When Alicia Drake’s book about fashion in the ‘70s hit the stores in 2006, Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld was not pleased. In The Beautiful Fall: Fashion, Genius and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris, Drake looked at that decade’s fashion milieu through the prism of Lagerfeld and his rival Yves Saint Laurent, two designers who skyrocketed to fame in the ‘70s.
Her conclusion? Lagerfeld, who refused to grant Drake an interview, was the pragmatist to Saint Laurent’s romantic. Although Drake did a marvelous job of balancing the respective geniuses of Lagerfeld and Saint Laurent, word in fashion circles was that she faced a possible lawsuit from Lagerfeld, the designer who was used to controlling his and his multimillion-dollar brand’s images.
Instead of a lawsuit, or perhaps as the prelude to one, the House of Chanel commissioned
, a documentary directed by Rodolphe Marconi, who, in between interviewing the designer and following him around the world as he hobnobbed with the beautiful people, revealed Lagerfeld as a brilliant if prickly documentary subject who balanced the yin of marketing pragmatism with the yang of fashion fantasy.
If it’s an uncensored look into the world of Lagerfeld you’re after, the inaptly named
is not for you. (Lagerfeld barely allows the cameraperson to film him without sunglasses, or before he’s done his hair, which leads to absurdly touching moments like watching Lagerfeld read magazines indoors with his sunglasses on or shooing away the camera when it captures him in the morning before his hair, makeup and sunglasses are on.)
The documentary is like a fashion image: its portrait of Lagerfeld has removed glaring imperfections while retaining some just to keep the image natural looking. In the end,
feels like a carefully controlled peek into the life of a talented and controlling artist.
In one scene, Lagerfeld photographs an impossibly beautiful naked male model with a fur skin on his lap, bathed by the golden light of morning outside a chateau on a mountain. In another, he’s having cocktails with Princess Caroline of Monaco. In yet another over-the-top glam scene, he and Nicole Kidman, a Chanel spokesmodel, get mobbed by the paparazzi after a fashion show.
Maybe this really is just a day in the life of “The Kaiser”, as Lagerfeld is sometimes called, and I’m just jealous. The viewer does get the sense, though, that Lagerfeld is largely being filmed in the best light (literally), and that images of him that did not suit his carefully constructed persona ended up on Marconi’s editing floor.
It is Lagerfeld’s conversations with Marconi that are most revealing, though, and boy does Lagerfeld like to talk. Say what you will about the imperious designer, but you could do worse than to be stuck sitting next to him at a dinner party. Droll, hip (for a septuagenarian) and endlessly erudite (he has a huge library in his chateau, probably one of many), Lagerfeld has enough opinions and aphorisms to rival Oscar Wilde.
But all of Lagerfeld’s spin cannot hide the impact his cold and haughty mother had on his withholding personality and his interest in the world of fashion. Even those who loathe armchair psychology will find it hard not to see that Lagerfeld doth protest too much about the mother whom, when he was a child, blamed him for enticing adult sexual interest from other men, withheld physical affection, and who once told him as a six-year-old “to make an effort or shut up.”
It’s no wonder Lagerfeld seems to have empathy for those outside the fashion world; he seems able to be both the consummate insider and the person on the outside looking in. In one scene, he looks on appreciatively at the seamstresses who sew his fanciful designs, saying respectfully, “I admire what they do. I couldn’t do it myself. I just come up with these ideas.”
While models are practicing on the runway for a Chanel show in their ordinary street wear (looking more dazzling than movie stars), Lagerfeld is heard saying, “They aren’t jobs that fit any criteria of social justice. It’s like cinema. Lots of boys and girls want to do it but only a few make it…To do this job, you must be able to accept injustice…If you want social justice, be a civil servant. Fashion is ephemeral, dangerous, and unfair.”
All in all,
makes Lagerfeld a sympathetic figure, but probably not in the way the designer wished. As much as Lagerfeld wants to portray himself as icily above it all, ironically distant, and playing along with fashion while in on the joke, he ultimately comes across as a poignant (not pitiable) character, who is probably too smart for his, or fashion’s, own good.
The DVD extras are outtakes from the film, which will be as interesting to the fashion fan as the scenes that made the cut.