HATS OFF TO KARL
BY INGRID SISCHY
« I still don't know exactly who I am, » wrote Gordon Parks about his multiple creative identities. « I've disappeared into myself so many different ways that I don't know who me is. » Of course he knew exactly who he was. He defied categorization and was a boundary-busting, barrier-breaking, beacon. If ever there was the perfect recipient for a Photographer's Award in Gordon Park's name, on a night when creativity is the theme, it is Karl Lagerfeld - the man who wears more hats, or fascinators, than they just had at Kate and William's wedding.
Here's an abridged list of some of the ways that Lagerfeld gets more out of a day (and often it's the night too) than anyone I know. Creative director and resident genius fashion designer, at Chanel for 29 years, Fendi for more than 40 years - a world record - and Lagerfeld, the house that bares his name. Artist who sketches with the natural ease of a true talent. Author who writes with the knowledge of the world's libraries. Publisher who helps keep alive the art of book making. Filmmaker, who is creating the glamorous version of a Cassavetes-like atmosphere by casting his friends and chosen family. Actor-ex-Warhol superstar and current leading man in the many Lagerfeld documentaries that are popping up. Wit - who is every interviewer and writer's dream, he is so quotable, and deliciously wicked. Collector, who has an eye for design that is as sharp as they come. Interior designer - who makes most of the professionals look like sheep. Letter writer - who would have impressed even Elizabeth Bishop, one of his favorite authors. Advertising’s go-to secret weapon - one who shoots the campaigns for not just his own houses, like Chanel and Fendi, but the competition too, and he also gets a Warholian kick out of creating an aura for all things popular - from Coca-Cola to ice-cream. Tired yet? Karl's not. He’d modestly say he’s just getting started. And if you congratulate him on any of it, he’d answer, « But that doesn't make the next one. »
Which leads to his bond with photography. It is his lighthouse - he always goes back to it, whether it's architecture, landscapes, portraiture, fashion, still life, etc. When other fashion designers are kicking back after a days work, a show, or a long season, Karl is almost always off doing a photo-shoot, for an underground magazine, or a powerful glossy, or a campaign, or a personal project he has assigned to himself. We became friends over our mutual obsession with photography. He had looked at every photography book that had ever been printed and still does.
Our first conversations were a long time ago - when Karl had just begun to pick up the camera for real. What was striking about his first pictures was that they had an instant sense of weight, probably from all the looking at photographs he had done over the years, and they also had his own voice. Mountains of books, stories, assignments, and campaigns later, this is still true. Watching Karl photograph says it all. I have been with him on shoots in the streets of New York, Paris, Los Angeles, and Tokyo. Each time enormous crowds have gathered, and traffic jams have clogged up matters, with fans gaping at the
pony-tailed icon with high white collars and sunglasses, calling out, « We love you Karl. » Always polite and always slightly startled by his fame, he looks up and thanks them, but then gets right back to work. Nothing can break the spell.
Karl doesn't just reserve the sense of magic for his own work. Last night when he arrived in New York we had dinner together, with some friends. He immediately wanted to show us a rare portfolio, from 1914, that he'd just tracked down in France, designed by Paul Iribe, with text by a number of writers, including Auguste Rodin and Jean Cocteau, and photographs by Baron de Meyer, of the ballet, « Prelude of the Afternoon of a Faun », starring Nijinsky. There are only six copies of it left in the world. After we'd all looked at it and marveled over its sophisticated design, the beauty of the graphics, the tenderness of the paper, the printing of the photographs, and the romance of the photographs we got into a debate about whether a facsimile should be made from it. Karl said, « I love it so much that I can't bear to be without it - even for the hours it would need to be out of my hands. » One day there will be people out there saying the same thing about Karl's photographic work. In fact they are already.
Photo: Karl Lagerfeld and Anna Mouglalis at the Gordon Parks Dinner and Auction in New York on June 1st