The Business of Being Karl Lagerfeld, Creator

Creativity at work.
Creativity at work.
Image: REUTERS/Charles Platiau
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“Would you like to take a tour of Coco Chanel’s apartment?” I remember being asked this question in Paris in October 2012, and in the split second before I blurted out, “Yes, that would be lovely, thank you!”, I thought, can the answer to that question ever be no? I was at the Chanel headquarters to interview Karl Lagerfeld for the teaching case on Chanel that I was writing, and as I waited for him, I walked through Coco Chanel’s apartment. It was very different – ornate, almost baroque – from what I had expected from the woman who is best-known for her modern, streamlined, crisp designs.

I was mulling over this discrepancy before I met Lagerfeld, but, after the interview ended, I began to think it wasn’t such a discrepancy after all, as I also saw greater similarities than met the eye, between the pony-tailed iconoclast that was Lagerfeld and the storied, elegant Coco Chanel. The unlikely décor of the apartment suggested Coco Chanel understood fashion was a business, and that her creativity and personal preferences had to be manifest in her designs only within the parameters of business. The same pragmatism and realism about the business of fashion shone through in my interview with Lagerfeld and it became clear to me why he was the right person to revive the House of Chanel after its founding designer passed away.

I think I had gone into that interview imagining Lagerfeld would live up to an image of “creative/artistic genius,” but I was entirely wrong. Fashion, he said, was “applied art,” and Coco Chanel was a “couturier” who never called herself an artist; why then, he asked rhetorically, did some designers today forget they “made dresses” and talk instead about their “art”? When I asked how he worked best, for a moment he slipped into the role of an artiste, saying complete freedom was important to him, that he designed for himself, not thinking about “marketing” and that he didn’t give “second options” to management or customers. But as he continued, he revealed the other, more business-y side that I hadn’t expected: “I am not a total idiot – I know it is necessary to sell. I am not concerned [by it], but I understand perfectly. I hate it when designers talk as though they are victims of the establishment. Nobody is a victim.” He understood the business of fashion was a long play, he said, and pragmatically stated, “Nobody invests in abstract genius.”

It would be an understatement to say I was surprised to hear these sentiments expressed by the designer who famously had an iceberg flown in from the Arctic pole for a fashion show (and who also, in his interview with me, asserted he would take as a “personal insult” any budgetary restriction on the expenses for a show). And yet, there was no question his was a creative mind, whose designs were critically acclaimed and far from being mere crowd-pleasers. How did these two sides co-exist and reconcile within this one person?

Indeed, this is the conundrum faced by many, if not all, businesses in the creative industries, which sell creative works that are physical manifestations of ideas and typically have intangible value that is not directly commensurate with economic value. These firms have to continually balance the art and market worlds, and cannot usually let one side dominate – works that are too avant garde (think Ulysses) may not sell even if they are fulfilling for the creator, and works that sell easily (“popular” or “crowd-pleasing” or “entertaining”) undermine the companies’ cultural credentials. While there are several strategies that can be deployed by firms wishing to maintain this balance, sometimes managers struggling to meet strategic and financial targets find it easier and safer to use market research to define specifications to which creators’ works should conform to ensure high sales. And while this tactic is sometimes necessary to avoid costly works of “abstract genius,” it is exactly what causes creators to feel like a “victim” of “the establishment.”

Yet here was Lagerfeld, somehow managing to do both, and not apologizing to either side. Here too was the management team of the House of Chanel, willing to give him free rein and letting him lead a life in business without having to consider sales and marketing. But it was exactly the fact that Lagerfeld (like Coco Chanel) was a balance of both – an uncompromising creator with an astute commercial sense – that gave him the freedom he craved because corporate management could be certain of his ability to understand and accept the importance of commerce and creativity. In our interview, he agreed that he had been fortunate in  getting what he asked for, and that not too many companies would provide those conditions so easily; but, as he pointed out, he also always did what he thought was the right direction for the house, and while he was certainly treated well, the firm was “probably not too unhappy” either. It became clear to me that Lagerfeld had the quality, relatively rare among artistic individuals, of understanding the mandates of both the artistic and business worlds and not looking down on either side.

When Lagerfeld was hired a few years after Coco Chanel’s passing, many thought he would destroy her design legacy, which, in fact, he did – but he did so in order to rebuild, to refresh the Chanel look. Since then, he reinstated Chanel at the top of the fashion industry, believing in instinct, but never thinking there was ever a single creative genius moment that did the magic, and therefore working tirelessly; unconcerned about marketing, yet always aware that his designs had to sell. It is this mix of contradictions that led him to develop a rare balanced mindset between art and business, one that just got rarer in the world since his passing yesterday.

Mukti Khaire is the Girish and Jaidev Reddy Professor of Practice at Cornell Tech and the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business. Prior to joining Cornell Tech, she spent 11 years on the faculty of Harvard Business School, after getting her PhD from Columbia Business School. Her research and teaching focuses on entrepreneurship in the creative industries, and her book Culture and Commerce: The Value of Entrepreneurship in Creative Industries was recently published by Stanford University Press.