A store sign depicting the profile of late German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld is pictured at the Karl Lagerfeld concept store in Berlin, on February 20, 2019. - The fashion world has been plunged into mourning by the death of legendary designer Karl Lagerfeld, the rapier-witted dandy who ruled over the industry for half a century. The German fashion designer has died at the age of 85. (Photo by John MACDOUGALL / AFP) (AFP / John Macdougall)

My love story with Karl

Paris -- I had to be sneaky to get in. When you’re a journalist, you sometimes have to be.

After the Fendi show in Milan, I snuck off to the backstage entrance and told the doorman Karl Lagerfeld was expecting me. The truth is I hadn’t even asked for an interview. But I had nothing to lose! It had been a great show and as a freshly appointed journalist to AFP's fashion desk, it was worth a try.

The security guard hesitated. I insisted, pleading with him that I was worried about showing up late. He let me through.

German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld acknowledges the audience at the end of Fendi 2017-2018 fall/winter Haute Couture collection in Paris on July 5, 2017. (AFP / Patrick Kovarik)

Backstage I was lucky again. No scrum of journalists, just the legendary ponytailed designer, Diet Coke in hand, talking to a young blogger. 

She had seen short skirts and long skirts on the runway, but what about next season’s skirts? Karl frowned. 

“Women have been choosing the length they want -- short for nice legs or long for a little mystery – for quite some time now. The fashion industry no longer dictates what women should wear, not since the ‘New Look’ anyway.”

German designer Karl Lagerfeld poses with scissors on March 1987 in his fashion studio. (AFP / Pierre Guillaud)

My turn. “Does that happen to you a lot?” He looks at me, bemused, hazel eyes glimmering under his sunglasses.

“Well, you just told this girl her question was totally irrelevant as of 1951!” when Christian Dior revolutionised fashion. He smiles.

I ask him about his use of colour. Such deep, bright blues and delicious earthy clays. “I was inspired by Edward Hopper,” he says, eyes searching for my reaction. Yes, I know the American painter. But I don’t hang around talking, not wanting to overstay my welcome.

A model presents a creation for Chanel during the 2017 Spring/Summer ready-to-wear collection fashion show on October 4, 2016 in Paris. (AFP / Patrick Kovarik)

A while later, at a show for his eponymous label in Paris, I meet Caroline Lebar, Karl’s long-time assistant.

I tell her about Milan. “Ah, that was you!” she grins. “He called me that day from the airport and he said 'I don’t know who she is or who she works for, but she is po-ta-bleu!'”

For the sharp-tongued, impossible-to-please designer, I suppose potable, or ‘decent’, should be taken as a compliment! 

German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld poses in front of a showcase of the Parisian store Printemps on Novembre 12, 2008 after inaugurating the Christmans decorations of the store. Lagarfield created the Coco puppet for the showcase. (AFP / Boris Horvat)

For three years, until the end of 2012, Karl became my fashion coach. He was curious about anything and everything. We would talk politics, protests, literature and lighter things.

When tensions were running high, especially after Chanel shows staged under the imposing glass roof of Paris’ Grand Palais and dozens of celebrities were waiting to greet him, a press attache would give me a prod and squeeze me in to break up the niceties. I became a sort of relief among all the excitement.

He’d take me by the arm; “Ah, there you are.” He’d talk to me about his show, his ideas, his choices. Our conversations were frank, spontaneous. He expected me to be straightforward and open. It was easy.

Models present creations for Chanel during the 2018/2019 fall/winter collection fashion show on March 6, 2018 at the Grand Palais in Paris. (AFP / Patrick Kovarik)

Surrounded by a small group of journalists, I once asked, somewhat naively, why he always included a few male models in his Chanel women’s shows. I felt my colleagues clench their shoulders and gasp. Would this put the great Karl into a foul mood and ruin the rest of our interview ?

The couturier patted my cheek with his fingertips and brushed my chin with his iconic leather fingerless gloves. “It shows you haven’t been with us for long,” he said sweetly. “Coco Chanel got all her inspiration from men - tweed, sweaters…” It’s a way of paying homage.

