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Karl Lagerfeld Explains How He Got Into Fashion

Karl Lagerfeld, a man nearly as famous for his one-liners as the clothes he designs for Fendi and Chanel, took the stage with actress Jessica Chastain at New York's Lincoln Center for an hour-long interview Wednesday night.

"I love [to be asked] mean questions because then I can have fun."

So said Karl Lagerfeld, a man nearly as famous for his one-liners as the clothes he designs for Fendi and Chanel, on the red carpet at Lincoln Center Thursday night. Lagerfeld, who had arrived in New York earlier in the week to celebrate actress Tilda Swinton's birthday, was there to do an hour-long, staged interview with another actress, Jessica Chastain, who played moderator.

Chastain's questions weren't mean, but they were at times daringly personal. When Chastain asked the German-born Lagerfeld what kind of pajamas he wore to bed, he politely declined to answer. On other subjects, the 80-year-old designer was more forthcoming, and as the talk progressed he grew more serious, offering some (seemingly genuine) insights into his life and interests.

But first, the one-liners.

Do you consider yourself a modern day Oscar Wilde? Chastain asked. "I hope I will end up a little better." Did you like going to school? "I was never interested in going to school with the rest of those idiots." What do you do for fun? "I admire people who destroy themselves." So you don't read on your iPad? "For me paper is the most important thing in life." And so on.

Lagerfeld is a funny guy -- an attribute he developed in part because of his mother. "[My mother] was really tough the way she talked to people," Lagerfeld said. "[She was] mean, but so funny. I'm not sure I am that funny." With his mother, Lagerfeld said, one "had to answer quickly and it had to be funny… If I thought of something to say 10 minutes later, she would slap me."

Lagerfeld insists he was "born with a pencil in [his] hand" but never had teachers for drawing -- only for English, French and German. "By six I could speak English barely perhaps, but [well enough so that] people could understand, and French and German. So [my] parents were not too scared I was a truly hopeless case."

Lagerfeld said his first experiences with fashion involved the history of costume. "I wanted to become an illustrator, so I studied every book of costume from any kind of period and tried to make illustrations." Eventually he ended up in fashion, though he was concerned there wasn't much money in it. "It was hard to imagine someone could make a decent living in this business. Fashion now is something completely different; then it was not at all trendy to be in fashion. But I was always interested in what people would wear, I loved clothes."

Lagerfeld recalled his first big break in fashion: winning the 1954 International Wool Secretariat prize at the age of 21 for his sketch of a coat, which was chosen out of 200,000 entries. (Interestingly, Yves Saint Laurent won another of the three prizes that year, for his sketch of a dress). As part of the prize, the French couturier Pierre Balmain produced Lagerfeld's coat -- and then invited him to join his couture practice as an assistant, sketching. Lagerfeld said his parents were encouraging.

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Lagerfeld worked for Balmain for three and a half years before he was asked to become art director at the house of another French couturier, Jean Patou, where he remained for five years. "I was tired of being an assistant; I wasn't born to be an assistant," Lagerfeld said of his move. "If you are an assistant endlessly there is no hope."

By Lagerfeld's account, life in fashion was easy in the late '50s and early '60s. In those days, a designer could do 60 dresses a year and nothing else. (Lagerfeld, by contrast, runs at present three fashion companies -- Chanel, Fendi and his own namesake -- and also produces photography and film.) "I was bored to death," he said, acknowledging that life at the time was also pleasurable, with "nice cars and lots of holidays. I went out at night and danced a lot. I was a ballroom dancing champion and things."

In the '60s Lagerfeld -- like the rest of the fashion world -- started to realize that French couture no longer represented the future of fashion, and so he began working on ready-to-wear at Chloe, where he stayed on-and-off for 20 years.

When he joined Chanel in 1983, Lagerfeld said he was warned not to touch it. "Now people are good at revivals, but those days when a label [was] dead, it was supposed to be dead forever, there was no [chance] of coming back," Lagerfeld said. "When someone says don't do it, it's hopeless, then I think it's interesting. Apparently it worked."

Lagerfeld said he still sketches all of his designs for Chanel, and keeps a sketchbook near his bed. "Lots of designers these days don't sketch anymore," Lagerfeld said. "They have studios [or] do it with a computer. I do everything myself because I like physically the work of sketching." Lagerfeld said he also sketches cartoons, most of which he has to circulate, "as they say, under the coat."

One might wonder why Lagerfeld, whose brand is nearly as large as the design houses he works for, doesn't put more weight behind his own namesake label -- which, by the way, is in a far lower price category than Fendi and Chanel. "I am not obsessed by my name, I don't care," Lagerfeld insisted. "What I like is a job. The ego trip, that comes later."

He added that few designers have the money -- and thus the opportunities -- that a company like Chanel or LVMH provides. Part of what he enjoys about his own company, as well as the collaboration he took part of with H&M, is the opportunity to create clothes that are more accessibly priced. "Today all can be well-designed," he said. "What makes [a] difference is the materials. Modern clothes should not be too expensive. When I'm doing couture I have another mind and brain than when I do ready-to-wear. I cannot say one is better or worse than the other, they are completely different."

Perhaps the most enjoyable part of the interview -- for me, at least -- was when Lagerfeld discussed his love of literature and silent film, the latter he and Chastain share an interest in. He was hesitant to delve into it at first: "It's bad for this conversation. I don't want to look like a cultivated intellectual, [the audience wants] a fashion person." Lagerfeld said his personal library numbers more than 300,000 volumes. He is particularly fond of fiction and poetry: Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Racine, Balzac, Rilke. His favorite film is The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, a German silent horror film made in 1920. "One life is never enough for everything, [there's] so much I like," he said.

Lagerfeld made some interesting comments on the role of the red carpet and Photoshop in today's fashion landscape. "The red carpet is not fashion; it's always the same silhouette," Lagerfeld observed. "Fashion is something else than the red carpet, but the red carpet is a part of our world, our fashion world… It [can be] a little too much sometimes. [You] see these amazing fishtail dresses... going in to see movies about poor girls in Eastern Europe, there's something a little shocking about it." As for Photoshop: "[We are] easily in a period of over-retouching," Lagerfeld said. "Some models [end up] look[ing] as if they are coming out of a funeral parlor, all life taken out of the face, I hate that." Amen.

It wouldn't be a proper Lagerfeld interview without a mention of his cat, Choupette. The designer told a charming story about how he came to own her. By his account, it was a friend who adopted Choupette when she wasn't yet three months old. The friend asked Lagerfeld if one of the people in his house (or rather, houses -- Lagerfeld has two in Paris alone) could take care of her. "When he came back I said, 'Choupette will stay.'" The audience crooned. "She's helped me to become a nicer person," he added. "There's something very touching about her. Even if she is spoiled beyond."