Paradise now : the extraordinary life of Karl Lagerfeld

It is not necessary to be interested in the world of haute couture to find this biography of Karl Largerfeld compelling and engrossing. The creative genius of Karl Lagerfeld is the magnetic star that will captivate you. His childhood interests were drawing and painting until a fateful December, 1949 when, "The house of Christian Dior traveled from Paris to the still-destroyed city of Hamburg to stage a series of fashion shows," and the teenage Karl declared, "I am leaving to become a fashion designer in Paris." So began his career as a fashion designer, but that was not the only passionate interest for this highly charged, enigmatic artist. There would always be fashion design, but his other active pursuits and work included photography, graphic design, fine book publishing (with Gerhard Steidl), book collecting, film making, interior design, and the extravagant fashion shows that required the work of skilled artists and craftspeople (carpenters, landscapists, flower designers, painters, sculptors, engineers).

Back in 2005, a mini-series, Signé Chanel, was on cable television. Snippets of it can be found on YouTube, and are well worth casting about. In part the series focused on the inner workings of putting together an haute couture collection when working for and with Karl Lagerfeld. Director Loïc Prigent illuminated the work that took place in the Chanel atelier and why bespoke clothing (not necessarily those from collections) can be so costly, and must be a joy to wear. The filming of the behind-the-scenes work of the seamstresses is truly an homage to the artistry of what they do. The spotlight on Karl Lagerfeld was evidence of his innate eye for perfection. That eye for perfection and an intense personality, are what he had in common with Chanel. According to James Brady of WWD (Women’s Wear Daily), “The best time to be a Chanel-watcher was when she was actually making a collection. Just when a suit or dress looked perfect to you, Chanel ripped off a sleeve …” In this series Karl never ripped out anything, but he carefully examined sections of a finished piece of clothing, as worn by a model, and rapidly stated what needed to be corrected by the atelier seamstresses. His unerring eye and drive for perfection are documented and validated in this biography.

In this meticulously researched and elegantly written biography William Middleton takes us into the life of Karl Lagerfeld, personal and professional. He was a polymath and autodidact who was an omnivorous reader and easily acquired several languages. His energy and focus were legendary and late in life he was creating haute couture collections for several major fashion houses all at the same time. Karl was a gay man, but claimed he was at heart a prude.The great love of his life was Jacques de Bascher with whom he lived from 1971 until his death in 1989. He was a wit, a punster (in several languages and could interweave them together) and he was in charge, of himself and his empire of companies. Quite often he said that the creation of fashion is not a democratic endeavor--someone is in charge creating and making decisions.  A shrewd businessman, he knew what was going on in the world of finance and who was trying to gain control over the companies he had built and controlled.  And, he was a discerning and outspoken critic from his earliest days, unflinching and unsparing in his precise criticism about everything and everyone, especially those who were fashion competitors. For Karl, whose creative energy was inseparable from life itself, retirement was not a choice. “I spend my time thinking that I could be doing better. That is what keeps me moving forward–perpetual, personal dissatisfaction. And I consider boredom a crime.” And part of that ethos was a very realistic view of life itself, “I don’t care about posterity. Just don’t care. It won’t do anything for me. It’s today that counts: paradise now!” Based on that clear, precise view, at the end of his life he would never succumb to anything maudlin. There was no formal funeral or burial. His ashes were scattered at various locations.