Below, André Leon Talley remembers his mentor and dear friend
I’ve known Karl since 1975; we met for the first time at The Plaza hotel in New York over tea with Andy Warhol. Karl mentored me in everything: French history, literature, the history of fashion, art. From our first moments, we were like the brother each of us wished we had, true siblings. Even on that first May afternoon, he invited me to his bedroom suite, simply to throw the most luxurious silk shirts from his Goyard trunks at me. I walked away with a wardrobe of beautiful shirts, his own, and matching mufflers.
Karl was a creative genius: self-invented and brilliant! In those days, he was the star at Chloé, the luxury ready-to-wear house. Karl loved writing letters and he designed his beautiful stationery. I would receive by express mail from Paris outsize envelopes with up to 30 pages of handwritten letters. Karl mentored me, and at the same time, we were best friends. I owe my advanced knowledge on the history of the French court to Karl. He exposed me to Nancy Mitford, and frequently sent me scores of books he thought I should read.
Every moment with Karl was a master class in refinement: the way he decorated, the way he instructed his staff to dress a table, the way he always sent his friends the most beautiful wicker tubs of roses. His personal and highly original way of sartorial dress inspired me for decades. Many of the Met Gala capes I wore were made and designed by Karl at Chanel. When he first landed the job, he made for me and for himself, in the couture, a navy bouclé wool jacket with four pockets and a gold gilt chain inside to hold down the hem! I still have the jacket, and so many jackets and evening capes he designed just for me. No other men, until recently, had the privilege to wear Chanel couture clothes. One taupe silk court coat had two very valuable 18th-century buttons with diamonds he bought as a surprise for me.
Karl was a king in the world of fashion. Not long after he landed the job at Chanel in 1983, he flew me over from New York, paying for the hotel for a week, and I saw the first collection he made. With it, he created the paradigm that remained Chanel until his last couture collection, shown in January.
When I landed in Paris in 1978, Karl and I were already friends. He helped organize my life, and our deep friendship continued. We had mutual friends, especially Paloma Picasso. For years, she was dressed at Chanel and Fendi. Karl threw her lavish wedding dinner, and I was right there, in the heat of the high-boil evening, alongside Yves Saint Laurent, who had dressed her in a Broadway suit and a bird’s nest of a hat for the day ceremony, and Karl himself, who designed the evening dress of cyclamen satin. The whole dinner was inspired by a dinner from the French court of the 18th century.
Karl was extravagant, generous, and very, very kind to his friends, until he had a rupture; then he would simply delete one from his life, cutting all lines of communication with no explanation. His kindness manifested itself in various ways, from loans of his 18th-century furniture to gifts of Fabergé diamonds, which he gave me for Christmas in 1989, the year my grandmother died. He also flew me on the Concorde round-trip to Paris, and I stayed in his country house outside of Paris for two weeks. Nothing was sloppy in any of his homes: Diptyque candles, the best sheets in the world, and all meals served at tables for lunch and dinner. One had to dress for each meal. He loved changing clothes, sometimes three times a day. Chauffeurs and cars were available for excursions to the local news kiosks.
Karl was a brilliant designer, writer, and photographer. He photographed one of my critical fashion satires: “The Wind Done Gone,” for Vanity Fair. Naomi Campbell was Scarlett O’Hara, Manolo Blahnik was a gardener or barefoot field hand, and John Galliano was a houseboy, photographed scrubbing the floor! For years Karl would call me to sit beside him in his studios at Chanel and at Fendi during crucial fittings. As he fired off verbal instructions to the seamstresses, he would turn to me and ask for my opinion. He trusted my taste, as essentially, I was the voice, the silent voice in the shadow. I could telegraph to him a positive suggestion, and he would decide to use, or not, my careful recommendations.
Karl and I could speak for hours by telephone; he loved late-night marathons. Often when I lived in Paris, we would ring each other at the end of the day, around 11:00 p.m. And he would always say, “Mr. Talley, how are you?” And I would say, “Mr. Lagerfeld.” Sometimes the conversation ended near 4:00 a.m.
Like Chanel, the woman who laid the archetype, he couldn’t find anything nice to say about another fashion designer’s work, yet he knew from memory every Dior and Balenciaga collection, the entire evolution and history of each venerable house. I know people were impressed with our friendship and that carried a lot of weight in the industry. He was my surrogate brother.
When I turned 50, he wrote a personal check for $50,000, during a Vogue preview. People gossiped, and many thought Karl and I were, or had been, lovers. We were not. We simply were two people from worlds apart, who found in each other alignments on all things that mattered in our lives. The most important person in his life had been his mother; in mine, it was my grandmother. He loved my point of view about everything except food. He listened to me, and we learned from each other. Trust is the word!
When Sylvester Stallone came to Paris, Karl put his fiancée, who is now his wife, in his catwalk line-up. When Chanel celebrated the 25th anniversary of Coco’s death, Karl orchestrated the show at the Ritz hotel. He took over the entire floor with the grand suites, and the models walked from room to room facing the Place Vendôme! Between the two shows Kate Moss, Shalom Harlow, and Naomi Campbell came up to my modest room and napped. Karl slipped in as they were resting and photographed them and sent the photograph to me framed, with a personal message.
I remember so many trips with him: to Tokyo, to Baden-Baden and the Black Forest, to Berlin on the last day of Christo’s monumental covering of the Reichstag, entire summers in Monte Carlo, and, in 2000, four weeks in Biarritz. I will always have extraordinary memories of walking in the valleys with this towering giant, a king, a genius, and a great friend!
The last time I saw him was two years ago, when Stephen Gan threw a swell party at The Boom Boom Room. Naomi Campbell came in her vintage Fendi dress designed by Karl. Mariah Carey serenaded him from the stage as a surprise. It was like the halcyon days. I will always remember this man as a friend. And as one of the giants of my life in the chiffon trenches.