A little over a decade ago for Halloween, I dressed as Karl Lagerfeld. I wore straight-legged black jeans and a close-fitting black jacket, looped a cream jersey scarf around my neck, and shook a great deal of baby powder in my low, backswept ponytail. I wore pale powdered makeup with bronzer and black sunglasses on top, and tried to keep a straight face.
It wasn’t easy.
That’s because Karl Lagerfeld—both the caricature he created, and the man himself—was deeply funny. And the designer, who passed away today (Feb. 19), was very much in on the joke.
In his younger days, the man who made Chanel one of the world’s largest and most profitable luxury houses wanted to be a cartoonist but rightly guessed that fashion would be a more lucrative use of his gift for sketching. But as a public figure, the designer—who once said his only ambition in life was to wear size 28 jeans—made ample use of his humor.
In 2016, at an event where he was interviewed onstage by the actress Jessica Chastain, Lagerfeld told me (then a red carpet reporter at New York Magazine) that he considered himself “the most down-to-earth person in the world.” We both knew he couldn’t possibly be serious. There was the diet book, Choupette (his cat, with Goyard dishes and two maids), the fingerless gloves, the Franco-German accent, a laugh that New York Magazine’s Jessica Pressler once compared to Count Chocula’s “in its length and ridiculousness.”
That’s not to say he was always hilarious. The designer made comments at times—most notably fat-phobic ones—that were pointed and cruel, which were especially unfunny from a man with his power.
But as Charlotte Cowles observed that night in 2016 for The Cut, part of appreciating Kaiser Karl was to assume that much of his banter was delivered with tongue-in-cheek.
“Every statement is delivered with a knowing nod and a flap of his gloved hand, as if to say, ‘I’m only joking,'” she wrote. “It’s clear that his wit is not only a talent, but a coping mechanism: When he was young, his mother would slap him if he didn’t speak decisively and cleverly enough.”
Lagerfeld famously eschewed alcohol and drugs, preferring to read “ten books at the same time, in three languages.”
“I am very boring,” he deadpanned. “But it has allowed me to survive better than other people. If you don’t drink, you don’t smoke, and you don’t do drugs, and you’re not missing it and never even wanted it, and you sleep for seven hours. I tell you, life is quite pleasant.”
And he said he didn’t want a ceremony when all was said and done.
“I do not like funerals, and I do not want anyone to come to mine,” he told Pressler in 2007. “Do what you want with the ashes. Send them down the garbage chute.”
Whether or not he was being serious is difficult to say.