A Conversation With Karl Lagerfeld (1991)

by Andrew Wilkes

In celebration of Aperture‘s Fall 2014 “Fashion” issue, we present a legendary interview from the magazine’s archive. The following was originally published in Aperture’s Issue #122, Winter 1991. Aperture’s complete digital archive is coming soon.

 

As the designer for Chanel for the last eight years and the creator of his own label, KL, Karl Lagerfeld has played a major role in the design community for the last three decades. His designs have helped revive Paris haute couture, specifically, the House of Chanel, where Lagerfeld has expressed both a reverence for Coco Chanel’s brilliance and an irreverence for her clichés. Lagerfeld began taking his own photographs in 1987. These two relations to the fashion world place him in a unique position to comment on fashion photography.

Born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1938, Lagerfeld today resides in Paris, Rome, and Monte Carlo. Each of his homes is decorated in a particular style: in Paris, eighteenth-century French; in Rome, neoclassic; and in Monte Carlo, Memphis.

At age sixteen, Lagerfeld entered and won a design contest for amateurs juried by, among others, Pierre Balmain and Pierre Cardin. He spent the next three and a half years working in Balmain’s studio, where he began his career in fashion design. In 1958, at age twenty, he joined Patau and created two collections of haute couture each year. It was not long before his creative goals required that he move on to a new challenge; in 1963, he joined Chloé. It was at Chloé, during the years from 1963 to 1983, that he began to design daring and controversial collections that became “events.” For these collections he imposed the Chloé style-elegant lines running close to the body in supple, unconstructed fabrics. At Chloé, Lagerfeld mastered the forward-thinking style that combined the elegance of haute couture with the convenience of ready-to-wear. In 1966, Lagerfeld began designing fur collections for the Fendi sisters in Rome.

It was in 1983 that he took over as artistic director of Chanel, designing first its couture and later its ready-to-wear. In addition, Lagerfeld frequently creates original costumes for theater, cinema, opera, and ballet. Recent projects have included Berlioz’s Les Troyens at La Scala and Offenbach’s Contes d’Hoffmann in Florence; next he will tackle Puccini ‘s La rondine for L’Opera de Monte Carlo. This interview was conducted in June 1990 in Mr. Lagerfeld’s Chanel office on the rue Cambon in Paris.

 

KARL LAGERFELD: How I got started in photos is, in a way, the key to my whole approach to fashion. I think the photographer can do anything. You are not the best photographer or a lousy and poor creature only because you do press kits. One of the reasons I started off was press kits-no famous photographer wanted to do them. One season we had three different photographers do the press kits. All three times the work went to the garbage can, and I said, ‘That’s enough.’ That’s how I got started. Press kits are not fun, because they have to be black-and-white and handled in such a way that they can be used for daily papers. Press kits have to be made a week to ten days before the collection is finished. Very often I photograph unfinished dresses, so I have to know how to fake them, how to make them look finished. That was four and a half years ago, but I was already prepared for it. I am of a graphic attitude. I sketch very well. I have drawn portraits all my life. When I was a child I wanted to be a portrait painter. Anna Piaggi, the Italian fashion editor, has published a book of many of these drawings that I have done. Sketching and laying things out is, for me, what I have always wanted.

ANDREW WILKES: Tell me about your photography.

KL: I do a lot of society portraits and portraits for royalty. These friends use the photographs for themselves-for their houses, for their friends. They order about a hundred prints. I do my portrait work with a 8 x 10 Sinar. I often employ very strange backdrops. I will show twenty portraits at my next exhibition. This is something very special. There is only one print from each negative and it belongs to the subject. At these exhibitions, nothing is for sale. On the other hand, for a charity exhibition at London’s Hamilton Gallery, fifty-nine photos were for sale, and all of them sold the day of the opening.

AW: Do you collect photography?

