When Karl Lagerfeld took over at Chanel thirty years ago the iconic fashion house was struggling, the economy was in crisis and the brand’s owner said his expectations were low.  Three decades later and Chanel has never been in better shape, thanks to the man they call the Count of Rue Cambon. Kate Finnigan reports.

[dropcap size=small]O[/dropcap]n the evening I meet Karl Lagerfeld there is rain all over Europe, even in Paris. Outside the Chanel headquarters on the rue Cambon the pavement is slick and silver, the sky above a moody pewter. Up in his studio on the fourth floor, Chanel’s head designer and couturier of 30 years wears a petrol-blue jacket. “When the weather is so bad you need to be in colour,” he says. I tell him I had expected him to be in his signature black. “Expect the unexpected,” he says. His voice, with its distinct native German accent, skitters over consonants and vowels like roller-skates on gravel.
It would be hard to distinguish between sentences if he didn’t punctuate each phrase with a questioning “uh?” Written, this perhaps sounds rude, but in person it comes across as inclusive, an invitation to agree. Of course, the wait has been something. A 5pm appointment with Lagerfeld is merely an opening bid. “The day people don’t wait for you,” he has said, “I have to disappear.” So there is an hour or so in a café across the road and many warnings against optimism. It will be some time yet. Karl has two couture fittings.

Lagerfeld gives a final touch to a model in January 1983, during the first that Lagerfeld designed for the house

Lagerfeld gives a final touch to a model in January 1983, during the first that Lagerfeld designed for the house

There’s another hour in the press showroom, where I sit among white orchids and admire the exquisite wools and tweeds of the Paris-Edimbourg Métiers d’Arts collection that is heading to the opening of the three-storey new London flagship in Bond Street. There are drawers of gigantic pearl necklaces and clutch bags to ogle. I try on the same style of white sunglasses Emma Watson recently wore in Cannes, examine clothes put aside for Tilda Swinton. Seven o’clock comes, goes. Karl has a dinner, I am told. The interview will have to be quick. I am ushered to a corridor and stare into the painted cartoon features of Coco Chanel.

Lagerfeld’s studio lies on the other side of the wall. Madame Cécile, the head of one of the ateliers, comes past, her arms heavy with folds of white fabric. She is nodding, smiling. It’s time. The annexe of the studio is a white room with icy, translucent doors. Monochrome portraits from last year’s Little Black Jacket book line the walls.

I sit at a silver table. Light footsteps approach. I’m about to meet the Pope. The ghost of Michael Jackson. Wittgenstein. With a delicate shuffle, he appears, shakes hands, apologises fervently. He is extraordinary: a foreign diplomat on a deputation from the future. The blue jacket, black leather trousers, a white-collared blue and white striped shirt with matching tie, a round blue and gold pin. The frames of his dark glasses and his leather fingerless gloves are also blue. His hair is snowy white, powdered. His skin is made up, his features rubbery, his lips moist. He sits down. Closer than you would think. In 1913, 100 years ago, Coco Chanel opened a shop in Deauville, the fashionable resort in Normandy.

Last month in Singapore, before he presented his latest Chanel cruise collection subtly inspired by the young designer, there was a screening of the Lagerfeld-directed film, Once Upon A Time, an 18-minute black-and-white snapshot of this period. The actress Keira Knightley, the face of Chanel’s Coco Mademoiselle scent, plays Coco the shopkeeper, and a host of beautiful actresses and models and Chanel associates her customers.

“It was the idea that Chanel, before she became the famous mademoiselle, was a kind of light-hearted, kept woman,”

says Lagerfeld, who is perfectly friendly. “To show a freer, younger, fresher side, not the lesson-giving, finger up [he wags his forefinger] you see. Uh?” Far from being the grande dame, Lagerfeld’s Chanel is a chancer, an opportunist – a word he often uses of himself – picking up titbits of style from other women and adopting them as leitmotifs for what will become known the world over as the Chanel look. Strings of pearls, jersey fabric, men’s tailoring, short hair, sportswear, head-to-toe black? Good ideas, she’ll take the lot! It is a typically spirited vision by Lagerfeld who, from the very start of his tenure at the house, introduced a wit and cheekiness to Chanel that brought back its youthfulness. Yes, he seems to wink, it is a big important house, but it is fashion, not a museum, it is fun, not a history seminar. It must entertain and charm as well as beautifully clothe, otherwise it will not appeal to the young as well as the old, which is the only way a fashion house can continue to remain relevant (and make a considerable profit). And so here we have Coco pilfering ideas from Stella Tennant’s Lady de Grey.

Top model Inès de la Fressange and Lagerfeld discusses designs in March 1987

Top model Inès de la Fressange and Lagerfeld discusses designs in March 1987

“But that’s the story,” Lagerfeld says. “There is nothing invented. It was like this. Lady de Grey, who used to wear men’s clothes, entered the shop. The men’s underwear fabric? Jacqueline Forzane [the Swedish actress] used to wear clothes like this.” He finds the daring and arrogance of these belle-époque women amusing and fascinating and can relate much detail of their lives. “Research?” he hisses, when I make the mistake of uttering such a word.

