There is something magical about a biography written in a firm style and meticulously researched. There are so many bad books published at the moment, like the completely superficial text on Carlos de Beistegui, that William Middleton’s “Paradise Now, the extraordinary life of Karl Lagerfeld” is a miraculous treasure. The author, whom I discovered with “Double Vision“, an extensive study of the De Mesnil’s partnership and collections, published exactly five years ago, moved to Paris to research the life of the couturier whom he had repeatedly met when he was running W and Women’s Wear daily’s Paris bureau. The beginning of the book is focused on Karl’s childhood, family andlove for 18 th century and his immense culture. The first 100 pages are totally riveting with a detailed description of his move to Paris and his first years in couture at Cours Norero.
One of the rare couturiers to have read Bossuet’s sermons and Princesse Palatine’s letters extensively, Karl Lagerfeld (1933-2019) was raised in Hamburg by a fierce mother and a successful father who spoke nine languages, imported condensed milk from Carnation Milk in San Francisco, and learned to produce dehydrated milk in Germany and in France. He had traveled alone to South America at 16. Both parents were catholics. Being born in 1933, on one of the most tragic years in the XX th century, when Hitler became Chancellor and founded the Third Reich, he changed his birth date to 1938 in later life. Middleton analyses his relationship to the past in a very interesting way and notes him saying when interviewed on his love for the 18 th century: “I prefer living in the Third Millennium rather than in the 18 th or the 19 th century, which I hate or the 20 th century which was fine. I prefer today.”
And this is what makes the book so fun. Based on meticulous research in Germany and in France (the author had access to all the Chanel archives), the book is full of quotes from TV, radio and live interviews with Karl and his entourage. His editor at Harper, Sara Nelson, told him ” We want to feel like we are in the same room with Karl” and this is exactly how we feel in the first chapter when the author describes his 71 st birthday party at Bethy Lagardère’s in 2004.
We learn about his shirts made by Hilditch and Key and his later suits (after he thinned down) by Hedi Slimane for Dior. We learn that he always hated being a child “My childhood desire was to no longer be a child” and requested that his parents buy him a copy of a painting by Adolph Menzel of “Frederick the Great in Sans Souci” for Christmas in 1945, when he was 12! “The scene showed the Prussian king and his guests, most with white whigs, wearing dark waistcoats and engaged in spirited conversations”, writes the author. “This aristocratic intellectual scene offered Karl his first glimpse of a world, the eighteenth century, which would fascinate him all his life”.
Every time, he finds a lead, Middleton researches other historical events and enlarges our vision of the couturiers’ world in an extraordinary way with descriptions of the party he gave at 51 rue de l’université, the Pozzo di Borgo hotel where he rented different apartments. Among the photographies, we see an early drawing of 1942 of himself taking a nap in a room with flowered fabric and a bed table covered in books. One of the rare mistakes I spotted in the writing is the caption of himself and his bodyguard wearing a morning coat in Monaco. It is stated that he attends a “royal wedding” when the Princes de Monaco are anything but royal.
There are of course many pages devoted to fashion shows, contracts with Chloé, Fendi, and with Chanel, where his former assistant, Virginie Viard, replaced him and Marie Louise de Clermont Tonnerre occupied a special place next to him till the end. His mother who came to live in Paris with him after her husband died is also very interesting. Of him, Marc Fumaroli, the brilliant French intellectual who wrote “When the World spoke French” (Ed. de Fallois, 2001), said of him: “I have never met a man as cultivated as Karl”. Pages on his passion, his break up and make up again with model Inès de la Fressange are well recounted with a live interview on the French news led by Hervé Claude.
At the book signing at Librairie 7L, Karl’s former bookstore and shooting studio, Madame Morero’s daughter, Christiane, was present: she wore Karl’s first gown at her wedding on October 7, 1954, designed when he was studying fashion with her mother. He studied at this little fashion school while St Laurent and other future stars attended the Ecole française de Haute Couture. In 1954, he won the Woolmark prize for a cocktail coat he designed the same year YSL won for dress. He was living near the Sorbonne at the time, wore a Pierre Cardin tie and already sent Lachaume bouquets of flowers… He had a passion for flowers and sent an Eiffel Tower made of blue, white and red flowers to the Macrons when Emmanuel was elected.
I could go on and on quoting marvelous excerpts of the book but have no space here. You will have to discover its protagonists by yourself like Patrick Hourcade, who oversaw the decor of his numerous houses and bought with him his precious furniture or Diane de Beauvau Craon who loved Jacques de Bascher (his only real love). We learn that he fell out with Laure de Beauvau, president of Sotheby’s at the time, because she canceled under a false pretext a dinner with him and it resulted in him turning to Christie’s for his Monte Carlo sale. One detail at the end saddened me: he disliked Azzedine Alaïa and mocked him…
One good news is that the author will remain and live in Paris. I hope he finds another French top to write on!
The book (35$) is available at 7L (7 rue de Lille) and at Galignani‘s where he bought all his books on a daily basis (224 rue de Rivoli). And everywhere else on the net of course.
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