20 February 2019

My tribute to Karl

An illustrator presents fashion legend Karl Lagerfeld with his portrait, October 2015, Paris.


The name Karl Lagerfeld was, and always will be, associated with innovative, elegant couture - and the House of CHANEL. Wherever he went, he was like a rock star: legions of fans and paparazzi crushed to be near him.

The first time I saw him was completely unexpected. It was an early fall morning in 2008, and I was off to La Palette, a favorite café just doors from my first Paris apartment on rue de Seine. Men dressed completely in black had made a tight circle around someone, but who, at a terrace table. Black limos were parked halfway onto sidewalks because of the narrow streets, and when I pushed my way past, there He sat, holding court.

It was then I recalled a near-miss brush with "Karl" as he was simply referred to, well before: it was the 90s and I was on rue de Rivoli during Fashion Week. People were swirling everywhere when a well-dressed older man tapped me on the shoulder as I started to cross the street and handed me his card. He was a models' agent, and asked me to call and leave my information in case they needed "replacement models" on the runways that week. But I was leaving the next day to join family in Rome, and never did. Sometime later I was to learn that he represented Karl Lagerfeld.

In 2010, I was to run into The Karl again, but this time in New York. It was a rainy night and I'd just finished a long lovely dinner at Soho fixture The Mercer Kitchen with actor Denis Leary and his wife Ann, whom I'd met in Paris. Denis was filming his series Rescue Me and they had an apartment nearby. It was late when we parted and I would wait upstairs in the lobby for friends to pick me up. There, much to my surprise, sat Karl Lagerfeld, at a corner table, scribbling on a notepad. Alone. Surreally, it was just the two of us, and he was All Karl: the fingerless gloves, the white hair tightly pulled into that familiar ponytail, dressed in black from head to toe. And for one moment, we smiled at each other, wanly; outside the rain had turned into a thunderstorm.

Over the years there were to be a couple more Paris sightings and in late 2015, invited to a private preview of his photography called, "Karl Lagerfeld: A Visual Journey," I was to see him for the last time (see blog post, Karl Who?). We'd gone to the exhibition with an eccentric French photographer--who turned out to be the photographer who took Melania Trump's controversial nude photos--and, like the maestro he was, Lagerfeld arrived, unfashionably on time, followed by an adoring and fawning entourage. An exceptional photographer, he had a great eye for beauty. No surprise there. Beauty, he'd say, was his obsession. But he was unforgiving when it came to the obese, the grossly overweight, of those, he said, who became like that for no other reason than "letting themselves go," blaming "fat people" for all "societal woes" [Vox 2/19/2019]. And he could talk: for much of his life he had struggled with his own weight issues.

Once, at the CHANEL boutique on rue Cambon, Coco Chanel's first Paris shop and where she had an apartment, an elderly French woman told me something I never forgot. She said that in spite of his "severe looks" Karl Lagerfeld was "a very thoughtful and kind man" and a "pleasure" to work for. She'd known the CHANEL years and had worked for both. She said that when Coco Chanel arrived to work, it was almost like a "Devil Wears Prada" scene: as Ms. Chanel approached employees would whisper, "She's coming!" to each other and assume their best posture and behavior. But Karl Lagerfeld, she said, made them feel motivated and relaxed, which led to great productivity. He'd greet every employee individually and remember personal details from their lives, such as whether someone's grandmother was in hospital.

Agree with him or not, Karl Lagerfeld was a fashion genius, and his legacy will surely live on. - BPJ

R.I.P. Karl

February 19, 2019

Below: a KL boutique window, Marais district

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