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By John Helmer, Moscow

When Karl Lagerfeld (lead image, centre)  died this week, the Financial Times epitaph was that he “helped build up the French fashion house [Chanel] into a business that generated revenues of $9.6bn in 2017. Lagerfeld was unmatched in his output and at one point during the 1990s was designing collections for four brands — Chanel, Fendi, Chloe and his signature brand — simultaneously.”

The Chanel sales figure speaks for itself.  But now that Lagerfeld and Chanel can’t threaten to ruin the critics by pulling advertising from their media,  Lagerfeld’s real contribution to Chanel’s profit line, and his cost, can be tested by investment analysts. They report that Lagerfeld was profitable as a brand salesman but lossmaking as a designer.  As the Latin in the title says: if you seek his monument, look very carefully*.

Trying to explain that pastiche in Lagerfeld’s case was an asset, not a liability, the London newspaper quoted one of Lagerfeld’s employees: “ ‘Karl was a prolific designer who would deliver double or triple the number of sketches that were needed for each collection,’ Ralph Toledano, who ran Lagerfeld’s company and signature label for a decade, told the Financial Times on Tuesday. ‘He was the only designer who could successfully design two collections for different labels at the same time.’”  In the finer arts, parody is tolerable, copying isn’t;  the word for it in Russian is falshak.  If Lagerfeld had gone into the business of selling food in restaurants instead of clothes in fashion houses,  he would have been a maître d’, not a chef de cuisine.

So couture in Lagerfeld’s case was not more than a trade mark, a price point, a poster, not an art form. Sensitivity to the possibility that others might realize this was one reason Lagerfeld was famously allergic to human touch. 

In a Russian tribute to him, published this week,  it was observed that he didn’t like Russian men or visiting Moscow. “If I was a woman in Russia I would be a lesbian,” Lagerfeld was quoting as telling a Paris newspaper in 2012. “Men in Russia are very ugly. There are a few handsome ones, like Naomi Campbell’s boyfriend, but there you see the most beautiful women and the most horrible men.”

 He didn’t like Moscow “for all its crazy drivers and endless traffic jams. However, he added that Moscow looks nice in winter, and that Russia makes him feel less of a foreigner than China or Japan. ‘The same shops as in Paris, and if we forget about Kremlin, the architecture is the same too. And as we know from Napoleon times, Moscow is not so far,’ he said in an interview with Russia’s Vogue in 2011.”

That it was the Russian nouveaux riches who generated most of the growth of Chanel’s sales in the Europe market – their Chinese counterparts followed in the Asian market – was the financial reality fingering Lagerfeld uncomfortably.  Chanel kept the financials in the dark; Lagerfeld showed himself in black brazenly. The Moscow business newspaper Kommersant reported his exit with the qualification that “he created his own brand, but, to be honest, it will never be as successful as became the successful brands under his leadership,  Fendi, Chloe and, of course, Chanel.” Cashflow is the reason for this  – Lagerfeld the brand has been too poor to compete in advertising spend with the haute couture brands.

A decade ago, I broke through the Lagerfeld quarantine, though it was by chance and not in Moscow.  

We were at Galignani’s book shop on Rue de Rivoli in Paris; both of us at the same time in the front salon where the newest art books are displayed on the shelves and tables.

I bumped into him by accident; I apologized towards his head several inches below. He pretended not to hear or to feel. His attention was on a pretty-boy shop attendant. Several of them were courting him — something which became obvious when I looked again and saw that the little fellow was showing off black fabrics and bright jewellery, tight trousers of a juvenile type, medically enhanced face, high collar to conceal the dewlaps of his neck; and in case the pretty boys missed his significance, eyes covered by oversize sunglasses screaming celebrity.

It was Lagerfeld. With a bump I had discovered the man behind the label, and the reason for the pretentiousness. Compared to London tailors of Tommy Nutter’s style and Edward Sexton’s quality,  Lagerfeld couldn’t dress himself for nuts.

How then could he dress women? Again, compared to the great London couturiers — Jean Muir, Bill Gibb, Vivienne Westwood (then) — Lagerfeld was second-rate. His real job was different. That was to create the appearance of a luxury brand to enlarge Chanel’s profit margin on stuff – ready-to-wear clothes, perfumes, handbags — which was cheap to produce.  “Expensive things of high quality,” he admitted once, “are exclusive by the price.”  

Lagerfeld was lionized in Moscow for the time it took the Russian consumer market to display more money than there was time for the consumers to learn taste. The men who made the money for women to spend on Chanel knew what Lagerfeld’s profit margin trick was because they were doing the same thing in their own businesses. Russian men weren’t fooled by Lagerfeld.  Here is a short sociology about where this money came from and where it went.  

In time, Russians won’t lionize Lagerfeld because he wasn’t a lion, nor even a Russian blue.  Alley-cat more like.

[*] The Latin epitaph, Si monumentum requiris circumspice (“If you seek his monument look around you), first appeared in 1723 in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. It is on the tomb of Christopher Wren, the architect of London after the Great Fire.  

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