Karl Lagerfeld tells us about his first fragrance duo, his gift for mass appeal and what makes a new fragrance a now fragrance.
“Vanity is the healthiest thing in life.” “Think pink, but don’t wear it.” Karl Lagerfeld’s infamous one-liners could fill a book. (In fact, they have: Last year, Rizzoli published The World According to Karl.)
He was born pre-World War II (his age vacillates between 78 and 80, depending on which report you read), but is the perfect designer for our post-millennium era. He speaks in sound bites, relishes technology and has an insatiable appetite for creating. In spite of the relentless chew-’em-up-and-spit-’em-out pace of the fashion industry, Lagerfeld has managed – over 60 years – to fit in collaborations with Diet Coke, Volkswagen, and even Barbie, on top of his day job at Chanel and Fendi.
Like every modern-day visionary from Jobs to Zuckerberg, he understands the power of marketing an image. Lagerfeld’s needs no introduction. His profile is so famous the world over, even the name card for his eponymous label features merely an etching: black shades, nifty white ponytail, and high-collared shirt.
His own Kaiser aesthetic and brand was first launched in 1974, and reintroduced in 2012. In a pioneering move then, he chose to unveil its new look by partnering exclusively with global e-commerce phenomenon Net-a-porter. Founder Natalie Massenet told Vogue then: “Given Karl’s fascination for all things modern, this will be a 21st century launch – globally available, in-season for instant gratification, and harnessing the power of the digital media and social commerce.” Once exclusive, extravagant and expensive, it is now cool, hip and everywhere.
The apparel brand’s growth has been exponential, hitting 26 distribution points in two years. The window display of his flagship in Boulevard Saint-Germain screams “I only wear the latest thing” in neon blue lights. Inside, it is a modernist world of monochrome, fitted with iPads, screens and glossy black walls. The staples that make up Lagerfeld’s own wardrobe line the white steel rails: skinny black jeans, razor-sharp blazers, leather biker jackets and stark white shirts. For women, he has seamlessly translated the look into chic black tuxedo dresses, jumpsuits and pencil skirts.
Fragrance seems like the only natural progression. The first fragrance duo (one scent for men, one for women) under the revamped Karl Lagerfeld brand, simply called Karl Lagerfeld, stems for the designer’s vision of mass luxe. It is the same ethos that drove the designer to resurrect and reinvent his namesake line to be in sync with a new generation and era. “It’s not too expensive,” he asserts. The first words out of his mouth as we settle down for a chat, it’s clear this is a point he’s eager to make. “I want it to be completely different from what I do at Chanel and Fendi. It’s a completely different way of approaching and selling fashion. It’s a modern attitude to luxury.”
Today “masstige” is a buzzword, but as recently as a decade ago, the concept of mass market prestige was unfathomable. Caroline Lebar, who has been Lagerfeld’s director of communications for the past 30 years, shares: “There are two key dates in Karl’s career – 1983 when he joined Chanel, and 2005 when he collaborated with H&M. They wanted to team up with the world’s most famous high-fashion designer, and their research led them to Karl Lagerfeld. The experience was pivotal because it made him realise that luxury can be made accessible.”
The first high-fashion designer and high-street label collaboration was groundbreaking. Launched in 500 H&M stores simultaneously, stocks intended to last two weeks sold out in 25 minutes. “We’ve been operating this business for some 60 years and we’ve never seen anything like it,” enthused Jorgen Andersson, H&M’s then marketing director.
Lagerfeld’s talent has always been in creating a product that appeals to a broad band of people, while still managing to intrigue. The designer’s greater gift however, is in nailing down what’s hot right now. So I ask him: “What makes (fragrance duo Karl Lagerfeld) the right essence for this moment?” His intelligence has been well documented, but to see his quick mind in action is to understand why, after 40 years, he is still at the top of the game. There’s no fannying around with Lagerfeld. Speaking in clipped, lightning bursts, he is swift, decisive and pointed: “In fact, the question has no answer now. I’m pretty good with words, I could tell you all kinds of bulls**t, but there is only one proof and that is if people buy it. Let’s see how the public reacts to this, then we will see if this perfume is one for our times.”
It wasn’t the response I was expecting, but it’s unpretentious, refreshingly honest and makes complete sense. It also reminds me of an oft-cited Karlism: “My motto is there’s no credit in the past. To have done something before is of no interest.”
“There is not a single retro note in this perfume,” he affirms. “It’s not an essence that reminds you of the ’20s or ’30s. I know men who use fragrances from another era; classics from another world. This one, however, is for today and just today.”
Desirability in our digital age is about a product that gets people talking. No one understands that better than Lagerfeld. The following week, he will go on to create Paris Fashion Week’s most Instagrammed show, transforming the Grand Palais into a Chanel supermarket.
“Today in fashion, you need a total look, but you also need a total look in fragrance,” he explains. “You need a beautiful box, a beautiful bottle, and the scent has to be up to it. A beautiful bottle with a bad scent doesn’t sell. A good scent that is boring doesn’t sell either. It’s a very difficult thing. It needs to be a marriage of all three. The packaging. The bottle. The scent.”
In fact, he should add “app” to that holy trinity. To mark the scent’s debut on the social media sphere, Lagerfeld created a free EmotiKarl app with 30 animated emoticons, from the fragrance bottle to his cat Choupette, and fingerless gloved hands in various gestures. Within a month, it had garnered coverage from Glamour, NBC News and even Business Insider, with headlines ranging from “Karlify your text messages” to “Express cool disdain with Karl Lagerfeld Emoji App”.
“The way of selling a perfume now is very different,” he tells me. “Twenty years ago, you didn’t buy perfume online. Now, the Internet is more important than the big perfume stores like Sephora. The little charming perfume shop doesn’t exist anymore. If you know a scent, you don’t need to go to the shop and buy it.” Always sound-bite-ready, he laughs: “Clothes, you have to fit. The good thing about perfume is that everybody has a model size!”
Lagerfeld the pop icon is the genius of a body of work that is defined by the present, but does not date. His parting shot:
“The important thing with a perfume is to be new when it comes out, and then turn into a classic in your bathroom. This fragrance has no past, but I hope it’s going to have a future.” He chuckles heartily. I can’t see behind his black shades, but I’m sure there is a twinkle in his eye.
This article was first published in Female June 2014.