“Quick-Witted, Fast, Funny, and a Little Bit Evil": Alfons Kaiser Remembers Lagerfeld

“Quick-Witted, Fast, Funny, and a Little Bit Evil": Alfons Kaiser Remembers Lagerfeld

Arguably the greatest fashion designer of the 20th century, Karl Lagerfeld was an icon. Ahead of Sotheby's sales celebrating his estate, his biographer Alfons Kaiser – who knew Lagerfeld personally for over twenty years – talks to us about his inimitable friend, colleague and inspiration.
Arguably the greatest fashion designer of the 20th century, Karl Lagerfeld was an icon. Ahead of Sotheby's sales celebrating his estate, his biographer Alfons Kaiser – who knew Lagerfeld personally for over twenty years – talks to us about his inimitable friend, colleague and inspiration.

A ccording to German Vogue, Dr. Alfons Kaiser is renowned as one of Germany’s most important fashion critics. An editor at Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, he has authored the Karl Lagerfeld biography Karl Lagerfeld. Ein Deutscher in Paris which was published in English this year: Karl Lagerfeld. A Life in Fashion. Here, ahead of the KARL, Karl Lagerfeld’s Estate III day sale, evening sale and online sale, Kaiser shares his insights on Lagerfeld and his extraordinary life.

Alfons Kaiser and Karl Lagerfeld after a Chanel show, 2017. Photo Markus Ebner

Kaiser first met Karl Lagerfeld as a young fashion writer in Italy’s fashion capital during the late 1990s, and the encounter involved one of Lagerfeld’s beloved beverages. “In 1999, after a Fendi show in Milan, he was standing in the middle of the crowd, a Coke in his hand (and not, as later, the butler with the silver tray behind him). He poured a bit of Coke over his sleeve, so I quickly handed him a paper handkerchief and asked him if I could now ask a few questions,” Kaiser recalls. ‘“I thought so,’ he said, ‘that you didn't hand me the handkerchief without a reason.’ Typical Lagerfeld: quick-witted, fast, funny, and a little bit evil.”

This unforgettable experience became the initial step that brought Kaiser and Lagerfeld together again over the course of nearly two decades. While Kaiser conducted interviews with Lagerfeld after fashion shows, it was in 2012 when the two cultivated a long-term working relationship at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Kaiser and Lagerfeld’s spokesperson, Carol Lebar, presented a proposal to which Lagerfeld willingly agreed: he would sketch a series of political illustrations which Kaiser describes as “very funny drawings.”

Desk of Karl Lagerfeld in Louveciennes with Fritz Rotstadt’s Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari, lithographic poster, and Project for the company UFA of Baselberg, for the movie magazine Teatr Kino, 1925

Kaiser tells Sotheby’s, “When we relaunched the F.A.Z.-Magazin in February 2013, I asked him if he would like to contribute a monthly cartoon. He did that for six years. We called them ‘Karlikaturen’ (carlicatures) – he loved puns. Every month, we were talking on the phone or sending faxes to plan the next sketch. Often I saw him after the shows or on other occasions in Paris, and he then immediately talked about joint plans. He always had his own ideas, of course. When I suggested President Macron as a topic, he would send a drawing of Trump.”

This connection to the FAZ reinforced a stronger bond to his homeland – though over his lifetime, the media might have portrayed him more as a Paris-based artist with an international jet-set lifestyle. Many Lagerfeld enthusiasts might be surprised to learn he maintained business as well as cultural ties to his birthplace throughout his life. After all, he once confessed to Kaiser, “I am very German at heart.”

“You can take Lagerfeld out of Hamburg, but not Hamburg out of Lagerfeld,” says Kaiser. “He didn’t want to show [it], though. In Paris, in the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties, he hardly told anyone that he worked part-time for German companies and was often in Mönchengladbach or Wattenscheid. He didn't want to damage his international image.”

