written by
Lynn Dittel

Chloé, Diet Coke and a Gay Lover: How Karl Lagerfeld became Kaiser Karl

Fashion 6 min read

A new miniseries is set to release on Disney+ detailing Karl Lagerfeld’s rise to fame as Creative Director at Chloé. Based on Alfons Kaiser’s book “A German in Paris”, the show allows a glimpse behind the curtain of 70s Paris’ fashion world and into the only romantic relationship the pop culture icon ever led.

The screen shows a car door opening and slouchy red patent leather boots step out. Wearing them is a young Karl Lagerfeld who, moments later, makes his way through a trendy club. No trace of a white ponytail, instead he rocks bootcut denim and a thick beard. The only things familiar about this version of Lagerfeld are his dress jacket and brooches. Nothing about him appears special except for the fact that he sips on Diet Coke instead of Champagne. As he sits to the side, his thoughts seem to be anywhere but in this room with the raving mass of inebriated people. Yet he immediately catches the attention of Jacques de Bascher – a young bachelor with the self-proclaimed ability to detect genius. It’s 1971 and Karl Lagerfeld is about to become the Creative Director of Chloé.

The Disney+ show “Becoming Karl Lagerfeld” is set to release on June 7th, starring German actor Daniel Brühl (“All Quiet on the Western Front”, “Good Bye, Lenin”). The series celebrated its premiere in Le Grand Rex, Paris on May 28th and two days later in Zoopalast, Berlin, showing the first two episodes in an exclusive preview.

This fan is the only thing Brühl kept from set.

The show takes place in 70s Paris, and tells the tale of the late fashion designer’s reign at Chloé. Even though he designed for the fashion house from 1963 on, it would be eleven more years until he earned the title of Creative Designer in 1974. His time with the brand launched him to the international stardom that would last him a lifetime. The six episodes explore his friendship and rivalry with Yves Saint Laurent, ongoing strife with businessman Bergé and love affair with the aforementioned de Bascher, alongside his growing success in the fashion industry.

Jacques de Bascher and Karl Lagerfeld
Jacques de Bascher on the left and Karl Lagerfeld on the right.

The designer first started working in the industry after winning a design contest and being taken on by Pierre Balmain as an assistant. After his time there he had his first experience in haute-couture with Jean Patou, though his designs were not well-received by the press. After his stint as a one-brand man he pioneered as a fashion mercenary, designing for Charles Jourdan, Cúriel, Krizia, Ballantyne, Isetan, Tiziani of Rome and most notably Chloé and Fendi. He was often described as a machine with a comically German work ethic, someone who could be given assignments and tirelessly turn out incredible results. He shied away from drugs and sex, often stating that Diet Coke was his only vice.

His relationship with Yves Saint Laurent serves as an almost poetic contrast to his life and work. He began his career in fashion the same year as Karl, after winning a different category in the same competition and was taken on by Hubert de Givenchy. Starting out as friends, the two couturiers would go on to have a complex and layered relationship. Laurent’s passion, intense lifestyle and fight for a namesake label contrasted greatly with Lagerfeld’s restraint and insistence on working under and bettering names different from his own. The tug-of-war over lover de Bascher certainly didn’t help the dynamic. Even though Karl calls him the love of his life, he was never possessive. In the book Jacques de Bascher, dandy de l’ombre Karl names Yves Saint Laurent's business partner Bergé – not de Bascher – as the reason he distanced himself from his peer.

The pieces shown in the Disney+ series are today amongst the rarest of Lagerfeld pieces. Chloé by Lagerfeld is incredibly hard to come by and has been named a “great investment” by Brynn Jones, founder of Aralda Vintage. The show highlights how well Lagerfeld worked with prints, surrealist influences and flowing fabrics – a clothing identity very different from his later work at Chanel. Two of his best-known pieces from his Chloé era include the shower dress and the violin dress, reminiscent of Elsa Schiaparelli, back then missing from the scene as a result of her post-war losses.

The Chloé-Chanel-comparison also highlights how well he understood different brand DNAs and not only in clothing terms. He prologued his first runway show at Chloé telling his models to have fun, not look serious, play with the audience and not take themselves too seriously. He understood the vision Gaby Aghion, founder of Chloé, had when she created the brand in honor of her friend Chloé Huysmans: women who, even though well off, did not have time for fittings and wanted easy but chic outfits to enjoy life in. Quite different from the preppy It-Girls he designed for at Chanel.

The show was shot entirely in French and German, which was especially important to Brühl. “I wanted to see the world through Karl’s eyes”, he said while introducing the film at the premiere. Forty outfits were designed for his portrayal of the Hamburg-native – at least six different outfits per episode. Despite spending much time in Lagerfeld’s personal center of the world – Saint-Germain-de-prés, the 24th arrondissement of Paris – in preparation to the role, Brühl has said he’s still been unable to put all the pieces to truly understand the man he played. Christiane Arp, former editor in chief of Vogue Germany, revealed how the designer once wistfully reminisced about his time in a dirty, cool Paris which had ceased to exist at some point in the past 50 years. Maybe the reason the puzzle that is Karl Lagerfeld feels incomplete to Brühl is that some of the pieces have been lost in time.

However, the actor attributes this more to the polarity and contradictions of Karl’s personality and life than anything else. He was an intellectual, but also a pop culture icon, famous, but also lonely. Always curious to learn, accomplished in photography, design, fashion and writing. Hard to grasp but “a gift to play”.

Karl Lagerfeld in 70s Paris.

Interesting to note: all speakers at the premiere used present tense when speaking of Lagerfeld, as if he is still around – and maybe they weren’t wrong to do so. In his time he changed and modernized the fashion industry to an extent that is still felt today. He was the first designer to work freelance, a practice that has become common since. He revived Chanel from the dead and he was the first designer to work with H&M, who went on to collaborate with many other luxury fashion houses. While he was a controversial figure with, at times, out of date views, he made up for it with his plethora of new ideas in fashion. Even if not a full biopic, “Becoming Karl Lagerfeld” looks like a promising throwback to his beginnings as Kaiser Karl.

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Fashion Karl Lagerfeld Disney+ Biopic Chloé