Karl Lagerfeld’s Love-Hate Relationship With Hollywood

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Karl Lagerfeld

The iconic Chanel designer, who died Feb. 19 in Paris at age 85, had a wicked wit and famous cat along with a policy about working with performers: "Don't use actors and don't let them use you."

The first collection Karl Lagerfeld produced for Chanel flopped spectacularly. "Lagerfeld sputters," noted a scribe in 1983 of the German designer's decision to drop hemlines below Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel's signature knee-grazing length. Head-scratching moments included clothes with "threads hanging off them, tags … left knotted to necklaces." Upon exiting, a client sniffed, "You should never mix Lager with Coco."

Undeterred, Lagerfeld carried on rocking the House of Chanel, horrifying purists with irreverent takes, applying the interlocking "C" logo to cycling shorts and puffer jackets. As his rivals Giorgio Armani, Gianni Versace and Valentino dominated red carpets, Lagerfeld remained disdainful. For the 1993 Oscars, Marisa Tomei wore a black-and-white Chanel gown — as much of a surprise as her best supporting actress win for My Cousin Vinny. No high-profile attendee had donned Chanel since 1965, when Jane Fonda raised a fist in solidarity with the Black Panther party while sporting white Chanel couture. "I don't want an image based on actors," Lagerfeld sniffed when asked about Tomei. "For me, the best policy is: Don't use them, and don't let them use you."

Through his four-decade reign as one of the most powerful designers, Lagerfeld remained unenchanted by Tinseltown. There was his 2017 clash with Meryl Streep (after the best actress nominee opted to wear Elie Saab instead of Chanel) and his criticism of Hubert de Givenchy, who, he said, "never recovered from Audrey Hepburn." Lagerfeld left "that … pop star, Rodeo Drive look" to Versace. With his awe-inspiring collection of residences — including a 19th century clifftop villa overlooking Monte Carlo — Lagerfeld preferred the company of aristocrats and the House of Grimaldi to actors. His longtime obsession was supermodels, who were "more important than movie or pop stars."

The penny dropped when Lagerfeld photographed Nicole Kidman for Interview magazine, which "opened the door" to a professional relationship. In 2004, after 18 months of intense negotiations between Chanel and CAA, Kidman was chosen to be the face of Chanel No. 5. Jacques Helleu, Chanel's artistic director, appointed Baz Luhrmann to direct Kidman in No. 5 The Film. Though merely 180 seconds, the short had a feature-style $42 million budget. Says CAA's Peter Hess, who brokered Kidman's multimillion-dollar deal: "CAA had all the biggest actresses — Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman, Cate Blanchett. None of them had brand relationships. We introduced high-quality collaborations."

The Lagerfeld-Kidman love match softened "Kaiser Karl's" demeanor toward Hollywood. At the time of his death, Lagerfeld's entourage included Pharrell Williams (the face of Chanel's Gabrielle bag), Lily-Rose Depp and Margot Robbie. In 2015, after Julianne Moore received a best actress Oscar nomination for Still Alice, Lagerfeld spent hundreds of hours on her strapless column with its myriad hand-applied sequins. After her victory, Lagerfeld gushed: "I am so happy Julianne won. She is the perfect illustration of what I understand to be womanhood."

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Karl's Cat Lady

I run social accounts across platforms under @ChoupettesDiary, which I started on Twitter in 2012, after which his team reached out via email to find out who I was. I had read about his beloved cat Choupette having two maids and flying on a private jet, and her personality came to me: sassy, outspoken, satirical. She was a spoiled pussy whose maids and Daddy Karl pampered her every need. And famous: I once interviewed Katy Perry and she started interviewing me about Choupette instead. As for who will be pampering her now, that has not been made public by Karl’s team or lawyers. I truly believe her future has been clearly outlined by Karl. There is no way he would ever leave her behind without allowing her to continue to live a life she is accustomed to. — ASHLEY TSCHUDIN

