Paradise Now: The Extraordinary Life Of Karl Lagerfeld
By William Middleton
Harper; hardcover, 480 pages; $35.00
William Middleton is a Paris-based cultural writer who has been the fashion features director for Harper's Bazaar and the Paris bureau chief for Fairchild Publications, overseeing W and Women's Wear Daily. He is also the author of Double Vision, the first biography of Franco-American art patrons and collectors Dominique and John de Menil, which was honored as one of the best books of the decade by ARTnews.
Middleton knew Lagerfeld from his time working in Paris, and he interviewed and socialized with Lagerfeld, coming to see a side of the designer, who passed away in 2019, that was kept private from the world.
Lagerfeld's incredible life began in Hamburg, when he was born on September 10, 1933, although he was known to shave five years off his age, which meant that he was not sixteen when he won his first big fashion prize in 1954, but really twenty-one. He was heavily influenced when he first arrived in Paris by Christian Dior, and Middleton provides insights into the delicate balance Lagerfeld had to deal with as a German in France so soon after World War II.
In January 1955, Lagerfeld started working for the house of Pierre Balmain, before he moved on to Jean Patou, which was launched between the world wars, in 1958. After five years at Patou, he felt like he was not connected to the new mood in Paris fashion and was not feeling challenged in haute couture. He then became a prolific free agent, designing for French, Italian, and Japanese firms. Within months, he joined a team of designers at the ready-to-wear house of Chloe, which was founded in 1952 by Gaby Aghion, who came from a cosmopolitan Jewish family in Alexandria, Egypt.
That move to Chloe was when Lagerfeld - known for his signature look of dark sunglasses and a powdered white ponytail - began his ascent, and would also create constant fashion at Fendi and his own eponymous brand, and reinvent Chanel. He became legendary for this, and for his deep devotion to his cat, Choupette.
In Paradise Now, Middleton brings the reader behind the catwalk and into the most exclusive rooms in the fashion industry, and into a world of brilliantly talented artists, stylish socialites, and famous stars. Most intriguing, some of those featured here are the most elusive and unforgettable figures of fashion's inner circle for the past four decades.
In this excerpt, Middleton writes of Lagerfeld in the 21st century: "It was the fall of 2004 and Karl Lagerfeld was throwing everything into high gear. Karl, as most everyone called him, was just turning seventy-one, an age when his many fellow fashion designers were looking for an exit. Yves Saint Laurent, long perceived as his great rival, had retired two years before (and would die in 2008, when he, in turn, was seventy-one). Karl, however, was engineering a series of significant events, the first indication that he would be turbocharging the last fifteen years of his life.
By that time, he had already been in the public eye for fifty years. Karl was born and raised in and around Hamburg, the second-largest city in Germany, on the Elbe River just off the North Sea, an atmospheric port that was turned to face the world. As a teenager, he was given his parents' blessing to move to Paris, his emotional, intellectual, and spiritual home. Karl's slice of the French capital was quite concentrated, no more than a couple of square miles, on both sides of the Seine. His Paris extended from the Luxembourg Gardens and the Paris Saint-Sulpice, where he had his first apartments, to the Faubourg Saint-Germain, the aristocratic neighborhood where he lived for decades in a sequence of increasingly dramatic apartments, to the gilded streets around the Avenue Montaigne, where he began his career, to the top of the Champs-Elysees, where, with a view out onto the Arc de Triomphe, he launched his own fashion house, to the rue Cambon, the narrow street just behind the Hotel Ritz, the headquarters of Chanel, the historic house that he revolutionized, beginning in 1983, turning it into an international colossus that produced over $11 billion in annual sales. Within that enchanted slice of Paris, Karl ascended to the very top of the city's social, financial, and intellectual worlds, managing to make himself into one of the most remarkable cultural figures of recent decades.
The designer had first started revving up around the new millennium. He had settled a thorny case with the French tax authorities establishing that he had, in fact, been an official resident of Monaco but agreeing to pay taxes on his French income. For much of the '90s, he had been overweight, cloaking his gains in oversized black suits by avant-garde Japanese designers and concealing himself behind one of his longtime signatures, a large fan. Then, in the year 2000, he began a radical weight loss. He told everyone that he wanted to diet do that he would be able to wear the form-fitting designs of the hottest menswear designer around, Hedi Slimane for Cristian Dior, who also happened to be a younger man whom Karl found quite attractive. He ended up dropping ninety pounds in thirteen months. 'Like letting go of a parka of fat,' Karl said.
In those years, Karl would begin every day at 5:00 or 6:00 a.m., waking up in his eighteenth-century apartment and putting on a robe in white, starched cotton pique. As rigorous as he was about his work, he could be equally exacting about his appearance, often spending two hours very morning getting ready. His first task was to tie his shoulder-length black hair into a ponytail, which he had been doing since the late 1970s. 'My hair is too wavy, undisciplined, and it does not stay in place even when short,' he explained. 'The only way for me to be correct is to pull my hair back.' Only later, in the 1990s, did he turn his signature flourish white with a dusting of dry shampoo. After several hours of sketching every morning, in his office adjacent to his bedroom, Karl would go to his perfectly arranged closets to dress for the day. Newly trim, he began wearing his tailored suits, or jackets and skinny jeans, with white shirts with high collars that he had custom-made at Hilditch & Key. In September 2003, just after he turned seventy, Karl made one of his many appearances on French television with his sleek new look. The host suggested that, with his powdered hair and grand lifestyle, it was as though he were living in another century. 'I am both more simple and more modern than that,' he explained. 'I prefer living in the 3rd millennium, rather than the 18th century, or the 19th century, which I hate, or the 20th century, which was fine. I prefer today.'"