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Will the real Karl Lagerfeld please stand up?

Dear fashion world (and beyond):

I write this to warn you. I am still utterly unknowable, even with the publication of a new book about me, The World According to Karl. Paradoxical, I know, but that is moi. The book is in black and white, with stylized pictures of my iconic white hair, high stiff collars and dark sunglasses. I am a black and white person. I am what you see, not as old as you might think, not as young as I would hope. Every morning, I have my little 15 minutes of styling: I set up the puppet. I am visual culture, like a caricature of myself, a mask. And I contribute to visual culture, too – as a photographer, as a designer for Chanel and Fendi and my own label, as someone to be photographed and recognized and quoted, an "irregular" in the parade of the ordinary. Somebody has to do it.

Early on in my career, when, in 1960, I was working with Pierre Balmain, I designed a special little hat, a pancake-shaped circle of satin, which hung on the cheek. I called it "slaps in the face." Droll, no? Well, the critics panned it. They didn't get it, that the human body is just a canvas, a glorious surface that does not need to be more. It can comment about the world, that surface.

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My designs are my unconscious made real. Ideas come to me when I am asleep, my happiest time. But I was nobody in the sixties, you see. Ha! I even called myself Roland Karl. It wasn't until the eighties that I became famous. Not that I let that concern me, you understand. As I like to say, whining about one's past is the beginning of a lack of future.

One thing I must point out before I go on: If you think that I created this World According to Karl in order to reveal something about myself, think again. I didn't have anything to do with it. No, no, I simply remained in my Parisian mansion with my beloved cat, Choupette. I would marry her if I could. Homosexuality precludes the problem of having an unbearable daughter-in-law, as my mother used to say. Anyway, I never wanted to have children. If a child didn't do as well as me, I wouldn't have loved it. And if it did better than me, I wouldn't have loved it, either. Choupette is easy and stunning – a perfect set of attributes. She has very blue eyes, and her movement is so beautiful. She even has her own Twitter feed, clever girl. Of course, she has maids who brush her hair and feed her lovely warm fish (or so I like to tell people).

I tell people lots of things. Pourquoi pas? Think of my Karlisms, as some have called them, as interesting strings of words that decorate the world, as designs of angular black-and-white articulation. The world can be so annoying, so disappointingly unattractive, filled with people in sweatpants (a sure sign of defeat), who are démodé or a little too fat. And why shouldn't one's words be a form of dress? A costume? They contribute to how others perceive you, after all. They are part of the style of one's character. Are the quotes in this book what I believe? Are they a true picture of me? Pfft – ça ne fait rien. As I have often said, I work on the principle that you can say what you like as long as it's not true.

The editors of the book, whom I've allowed to collect all the things that I have told people in interviews and magazines and documentaries over the years, have this idea that my repartee can be breathtaking, that I am a master of the cut and thrust, reminiscent of the great and glittery salons of decades past, but also integral to today's digital "global salon" in which everything is shared and repeated, ruffling people's feathers one minute, supplanted the next by someone else's tart observations about life.

I will admit that there's one small part of the book that may give readers some indication of what formed me. It is so common for people to want to understand the lumpy underbelly of the psyche. Fine. My mother had a huge influence on me. My father was a wealthy businessman in Hamburg, Germany. He left me alone for the most part. My mother was a lingerie saleswoman who put me in my place with a clip 'round my ears.

Once, when I was 8, I wore a Tyrolean hat, because I loved them, and she said to me: "You shouldn't wear hats. You look like an old dyke!" Funny, no? She also told me once that she was going to have to take me to the upholsterer. "Your nostrils are too big," she said. "They need curtains."

But, look, I do not believe in psychoanalysis. It kills creativity. I know that I do not like myself. I am in a constant state of unhappiness. You can quote me on that. Besides, I feel I have all the answers. Be a coat hanger for fabulous clothes. Wear black sunglasses all the time. The emotions expressed by the eyes, they're not something I really want to put on the market. Do not smile. I rarely do. It ruins the look of severity.

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Do not define yourself. I skate on thin ice, which is why I have to keep going – before it cracks. I work hard. And no, I would never write my own memoirs, just in case you're wondering. I would have to mention people I don't like. I would have to revisit the past, which would take me away from the reinvention necessary in the present.

Take notes, if you like. I have never smoked. I never drink alcohol. I eat very little. Dry shampoo is my cocaine. Fashion is my perfect place in the world. It is ephemeral, dangerous and unfair. Like life. And I have survived it, no?

Sincerely, Der Kaiser

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About the Author
Life columnist

Sarah Hampson is an award-winning journalist whose work started appearing in The Globe and Mail in 1998, when she was invited to write a column. Since 1993, when she began her career in journalism, she had been writing for all of Canada's major magazines, including Toronto Life, Saturday Night (now defunct), Chatelaine, Report on Business and Canadian Art, among others. More


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