KL: Yes. I collect late nineteenth and early twentieth century work. Steichen, Stieglitz, a little Baron de Meyer-I have a beautiful one. Also, Käsebier, Demachy, Paul Citroen, Kertész, Coburn, Kühn, Munkácsi and early Lartigue. The Lartigues were given to me as gifts. In fact, much of my photo collection is made up of gifts, it is never-ending. I love Paul Strand and Minor White. I also collect Helmut Newtons, tons of them. Very beautiful and huge ones. The last thing I received from him was a beautiful photo of David Lynch and Isabella Rossellini where Lynch had Isabella’s hand in his hand-a marvelous photo. Today I think I prefer to collect photography rather than to collect paintings. The new artists such as Peter Lindbergh, Bruce Weber, and Steven Meisel-they are my favorites for the moment.

AW: Do you see fashion photography becoming as valuable as fine photography?

KL: For me old fashion photos are pieces of art. Steichen, for example. What is as beautiful as a Steichen? It may have become a lower commercial product because there were too many prints available.

AW: Do you think photography is art? Can a photograph compare with a Monet or Hopper?

KL: For me, modern photographs touch me personally because they are from my time. Monet feels far away from me now. Early twentieth century photographers are as good as Monet and other painters in a certain way-but one should never compare- it’s like [comparing] sculpture and painting- it’s something else.

AW: What is a Lagerfeld shoot like? Do you prefer the control of a studio or the spontaneity of location work?

KL: I have very bad working habits. Sometimes I start at ten in the evening, and at ten in the morning I am still working. I can be slow, well, not slow, but it takes a lot of time. I don’t believe in those thirty-five minute jobs. I have a big team. Often we are between fifteen and twenty people; makeup artists, stylists, models, lighting people. I work with nearly all the people I started working with from the beginning. You can’t spend nights and days with people you don’t like or don’t know. I don’t want to. I don’t have to. It’s fun to be in a studio, and I think it’s fun to be outdoors. In fact, I like very much to be outdoors, but there are some photos that require a backdrop. You know, these backdrops are paintings that a Parisian stage painter makes for me. A backdrop like this costs between $5,000 and $10,000. He was once very famous and had trouble because he made copies of real paintings. He’s unbelievable.

 

AW: Do you like restrictions on your work when you shoot for Chanel or KL, and do you put restrictions on yourself?

KL: Yes. I am the photographer but also the client, and I am in the marvelous position of being at the center of my own life. For Chanel, Fendi, and KL, I can do what I want. Many photographers cannot decide even with big budgets what they want. My restrictions are my own restrictions. I know what goes into the garbage can and what doesn’t. After all, we’re in business, and the better things are, the more money I get to do other things with. So I can afford to play around more and experiment with less commercial projects.

AW: Alexander Liberman has commented on the delight of “accident” in photography. The “controlled or unplanned accident” is the area in photography that he feels permits discovery. What are your thoughts on this kind of excitement or spontaneity?

KL: Yes, I love the idea, but you can never say it will happen. Obviously you cannot prepare for it. I think it is even more interesting when you have, on your film, a strange occurrence that you haven’t seen yourself. It can be an accident with light or whatever. Often, you get something you never thought of before. Most of my photos begin as a sketch, though. I don’t go in too much for surprises. Mostly I want exactly what I planned for.

AW: Do you conceptualize your fashion photography?

KL: Yes. I look at the product. I know what the photograph must look like to be right. I am my own client, and for Chanel, they like what I am doing. In fact, Chanel wants to show the dresses, but I am careful to be different, much more subtle, because I want the image to be different. For example, my work for Fendi is very different. It is based on German and Russian fairy tales or a mood like that found in De Chirico paintings.

AW: Fashion photography, as well as clothing design, borrows so directly from fine art and popular culture. Do you pay attention to pop music, videos, film, and street culture as sources for mood and inspiration?