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"Just Let It Roll, Don't Miss the Jokes"

Karl remembered everything. One day, we spoke about how much I loved Caravaggio’s paintings in a church in Rome. Karl tracked down a book he had read many years before in the U.K. that was out of print and shipped it to France with the sweetest note. I was not even one of his closest colleagues. This says a lot about the gentleman, his education and his great interest in people. In front of a camera (I directed him in a Coco Chanel documentary called Mademoiselle C), he was a great character. You had nothing to do, just let it roll and not miss the jokes. Filming with him always started late and ended even later. One night, a decade ago, around 4 a.m., he showed us drawings on his iPad. iPads were still new, and the drawings were amazing. But the fact that this 70-something man trained himself to know all the tricks of this new technology impressed me. He had seen it all and done it all, many times, but woke up every morning, asking, "What will I learn that I didn’t know?" I have nothing but respect for this Grand Monsieur. — FILMMAKER FABIEN CONSTANT

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"Extremely Innovative"

He was modern-minded and extremely innovative. One of my favorite looks is Emma Stone wearing a Chanel Haute Couture at the 2017 BAFTAs. Such a forward-thinking design, a dress paired over a crop pant. For someone with such an expansive career, he always found a way to be the most relevant. — STYLIST PETRA FLANNERY

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"Sharp Wit"

I remember a shoot with Monica Bellucci — it was a blazing warm Rome in spring — and me running around in a fruit van packed with clothes instead of a motor home, trying to keep up with Karl speeding through the city. My most vivid memories are the lunches on the hotel terrace, listening to Karl’s sharp wit, snappy judgments and brilliant knowledge. — STYLIST JULIA VON BOEHM (NICOLE KIDMAN)

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"Totally in Control"

Our first encounter was in Coco Chanel’s Rue Cambon apartment, where I interviewed him for The First Monday In May, about the Met Gala. He marched in front of a coromandel screen and flipped the chair around, versus sitting in staid, 60 Minutes style. As we talked, his bodyguard Sebastien served him Diet Coke from a black tray. His high collar and taut ponytail added to the sharp aura; he was totally in control. Three years later at his Librairie 7L studio, Karl walked slowly, holding on to Sebastien’s arm. A white beard now complemented his ponytail. His inner circle (including successor Virginie Viard) said Karl looked great, perhaps more statesman than seducer, but still the “Papa” of the Chanel family. Karl smiled, content. Later, he joked that the feathers on a dress looked like the spindly white hairs of an old man’s armpits. Still funny, but ceding control just a bit to the march of time. — FILMMAKER ANDREW ROSSI

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“I had the great privilege to work with Karl at Interview magazine. He knew everything about everything — the coolest indie band now and the coolest one 100 years ago. I was constantly surprised by how much fun he was — jokes and dancing with a team that felt more like a family.” — KATE YOUNG, STYLIST FOR CHANEL AMBASSADOR MARGOT ROBBIE

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Why Karl Chose "Chameleon" Kristen Stewart

The first look I ever styled on Kristen Stewart was Chanel in 2007, so it's very bittersweet, because it was a beautiful way to start our relationship, and then she became the face of the brand over a decade later. One of the reasons I loved Karl was he gave us creative freedom — it was a collaboration with the three of us. A lot of designers want it to be one way and that's it, but Karl was really great about appreciating everyone's individual style and what that brought to the brand. Kristen is very unique in her fashion choices. He chose her, a chameleon who could embrace these collections that he made. We're always Frankensteining looks. Karl let us slash a T-shirt for Cannes, he let me take tulle off a couture gown for the 2014 Met Ball, and at Cannes this year, we chose to only use the top of a floor-length, two-piece silver metallic gown, and Kristen wore it as a minidress. I would make the phone call sort of cringing, but he always was happy to do it, saying, "Great, amazing!" It was such a joy. He had a wonderful relationship with Kristen and we're sad to see him go. — STYLIST TARA SWENNEN

This story appears in the Feb. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.