I t’s hard to know if Karl Lagerfeld is best known for reinventing the house of Chanel, wearing sunglasses indoors, or saying: “Sweatpants are a sign of defeat. You lost control of your life...” But known he is – the dark glasses and powdered ponytail – all over the world. From tote bags emblazoned with his instantly recognisable silhouette to tiny Tokidoki Karls hanging from taxi drivers’ mirrors, you still see his likeness everywhere. Karl certainly lives on, even though he died nearly three years ago. (We can only imagine what he would have to say about the sweatpant-focused nature of the recent pandemic period.)
In December, there will be plenty of reminders of his remarkable life and his deep love of art and design, when more than a thousand items from his estate go up for sale at Sotheby’s in Monaco and Paris, and later in Cologne. They include significant works, such as Marc Newson’s polished aluminium Zenith chair from 2003 and a 2014 portrait by Takashi Murakami, where Karl is superimposed on a floral ground. There will also be a Tokidoki Karl among the lots – embellished in crystals and extra large, at 25cm high; it did, after all, belong to the man himself; and also a Goyard trunk; an exquisite lacquered reindeer signed by the master of the art, Seizo Sugawara; and a pair of Aston Martin chrome dumbbells. Lagerfeld’s addiction to l’art de vivre was unwavering, even in the gym. It shows him as a collector, an artist, and an international icon with rockstar fame.
When he died in February 2019, Lagerfeld left several homes: apartments in the Rue des St Pères and on the Quai Voltaire in Paris; a large property in Monaco; and the countryside Pavillon des Voisins at Louveciennes, in the western suburbs of Paris. Before that there had been plenty more: the 17-hectare estate of Elhorria in Biarritz, with interiors by Jean-Michel Frank, and an Olympic-sized swimming pool heated to 31 degrees; the country house at Le Mée-sur-Seine in north-central France, furnished in Gustavian style; and an apartment in Rome filled with Eileen Gray furniture. Lagerfeld acquired a splendid Neo-Classical style mansion in Hamburg in 1991, named Villa Jako in honour of his one true love, Jacques de Bascher, who died in 1989 of Aids-related causes. Andrée Putman worked on that interior project, with the art conservator Renate Kant, but eventually, in 2018, Lagerfeld put it on the market, saying he couldn’t “go three steps in Germany”.
Lagerfeld was born in Hamburg, in 1933, but his complicated mother – she frequently told young Karl how he was not as beautiful as her, and brought about his life-long habit of wearing gloves by telling him his hands were too ugly to be seen – had been determined for her son to seek a
better life away from Germany as it succumbed to Nazi rule. Moving to Paris aged 17, he learned his fashion skills on the job, at the couturiers Pierre Balmain and Jean Patou, before setting his sights on a career in ready to wear, a freshly emerging sector in the early 1960s. Lagerfeld was already showing a knack for knowing what was going to come next. “He was ahead of his time,” said Alain Wertheimer, CEO of Chanel, after Lagerfeld’s death.
First of all, Lagerfeld applied his iconoclastic tendencies to the house of Fendi, turning the conservative fur company into a funky furrier from the mid-1960s onwards. Joining Chanel in 1983, he took it on a similar journey, running its heritage of tweed, pearls, black dresses, camellias and double Cs through his reinvention mill. An early 90s Peter Lindbergh image of a supermodel bouclé biker gang – Linda, Christy et al, togged in tweed minis, baker boy caps and heavy boots – says it all; camp, charismatic, cartoonish and yet classic, too.
“These objects are a tribute to Karl. We are representing his way of life, his transversal eye”
Meanwhile, Karl was shopping. He acquired almost the complete inventory of Memphis design, created in Milan in the 1980s – all brightly patterned laminates and geometric shapes – to furnish his Monte Carlo apartment, and then sold it all in a huge sale at Sotheby’s in 1991. He indulged an expansive passion for 18th-century French furniture, before largely emptying his Left Bank property in 2000. For Sotheby’s expert Pierre Mothes, it was his first major sale. “I ran the valuation of the collection, and spent quite some time with him,” says Mothes. “It took three weeks to move all the pieces, and then a truck arrived with new beds. From Ikea. I always remember Karl seeing them and saying, ‘Ikea! What fun!’”
Mothes is in charge of the latest sales. “They are a tribute to Karl,” he says. “We are representing his way of life, his transversal eye.”
Indeed, while Lagerfeld skipped around the decades and centuries, he remained dedicated to art deco design and later developed an unshakeable love for contemporary work, particularly by Marc Newson, Martin Szekely and Konstantin Grcic.
“It really was the materials and the lines that interested him,” says Clemence Krentowski, co-director of the Parisian contemporary design gallery, Kreo, who sold him around 300 works over 30 years. He would, she says, go to the gallery around twice a year, usually at the end of the working day, and sit chatting for several hours over a Diet Coke. “We were both addicted to Diet Coke,” laughs Krentowski. “And we both liked to drink it out of a normal glass, not a fancy crystal goblet. He had a public personality – super witty, sometimes a bit harsh. But in real life, he was kind and curious, like a good collector. Above all, he liked minimal things, radical things.”
Mothes agrees: “He was fascinated by the most contemporary designers, and their manufacturing techniques.”
Krentowski reveals that she occasionally had to refuse his requests. “He would love a show so much, he’d want to buy all the pieces,” she says, “and we’d have to say he couldn’t. We have other clients too!” Meanwhile Mothes tells how he found in one of Lagerfeld’s drawers 509 iPods – “all miniaturised, with the most sophisticated accessories bought at Colette, and crystallised docking stations” – and then even more in his office in the seventh arrondissement. “He was a man of his period,” says Mothes. “A man of the present. But a man with a lifetime contract with luxury.”
KARL, Karl Lagerfeld’s Estate takes place at One Monte-Carlo, Monaco, from 3–5 December, and at Sotheby's Paris from 14–15 December
Cover image: Karl Lagerfeld. Photo: © Succession Karl Lagerfeld