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Published
May 2, 2023
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Karl Lagerfeld documentary: a fascinating spotlight on a fashion phenomenon

Published
May 2, 2023

Michael Waldman's Karl Lagerfeld documentary, The Mysterious Mr Lagerfeld, aired on the BBC in the UK late last week (and will be rolling out globally) and has been chalking up five-star ratings. 

Chanel - Spring-Summer2013 - Haute Couture - Paris


Coming out at the same time as the publicity explosion around the Karl-themed Met Gala and the Met’s Lagerfeld exhibition, it further underlines the importance of the designer. 

He may not — originally — have been as well known outside of the fashion world as contemporaries such as Yves Saint Laurent, but his fame grew and he had just as much of a profound impact on the way women dressed across multiple decades.

Like the recent Kingdom of Dreams documentary series, the film shines a light on the world of high-end fashion fashion that simply can’t be equalled in the assorted fictional or ‘reality’ TV shows and movies that try to do the same.

So what exactly do we get with The Mysterious Mr Lagerfeld? On the surface, a documentary that — frustratingly at first — doesn’t follow a chronological timeline or look at every aspect of his career.

If you want to learn about his work at Chloé or Fendi, for instance, you won’t get that.

But 10 minutes in, having accepted the way the film-makers have put it together, it’s an enjoyable and illuminating ride. 

You can take it shallow, of course, and just marvel at the money spent on those Chanel show backdrops (such as the recreated supermarket, airline terminal or beach), plus the clothes.

And you can wonder, along with the film-makers, about what exactly was in Lagerfeld’s will and who got most of his mega-millions, which is the peg on which the piece is hung. 

But beyond all that, it’s a fascinating insight into Lagerfeld’s rarefied world and a life that was so different from something most of us can relate to.

As well as execs at Chanel and his own label, we get to meet the two male supermodels who were surrogate sons (Baptiste Giabiconi and Brad Kroenig whose own sons are Lagerfeld’s godsons and regularly featured in Chanel shows). We learn a little about the men he loved, particularly Jacques de Bascher, who died young and also had a relationship with Lagerfeld’s hated rival Saint Laurent. And we learn a lot about Choupette, the cat he adored and turned into a superstar. 

We also discover his American niece whose honesty and lack of interest in fashion, but enjoyment of sometimes being with her megastar uncle, are quite disarming. 

And we get to meet the bodyguard Sébastien Jondeau, who was much more protective of his employer than simply being there physically.

Others speaking in the film include two former editors of Vogue Paris: Carine Roitfeld (also a Lagerfeld collaborator) and Colombe Pringle; plus his muse Amanda Harlech; and assorted others such as a Paris neighbour, a former friend, his lawyer, and his doctor, all adding to the picture that’s being painted. 

That picture isn’t always appealing. The way he dropped some friends, plus his unedifying and faintly ludicrous flight to Monaco, for instance. He bought a luxurious Monaco property to live in and avoid the high taxes Francois Mitterand’s new Socialist government was to bring in, only to discover that the property was actually just beyond the Monaco border and so was in France. 

And Lagerfeld was known for his acid tongue with his infamous quotes about Adele being “a little too fat” and Coco Chanel being “a mean bitch” both included.

But for those who might have thought that was as far as it went in relation to the designer’s personality, the documentary also highlights his plus points. Apart from his undeniable fashion (and marketing) genius, his ultra-extreme generosity, overall loyalty to friends, exquisite taste, culture (and the more than half-a-million euros he spent annually at Paris bookshop Librairie Galignani) are all on show -- as are the tears of the models in the first Chanel show shortly after he died.

All in all, any documentary that leaves you feeling you’d have liked it to be longer deserves its five stars.

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