“I don’t do research. I know everything that has happened. I know for 30 years, my dear. I have a very good memory for the unnecessary thing.”

But for the young and coquettish Chanel, Knightley was his girl. “Keira was genius, no? I work well with her. Very easy. Keira has zero problem in her way of behaving and she knows everybody.” He did not like Audrey Tautou’s performance when she played Chanel in the 2009 film Coco Before Chanel and is very rude about her. Tautou was also ‘the face of’ Chanel No 5 and judging by the horrified expressions of the press team Lagerfeld is not speaking for the brand. But he continues. “Oh, the movie was bad. She played it like women’s lib, like Simone de Beauvoir 30 years before The Second Sex. No, no, no, no. Chanel was a different kind of woman. Keira had it. She is a young woman in love, not a spinster.”

When Knightley married in France last month she wore a frothy short Chanel dress, with flat Chanel ballet pumps, instantly setting a trend for a new style of impromptu bride. “But it is very simple,” says Lagerfeld, dismissing any suggestion of praise for the dress. “She had the least pretentious wedding ever. The whole thing was relaxed. I think it’s perfect. After all, they lived together for quite a time. It’s not as if she is a young girl of 18 who sees the husband for the first time. She is not a country girl. Yes,’ he concludes (thankfully), ‘I liked the light-heartedness of this wedding.’

Karl Lagerfeld, who earlier this year told Paris Match he was born in 1935, making him 77 years old, for some time now has been one of the most famous designers in the world, his image – high collar, white hair, black glasses – conjured by the mere sound of his name, his bonkers aphorisms and witty snipes making instant headlines. With Lagerfeld in charge the light bulbs around the name became luminous once more. Haute couture, ready-to-wear, accessories – he had the golden touch. And then in the early years of the new millennium, as the Internet made fashion and luxury both more accessible and more desirable, the most famous fashion brand in the world became a superbrand. As did its designer, with his body-shrinking diet and monochrome style (easy to forget he didn’t always look or dress this way). And so now…

“Now I am doing what I do and I can do it in divine condition. That is the top of luxury. I can do what I want because when I started with Chanel the owner said, “I don’t believe in it that much, so if it works, OK, if not, I sell it.”

But it worked all right (Chanel is owned by the Wertheimer family, so results are not revealed, but its wealth is assumed to exceed all other houses) and in the process changed the face of fashion, igniting an interest in old labels. “In a way, I invented a kind of blueprint for this kind of revival,” he says. “Gucci came later and the others all started later. For that I was the first. Not that it is important to be the first. What is important is that it works.” And continues to.

A model presents a creation by Karl Lagerfeld during the Chanel Autumn-Winter 2001/2002

A model presents a creation by Karl Lagerfeld during the Chanel Autumn-Winter 2001/2002

It is today’s not yesterday’s achievements that interest Lagerfeld. His personal past? Boring. Sentimentality about childhood? “A cliché and commonplace,” he says. Today there is no mention of his redoubtable mother or the Mitford-esque upbringing in Germany. “I love everything I have not known. Everything I knew does not interest me. Because I remember. Even if I make an effort to forget.” He laughs.

“There is a very famous Jewish-German dictum that I love: There is no credit on the past. So I’d better work now, uh?” Time and again in interviews Lagerfeld goes back to Coco Chanel’s mistake in dismissing miniskirts and blue jeans, not moving with the times. “If you think it was better before, you make of your present a second-rate stuff,” he says. “There are things you might like, not like, but it’s up to me to adapt my life, my personality, what I like about my job, to today’s life. And if not I couldn’t be in fashion.” (For the record, though he’s big on technology, two modern things he doesn’t like: Facebook and Twitter. “They lose a lot of time these people, and they become stupid because they nearly tell you they’re going to the bathroom, eh?”) Why it is so important that he keep up this brilliant, exhausting dance for fashion is anyone’s guess, but you’re not going to get Lagerfeld to analyse it. How he does it, the sheer amount of work, he also refuses to marvel at.

For Chanel alone he does seven annual collections, including couture, all on a scale never less than mind-blowing, as well as designing for Fendi and his own label, his many photographic projects and a publishing imprint, 7L, with Steidl. “Appetite comes when you eat, no?” he says. ‘The brain is a muscle and the more you do, the better it is. I don’t believe in endless vacation, waiting for inspiration. No, I work for the garbage can. It doesn’t look OK, phuut, I do it again, no?” He has become a harder worker “with time”, he says. His method appears to be a process of stripping away the personal and social until he becomes only pure creativity: a hand sketching, an imagination whirring.

“When you are younger you have other priorities [that] you get rid of and so you are free for your work and the things that really interest you. You are less bothered by other people. You don’t have to go out,” he says. “You don’t have to lose your time.” Unfortunately, tonight he does. It is still raining when I leave Chanel, passing Lagerfeld’s black and silver Rolls-Royce parked outside. A few minutes later, stopped at traffic lights in a car of my own, I look back and see the Rolls behind us. It turns off through the downpour, through the city, towards another group of people waiting for Karl Lagerfeld. More stories like this are available in Quintessentially Asia.