As the Met Costume Institute prepares to launch its Spring exhibition, Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty, Natasha A. Fraser - who worked with Lagerfeld over several decades and co-produced a BBC documentary about him - shares personal reflections, recalling a creative genius, master of disguise and loyal, generous friend.

In the days before his death, in February 2019, Karl Lagerfeld was sketching and preparing his final shows for Chanel and Fendi. There cannot be a better way for a fashion genius to end a 65-year career, and the 85-year-old sure went out on a high. But, like Andy Warhol, Karl Lagerfeld (1933-2019) almost had to disappear for people to realize just how prolific and extraordinary he truly was – ever witty, poignant and present.

After all, let’s not forget that, in 1983, the Hamburg-born designer - already a star after designing groundbreaking collections for Chloe and Fendi, among others - blew in, transformed the then-staid house of Chanel (struggling after the death of Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel) and kept the fashion world guessing until the very end.
All this came to the fore when co-producing The Mysterious Mr. Lagerfeld, a feature-length documentary for BBC2. I was, once again, with the award-winning dream team of co-producer, Lorraine McKechnie, and director, Michael Waldman, with whom I teamed up for Inside Dior – a two-part series for Channel 4 in 2017 – but this felt different. This was Karl (as well as Karl’s lawyer, Karl’s cat and Karl’s niece, unseen for 50 years).

Re-watching footage, I was reminded how funny and frank Karl was – spontaneous, in the moment - and further struck by his Teutonic work ethic. He liked to say, “Fashion has to be fun, otherwise what’s the point?” But maintaining such lightness of spirit required energy and time. Making fashion look easy is tremendously difficult.
For two years, from late 1989, Karl - who by then had also launched his eponymous label -was my boss in the Chanel Studio. And though he later teased, “you spent your life on the telephone” (true, while he was accessorizing the Super Models, I was yacking to my pals), I did notice that he was an exalted editor. At Chanel, much was created - like 80 taffeta camellias matching Linda Evangelista’s eyes - and never used. For each collection, Karl had a laser-like eye that separated the must-haves items from their dispensable counterparts.

A killer fashion show has to be armed by unique and daring creative vision, and Karl always possessed that too. Part of this was being passionately present, endlessly imaginative and always willing to take risks, and part of it was his inner discipline, aware that fashion needs to evolve with each season.
Though not a Karl intimate, we shared respect and trust, both of us requiring that ironclad need for loyalty. And Karl probably sensed that I was secretly batting for his team. Our relationship further strengthened when I joined W Magazine, followed by US Harper’s Bazaar. “Miss Natasha, you’re like family,” he would say.

And Karl was his ever-generous self, giving diamonds at my wedding, sending vast bouquets to mark the birth of my twin daughters, and being duly furious when I was fired from Harper's Bazaar in 2004. “Who do those people think they are?” he asked. When loyal to Karl, he defined supportive.

However, it was from 2005 onwards, when I was covering Chanel’s Cruise and Métiers d’Art collections, that we became professionally closer. Across the globe, whether it was Havana, Shanghai, Tokyo, Seoul, Miami or Salzburg, I would have Karl on camera or pen articles for countless publications. It was his final chapter (he was secretly in his 70s, famously evasive about his age), but it felt as if his foot was on the gas pedal.
After losing 45 kilos and auctioning off his 18th-century furniture collection (“get rid of your belongings before they get rid of you,” he quipped), the newly trim Karl had a sensational new lease of life. This turned him, Chanel and the Italian house of Fendi - he remained with Fendi Rome until his death - into Uber powers.

The internet helped too; Karl understood the relevance of social media before anyone. Always late by several hours, but always au courant (reading four newspapers before breakfast and spending hundreds of thousands on books every year), Karl had the imagination and culture, and was unusual for being quotable in four languages.

In his final decade at Chanel, it felt as if Karl’s sensational Grand Palais shows were the ultimate luxury brand experience. There was a space rocket, a vast forest, a beach, a Mediterranean villa, a double-C supermarket and a winter wonderland - his very last show, for Fall/Winter 2019 - but there was always clear intention behind them.
Personally, I preferred his travelling collections because they were exclusive and felt more Karl than fashion, layered with his incomparable historical details. After Chanel’s Paris-Edinburgh collection (2012), held at Linlithgow Palace, my eyes welled up due to the pithy and exquisite, historical references. Karl caught it all – Mary Queen of Scots, Culloden, the clans and of course Gabrielle Chanel’s love of lowland tweed.

On another occasion, when he combined Paris-Venise Cruise (2009) with a contemporary commedia dell’arte, unveiled on the Lido at the stroke of dusk, even the cynical were moved. And Karl himself was visibly moved and surprised when, after showing Paris-Hamburg (2017) at the new Elbphilarmonie Concert Hall, he was given a standing ovation by his fellow Germans. For in spite of every fashion accolade, and of course there were so many, Karl Otto Lagerfeld remained disarmingly humble until the end. It was part of his greatness.

Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty opens at The Metropolitan Museum of Art - The Met Costume Institute's Spring 2023 exhibition - on 5 May 2023 and runs until 16 July 2023.

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