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Cutting words from the master

Karl Lagerfeld
A self-portrait from the master designer, photographer, publisher...
Dressed in his trademark black and white, his fingers weighed down with rings, Karl Lagerfeld sits in his Chanel studio and is in expansive mood.

Those rings clink noisily. "Today I counted 19. Sometimes I go up to 23. I have only 10 fingers like everybody else, hm?" he says.

The German-born designer wants to talk about his collaboration with his friend, the architect Zaha Hadid. Early this year, she produced a museum - or, rather, portable exhibition space - the Chanel Mobile Art Pavilion.

It is fully transportable, for show in Asia, New York, London, Moscow and Paris - and inside is an art exhibition celebrating Chanel handbags.

He says he knew and was an admirer of her work in the days before her buildings were constructed - and says he believes Hadid has produced a new shape for the 21st Century. But he rejects suggestions that they share a similar metier.

It's great to see things you may not buy because you don't have the money but it is very ugly to think they shouldn't exist because you cannot buy them
Karl Lagerfeld

"Clothes if they are not well cut, you can kill nobody. A building poorly built can kill people. It's a much more difficult work. I would not compare myself with that."

The interview is conducted in the old Chanel studio - a surprisingly small place. "This is where I work, we do in this room something like eight collections a year."

So many? "Not for an organised mind. Doing collections, doing fashion is like a non-stop dialogue.

"I do everything...I have a very special way of working - I'm quite a good sketcher so I see a thing, I make a sketch, the people who are used to work with me they can exactly work nearly without questions after that, from the sketch.

Zaha Hadid and  Karl Lagerfeld attend the opening party for Mobile Art in New York
Blackberry or iPhone: "I'm an iPod person."
Handbags for men? "Horrible."
Cosmetic surgery? "They turn into monsters. They [look like they] have survived a dangerous car crash, no?"
SUVs? "I love them. I feel security."
"I see fittings and I change very little because: I put something on the paper, I think about it.

"I am not a second option person. It is that or nothing. If it is not the way I see it I prefer not to see it. It's a very bossy way perhaps, but it works like this. It became a huge business like this so for me it's OK.

"I do everything. I do the collections, I do the advertising, I do the windows, the concepts. I do the sets of the show - if not, I'm not interested."

Lagerfeld is also a keen photographer, a publisher and recently shot a short film. But it is for his decades at the pinnacle of fashion design that he is best known - for haute couture with Chloe, Fendi and Chanel, as well as his own label and diffusion collections for the likes of H&M.

'Horrible...but healthy'

Surely the current economic climate cannot be good news for a man more used to selling handbags worth thousands of dollars to the kind of people who have now seen their bonuses crumble?

Lagerfeld sounds, in fact, quite chipper. The economic downturn was needed, he says, it had gone too far. "I see it like a cleaning up - it was too rotten anyway - so it had to be cleaned up...I see it like a healthy thing - horrible but healthy, like some miracle treatment of the world."

Will it be harder to sell handbags? Or are his products dreams - expensive dreams, to be sure - but dreams to aspire to?

"What is the real world?" he asks. "If you have no dreams, or if you don't try to improve real life of everybody, people would ask why they get up in the morning.

"You have to have a drive. My drive is the work I do.

"People have different kinds of dreams. After all, people need a handbag, there are cheaper handbags. But if you can buy a beautiful one and if that's your dream to buy, why not?"

Karl Lagerfeld

His is a robust defence of elitism and capitalism. "I can be interested in a $20m diamond I will never buy, without desiring the diamond. If you want only things you can afford, it's boring too.

"It's great to see things you may not buy - because you don't have the money - but it is very ugly to think they shouldn't exist because you can not buy them."

He dismisses the accusation that size zero models inspire women to eat unhealthily ("childish") as he dismisses that shibboleth of the fashion industry: fur. "As long as you wear leather and eat meat, don't discuss that.

"In a meat-eating world, wearing leather for shoes and even clothes and handbags, the discussion of fur is childish."

Lagerfeld is a man who lost a vast amount of weight (42 kg - or 93 pounds - in 13 months) seemingly through rigid will power and produced a diet book after doing it. He is critically acclaimed, at the height of his powers and still filled with energy.

Above all, he appears to have a shrewd insight into what drives his customers.

"People want to see something they may not be, but they should or could become," he says. The same as those handbags that cost thousands of dollars, then: dreams.

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