Picture of the famous french high fashion designer Coco Chanel taken in 1944 in Paris (AFP / -)
A model presents a creation by fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, 21 January 2003 in Paris for Chanel Spring-Summer 2003 Haute Couture collection. The 64-year old German designer presented his collection in a greenhouse set next to Le Doyen restaurant. (AFP / Jean-pierre Muller)


He was always invited to Dior men shows, and sat next to LVMH tycoon Bernard Arnault. I would keep my eyes on him in order to quickly find him amidst the chaos that inevitably erupted at the end of the show.

He would always have a great quote for me. Often ferocious and always witty. “Have you seen how short the trousers were? Would anyone you know wear them?” he once hissed into my ear. But he was never short of compliments or passions to share, either.

Caroline Lebar calls me to tell me about an upcoming event. I don’t call her back right away. I’m on holiday in New York. “Ah, so are we! Karl’s been invited to a department store. Come along?” Of course

Models present creations by Chanel at the end of the 2018-2019 Fall/Winter Haute Couture collection fashion show, in front of a replica of the front entrance of the French Institute (Institut de France) at the Grand Palais in Paris, on July 3, 2018. (AFP / Alain Jocard)

He’s waiting in a private room before his appearance. He asks what I’m doing there. I grew up in New York, I say. “Not very much!” he retorts, teasing me for my 5 foot 2 inch stature. He holds my gaze. “Long hair suits you better. Let’s stop cutting it all off, shall we?”

He talks about French writers Marguerite Duras and Marguerite Yourcenar, about his first trips to the US, about one thing and other. An assistant tells him Anna Wintour, the impeccably-fringed Vogue editor-in-chief whose icy reputation inspired "The Devil Wears Prada", is here. 

German designer Karl Lagerfeld (L) and British editor-in-chief of American Vogue Anna Wintour (R) pose for pictures on the red carpet upon arrival to attend the British Fashion Awards 2015 in London on November 23, 2015. (AFP / Jack Taylor)

Karl talks a little more, then walks me to the door. Her introduces me to Anna: “You known Gersende, of course?” There is clearly no reason why she should ever have heard of a low-ranking AFP journalist. Karl is visibly enjoying her confusion.

Three years later, I’m getting an itch for news, for the real world, for the here and now. I’m posted to the crime and justice desk at AFP. Karl is intrigued.

The night of a Chanel haute couture show, he calls me to his private photo studio behind a bookshop he owns by the River Seine. It’s not the first time I’ve been.

US model Kendall Jenner presents a creation for Chanel during the 2015 Haute Couture Spring-Summer collection fashion show on January 27, 2015 at the Grand Palais in Paris. (AFP / Patrick Kovarik)

I bump into some of the top models of the day, wearing bathrobes and waiting to be photographed. Caroline Lebar is there too, and other friends. They’re used to me popping up in the background. Karl’s personal chef serves us amuses-bouches.

I know it will be our last meeting. He asks about my new job. “So if there’s a fire in Paris at 3 o’clock in the morning, they’ll send you out on a motorbike with a hot rider?” Not quite! It’s more of a desk job, so I’ll probably be the one sending people out to do some reporting. “Ah, zut.”

Pendant la présentation de la collection Chanel haute couture printemps-été 2007, à Paris, le 23 janvier 2007. (AFP / Martin Bureau)

He knows I like cooking. He tells me how the smell of food would waft through Paris when he arrived after the war. “People didn’t have fridges back then, they had open pantries.” 

The models are waiting. The conversation goes on another 40 minutes or so. It’s getting late. I give him a kiss on the cheek and disappear, a little sad to leave but feeling honoured by the privilege.

A few days later, an enormous bouquet of flowers is waiting in a vase beside my front door. Stapled to it, a handwritten note wishing me good luck for the future, a few tender words, and finally some advice. “Don’t send some silly girl to replace you!” I read it in my head with his German accent and inimitable pronunciation. What a delight!

German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld acknowledges the public with a model at the end of the Chanel 2014/2015 Haute Couture Fall-Winter collection fashion show on July 8, 2014 at the Grand Palais in Paris. (AFP / Patrick Kovarik)


Gersende Rambourg