Interior from Louveciennes with a sideboard by Bruno Paul, c. 1927, a vase by Max Laeuger, c. 1927, and lithographic posters by Emil Pirchan, Paul Scheurich, among others

The range of Lagerfeld’s interests varied from literature to film and music and it appeared that Lagerfeld had a bottomless appetite for appreciating all things German. Kaiser lists a few: “Karl Lagerfeld listened to German music from Richard Strauss to Lotte Lenya to Kraftwerk, leafed through magazines from ‘Bunte’ to ‘Gala,’ published books on German literature, cultural history and photography, took photos for magazines like ‘Stern’ and ‘Vogue,’ drew for newspapers, knew theater directors, museum directors, editors-in-chief and, of course, many actresses like Veronica Ferres, Marie Bäumer, and Diane Kruger.”

His avid consumption of culture mirrored his broad taste in aesthetics: especially in reference to wardrobe, furniture and antiquities. For example, Lagerfeld remained a devotee of Christian Liaigre furniture of which a number of pieces will be on auction in the third installment of Karl Lagerfeld’s estate sale in Cologne, Germany.

Kaiser indicates that one Christian Liaigre leather sofa and footrest with wood finishing exemplifies Lagerfeld’s design preferences: “The modern furniture with roots in the French tradition met his taste. But Lagerfeld will not have often rested on this sofa – he was too busy for that.”

Christian Liaigre (1943-2020), A taupe fabric upholstered light oak sofa with matching bench seat, model "Au dessin" Florian Perlot pour Art Digital

With a hectic schedule, Lagerfeld required appropriate workspaces to inspire and motivate. Speaking about another item on auction, a 20th Century French office desk made of aluminum, glass, and plexiglass, Kaiser notes that both form and function come together harmoniously.

Display of lithographic posters, depicting Heinrich Honich, Zeppelin in Deutsch-Böhmen, 1913, Carl Moos, Wilhelm Braun & Cie, 1908, Emil Preetorius, Zum Groszen Wurstel, 1911, Lucian Bernhard, Bleichert, 1914, Thomas Theodor Heine, Die 11 Scharfrichter, 1901, and Ludwig Hohlwein Kathreiner / Weine, 1913

“In all his apartments and houses he had work and drawing tables. This was also the case on Rue des Saints-Pères, near his main residence and his photo studio. Because he always had ideas and then had to draw them right away. After his love of the 18th century had cooled, he loved the sober design of the 20th century. Here is a nice example of that,” says Kaiser.

It would also be impossible to ignore the multiple Dior Homme garments on auction. Lagerfeld was an ardent fan of former designer Hedi Slimane’s slender menswear suiting and both designers eventually formed an enduring friendship. The three Dior Homme frock coats (two in wool and one in corduroy) speak to Lagerfeld’s particular criteria in terms of length and colder temperatures.

Dior Homme, Two black wool coats and one Tail coat in cotton Florian Perlot pour Art Digital

“When he went out in the fall or winter, Lagerfeld liked to wear a Redingote because he didn't like long coats,” says Kaiser. “And after losing so much weight around the turn of the millennium, his favorite thing to wear was Dior Homme, the brand coined by designer Hedi Slimane, known for its skinny silhouettes.”

With his lust for luxury and living life surrounded by fine design, Lagerfeld had a reputation for being unexpectedly “normal”, even engaging in everyday, commonplace activities. In his memoir Ça va, Cher Karl?, Sébastian Jondeau, his long-term personal assistant, wrote about driving Lagerfeld around Paris in pursuit of his occasional cravings for fast food.

Above everything else, he appeared to have this lasting, captivating affect on the people who interacted with him. Present company (Kaiser), included.

Louveciennes bedroom interior, including a dressing table and a pair of chairs by Bruno Paul, c. 1920, a porcelain floor lamp by Gerhard Schliepstein, c. 1925, and lithographic posters by Ludwig Hohlwein, Ernst Lubbert and Ernst Deutsch-Dryden

“He was the fastest thinking, fastest talking, fastest working person I have ever known,” Kaiser admits. “He was not floating above the clouds, as one could assume because of his aloof look, but was very down to earth, loved gossip and bad jokes. In his last years he seemed to become more and more human. He talked a lot about his godson, Hudson Kroenig. And he often pushed his glasses up into his forehead to look for photos of his cat Choupette on his iPhone and show them around. His mere presence motivated people. Marina Krauth of Felix Jud in Hamburg, his favorite bookstore, put it beautifully into words: ‘Even if you had only spoken to him briefly, you were inspired for the whole day.’ He also really energized his employees. There was no better motivator than him.”

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