Karl Lagerfeld: ‘I'm really down to earth – just not this Earth’
Raphaelle Bacqué

Raphaëlle Bacqué is a reknowned reporter for Le Monde newspaper and author of several books, including the acclaimed biography of fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld Kaiser Karl. Drawing on a provocative quote from the great Chanel stylist, Bacqué offers us a fascinating portrait of the man who revealed so much in order to better hide himself.


Karl Lagerfeld, Self-portrait from behind at the airport, 1992


Once, when I was on a journalistic assignment in China, I got lost. I don’t know if you have ever tried to find your way in the Chinese countryside, without understanding or being able to speak a single word, nor even grasp the meaning of a road sign. I was trying to get back on the road to Ningbo, the enormous port town of nearly ten million inhabitants on the shores of the East China Sea. There, in vast factories, thousands of young people from the surrounding countryside worked bent over sewing machines amid a deafening noise, assembling clothes that would dictate fashion in the West.

He appeared in a small, slightly lurching truck. A Chinese man about fifty years old, wearing blue work clothes. He must have just finished his day’s toil in one of the nearby farms. We were obviously completely unable to understand each other, but at last, once I’d shown him my road map and mimed despair, he signed back that he would guide me to the road leading to the sea. Before getting back into his rickety old truck, he took something out of his pocket and pinned it to his collar, smiling at me. It was a lapel pin with a picture of Karl Lagerfeld. A little silhouette in metal, amazingly easy to recognise: the high white collar under the black jacket, the narrow jeans and the hair tied back in a low ponytail.

For more than twenty years, Lagerfeld gave the impression of being in disguise. And in fact he was – literally. His attire was devised as camouflage, but also as an image that anyone would find simple to sketch. That was the point. To look unlike anyone else, to resemble an alien, potentially to seem a bit ridiculous, but to be easily recognised anywhere in the world: in the heart of Paris or in the depths of China.

Once, he said: ‘I’m really down to earth – just not this Earth’. He had a taste for paradoxes. But how perfectly those words encapsulated his personality! Who knows whether his admirers – and for that matter, those who weren’t so crazy about him – truly understood what he meant.

Karl Lagerfeld was always down to earth in the management of his career. The son of an industrialist, he had an undeniable flair for business and marketing. I am not sure that his designs will go down in history: he didn’t invent the miniskirt, the trapeze dress or the woman’s dinner jacket, like Mary Quant, Courrèges and Saint Laurent. His greatest success was to make a fortune for the Wertheimer brothers by designing collections ‘in the style of’… Gabrielle Chanel, the true inventor of the braid-trimmed suit. But he always knew what would please women – those who were young and rich – even (in fact especially) when the taste for fashion and luxury went global.