KL: Everything gives me inspiration. I think Madonna is divine. I think she is it. I’m not sure I’m the right photographer for her; but I think she’s great. All of these areas of popular culture helped to make up the 1980s. I don’t believe in closed eyes. I am like an antenna on a building, I receive all those images.

 

AW: American fashion photography seems to deal with graphic depiction of clothing, while European more often deals with mood or fantasy. Do you know the source of this difference? Does “seeing” the clothes ever stop mattering?

KL: There is a very simple explanation. America is more market-oriented than Europe. European executives whose companies have interesting clothes and who commission great photographers do not have the budget to do big ad campaigns. If you only have one or two pages, you better create an atmosphere. On the other hand, if you have hundreds of pages, as with Chanel, then you can show the dresses. KL is less commercial in that way, but you can still see the dress. I do atmospheric work more with my personal photography.

AW: Let’s talk about the commissioned/commercial photograph . Usually a fashion photograph has commercial boundaries. Many critics feel this is what separates commercial work from fine photography. What is your opinion, and what limitations do you find when photographing?

KL: You know, a commission is not something that makes the photo less attractive. The photographer who is very honest, even with a commission, will make a special effort. Work is work- and commissioned work is valid work. Sometimes with a commission you have to put walls up; this I think is very healthy. If everything is open, the choice is too unlimited. Helmut Newton always says that he likes restrictions. Lots of Helmut’s advertising jobs are as good as his personal work for exhibitions, books, or portraiture. But Newton sometimes doesn’t care and he doesn’t like fashion anymore. And the drama in fashion is that if you don’t like fashion anymore, it doesn’t like you. One can even get out of touch with the fashion “feeling” because one may think one has more vision of the woman than of the clothes, but people’s taste in women changes. It’s my feeling that the professional who does not like fashion or thinks fashion is no longer interesting should get out of it. That doesn’t mean he or she is not a good photographer, but rather no longer a good fashion photographer. Often fashion photographers who become well known create a mold whereby they think they are too good for the job. They must remember that they will be remembered not for what they do later in a different genre, but for what they did at the height of their fame as fashion photographers.

 

AW: A special relationship often exists between a photographer and a designer.Who have you worked with on this level?

KL: Helmut Newton, Bruce Weber, Peter Lindbergh .

AW: Do you prefer black-and-white or color photography?

KL: I prefer black-and-white, but what I also like is to hand-paint photos.

AW: You do your own tinting?

KL: Yes, I do it mostly with my social portraits and with gifts to friends. I did a print for Princess Caroline of Monaco and it took ten hours. It takes such a long time I don’t even own one myself.

AW: What cameras do you currently work with?

KL: For me, a camera is the toy of all grown-up men today. Everybody has a camera, it is one of the few toys grown-ups are allowed to have. I have an 8 x 10 Sinar, which is my newest one. But I have done nearly all my work with a Hasselblad. I love the Leica 6. I like the physical touch and noise. I think a camera is something very physical.

 

AW: Do you shoot a lot of film on a job?

KL: Very little. My assistants push me sometimes to do more. I have one vision of the thing, and not two. I’m not a photographer who shoots three hundred rolls of film.

AW: Is your printer in Paris?

KL: I have two printers for my color and one for black-and-white. I have my photographs printed on Canson Mi-Teintes sketching paper. A special printer does my color prints for exhibitions; sometimes the photos are two meters high.

AW: What role do you believe fashion photography will play in coming years?

KL: You know, I do not separate fashion photographs from fine photography. They’re part of the same thing. Without a doubt there will be some great new photographers.

AW: Can commercial work be important after the moment of its initial impact? Will this work remain important and continue to have lasting value ?

KL: If it’s good, it can, and when people forget that it was originally advertising or editorial. Look, many photographs collected today were commissioned for magazines. Simply, whatever is good will survive; the rest has to go to the garbage can. Every good photographer can do bad photography because of a mood, because of bad climate, atmosphere, or the product. But the good photographs endure.

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