The 'kaiser' Speaks

updated 02/24/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/24/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

LONGER, LONGER!" BARKS THE stocky, black-clad figure waving a sketching pen at a model in his Paris atelier. His assistants murmur delightedly. The master is toying with history.

Four days later, at the Jan. 28 showing of Chanel spring haute couture, supermodels Naomi, Christy, Linda and Claudia swagger down the catwalk, their tight dresses and skirts swirling shreds of chiffon below the knee. Mori dieu! gasps the well-heeled audience. "Kaiser Karl" has done it again.

With that simple command—"Longer!"—German-born Karl Lagerfeld, 53, fashion's most admired, copied and powerful designer, has declared the short skirt passé. At the party following the show, while air-kissing the cheeks of designer Paloma Picasso, the ponytailed designer, pursing his lips while hiding his eyes behind omnipresent dark glasses, pronounced the sentence of death. "Short skirts are for middle-aged women," he sniffed.

Shaking the pillars of the fashion temple has become a regular exercise for Lagerfeld. In the nine years since he assumed command of the venerable house of Chanel, Lagerfeld has rejuvenated what had become, by the '60s, a tweedy symbol of elegance for upper-crust dowagers, jazzing up Coco Chanel's classic suit so that it now appears (at $2,000 and up) on everyone from Princess Caroline to Oprah. "I think Karl is pleased that Coco has been somewhat scandalized," says one fashion journalist, referring to Lagerfeld's wild and daring unstitching of the traditional suit. (His spring line includes jackets that zip up the back.) "He's a creative genius, but a bit of a bad boy."

Indeed that is the way Lagerfeld plays the fashion game. Despite Chanel's overwhelming success—the company earned a reported $850 million last year—Lagerfeld is known as idiosyncratic, capricious and autocratic both in and out of the cutting room. "All the women who work for him are in awe of him," says a former acolyte who, like most in the fashion world, will speak critically of the designer only anonymously. "When Karl taps his pen on the desk, that means someone must fetch him a Diet Coke. He's not a particularly pleasant man." Even Lagerfeld admits he is demanding: "I'm the easiest person to work with as long as things are the way I think they should be," he says.

But cross Lagerfeld, and it's off with your head. Last year he became infuriated with model Claudia Schiffer's "stupidity" when, during the Gulf War, she refused to fly to Paris from New York City for fear of terrorists. Three years ago he abruptly dumped longtime Chanel muse and model Inès de la Fressange when she accepted an official offer to portray the country's national symbol, Marianne. Says Lagerfeld: "She was bored by the job, so we needed to get rid of her." And he can rarely resist a chance to be snide about former friend Yves Saint Laurent, with whom he hasn't been close since the 1970s. "He's too self-centered, and I think he should update his act a little bit," says the imperious Karl.

Lagerfeld's own act is haughty eccentric. Earning more than $5 million a year producing collections for Chanel, Italy's Fendi and his own Karl Lagerfeld line, the designer has a sweet tooth for the 18th century. He has seven homes—among them a $14 million villa in Monte Carlo, an apartment in Paris and chateaux in Brittany and on the outskirts of Paris—all Lagerfeld-decorated with rare antiques.

Fluent in four languages, he wakes up before dawn to read French history, sketch designs or (abhorring the phone) to write letters on black-bordered stationery. Staying home in his while piqué robe until lunchtime (he has been known to demand fresh linen sheets in the middle of a nap), he prefers junk food (hot dogs especially) to foie gras. "He's a very complex person," says a longtime associate, designer Carla Fendi. "He's a typical German: He's fascinated by history and all aspects of culture."

Though born less than aristocratic in Hamburg, Germany, in 1938, Karl was pampered like a dauphin. His father, Christian, was a condensed-milk mogul; his mother, Elizabeth, a lady of leisure. Karl was raised on a country estate (he has few memories of the war), but early on, he says, he decided "I had to find more interesting obligations than cows." He started sketching as soon as he could clutch a pencil. At age 5, strolling with his father in Hamburg, Lagerfeld spotted a painting of Frederick the Great receiving Voltaire at the Prussian court. He promptly demanded the artwork for Christmas. His indulgent parents tried to palm off a cheaper version, but little Karl would have none of that. The painting now hangs in his chateau outside Paris.

Clear from the outset about what he wanted from life, he left Hamburg at 14 to pursue a designing career in Paris. Two years and several drawing classes later, he won the coal category of a French fashion contest (in which Saint Laurent won the top prize for dresses). In 1963, he began creating collections for the design firm Chloë and collaborating with the Fendi sisters, designing radically different furs. In the '70s, well established as a young talent, he palled around in Paris with the likes of Andy Warhol, dressing up in 18th-century frock coats and brocade and hosting elaborate parties he threw for thousands of guests. In 1983, in a move that shocked the French fashion establishment, he was enthroned as the head designer of Chanel, which had been stagnating since its founder's death 12 years earlier. The ensuing popularity of his sexy updates—Lagerfeld's classics feature hot colors, gaudy chains and. until recently, lots of leg—among the young and visible has more than doubled Chanel's sales since his arrival.

The most understated aspect of the Lagerfeld persona is his romantic life. The maestro himself claims that he does not have one, describing himself as ascetic. Lagerfeld was nonetheless devastated two years ago by the death from AIDS of his longtime best friend, the flashy aristocrat Jacques de Baseher. who once said, "Karl prefers chocolate cake and Coca-Cola to love."

Devoted to his craft, Lagerfeld suggests that dropping a hemline is more delicious than an affair of the heart. In the ultracompetitive world of draping silk and lace, when Lagerfeld looks over his shoulder it is not to relish his past. "I always have a childish feeding that I have done nothing, that I have to start at point zero all the time," he says. "I am not interested in what I have done, but what I will do."

J.D. PODOLSKY
CATHY NOLAN in Paris

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