Karl Lagerfeld and Leïla Slimani In Conversation

Ahead of the release of Disney+ biopic 'Becoming Karl Lagerfeld', revisit Leïla Slimani's 2018 enlightening conversation with the enigmatic Karl Lagerfeld.

It is a large room, and the height of the ceiling induces vertigo. On its four walls, from ground to ceiling, bookshelves tower next to each other. An iron staircase offers access to different stories. There, one finds works about the arts, fashion, photography. They are written in English, in German or in French. It’s where I met Karl Lagerfeld, fashion icon, adulated designer and the visionary master of brands Chanel and Fendi. This is where he photographed me. He made me sit on a small swivelling stool. He adjusted my strap. And in just a few minutes, he took the shot. “Voilà, it’s done, would you like to see it?” This photograph is unlike any other taken of me. In an instant, he succeeded in capturing a glance I usually reserve for those who know me. Karl Lagerfeld looked at the screen, and he said: “There is something in you that is very 17th century, an air of Madame de La Fayette. It must be the hair, without a doubt.”

It was then that I thought, I would’ve loved to know him during that era. In the 17th century, in Paris, and no doubt we would cross paths in one of those literary salons where men of wit would give anything for a good word. Yes, those times are better suited than ours for Karl Lagerfeld’s unprecedented personality. Insolent, subversive, purposeful provocateur, he loves, in those he interacts with, a sharp, spirited mind and black humor. If we impose on him the codes of our times, he undoubtedly becomes impossible to comprehend or appreciate. Too futile, some would say. Too decadent or too politically incorrect, others would add.

Karl Lagerfeld does not exist. Or at least, what he says about himself is nothing more than a pantomime, and I am not naïve enough not to know that everything is wisely thought out by the actor he is. But the conversation is delicious, alive, playful. Like a small interlude in another century and another dimension.

Leïla Slimani photographed by Karl Lagerfeld.

In an instant, he succeeded in capturing a glance I usually reserve for those who know me. Leïla Slimani

I have heard a lot about your library. You own 300,000 books?

KL Yes, that’s about right. Two librarians work full time on it. But what you see here is only a small part. The collection is scattered among different houses around the world. Everything is archived on a computer, but in fact, I don’t need that. I know where things are. I have a very good visual memory, and I look often at the shelves to memorize where the books are. Anyway, my favorite bedside books are in my room. There is a wall of books next to my bed. There are no paintings in my homes because there is no room for anything other than books. I don’t want anything else, and I find that the books give off very good vibrations.

When did you start collecting books?

KL When I was a child. It started with my parents’ library, much of which I have kept. At the time, people did not have so many books. My parents were from another generation. They read Teilhard de Chardin, Romain Rolland and all that. You see what I mean. My mother loved the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset. Do you know him?

No.

KL I had no choice. She constantly re-read one of his books and wanted me to read it. It was called Goethe from Within. Not really a children’s book…

You had to read certain books?

KL Otherwise we couldn’t talk to my mother. When I was small, I didn’t go to school often. When I started elementary school, I could already read, write and speak three languages. I didn’t study much and never got my degree. I left before, with the permission of my parents, because they saw that I was not totally stupid. Where I grew up, in the countryside, the competition was not very tough. I was always making excuses, saying I was sick.

You stayed in the library to read?

KL To read and draw. I never did anything else in my whole life, and I do not intend to do anything else.

Did your parents forbid you to read certain books?

KL In that environment, there were no doubtful books – it was all very proper. Today it is so difficult for children to read. They spend their time on the internet and look at junk. When I grew up, we didn’t even have television. It was better that way. I have a mobile phone, of course, but I don’t want to be too connected. I don’t use Twitter and I refuse to watch videos because it kills the imagination. When I’m on a plane, I see my assistants staring at their screens. I close my eyes and make my own films. My job is to use my imagination, not to rehash what has been done before.

Your mother is a character straight out of a novel.

KL Yes, it’s true. She was tough, but also fun. She could be very funny. She was chic in a way that made everything acceptable. Ah, speaking of novels: at the moment, I am receiving a novel every week in which I appear. It’s crazy.

It’s not the first time. You were in Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island, weren’t you?

KL Yes, but that was adorable. I love Houellebecq. He’s great. I’m thinking of a book in which a crocodile is living in a bag I own but don’t use. He tells my life story and everything he sees. In the end, I die. It’s not very pleasant to read about your own death.

Do you remember your first literary shock?

KL Obviously, it was linked to illustration. I must have been five-and-a-half years old. There was a big volume on the Nibelung, and I asked that it be read to me. My mother said, “That imbecile has to learn to read, no one” – my sister, the housekeeper – “is allowed to read it to him.” So, I learned to read on my own. And I loved those stories, which also inspired Wagner’s operas. I loved Kriemhild, the woman whose husband is killed because they were jealous of him. Twenty years later, she is queen of Hungary and invites them all and burns them alive. I remember all the illustrations and the names of the illustrators. It was an edition dating from 1840.

Do you still have that book?

KL Yes, of course. My second book was the Iliad. I never read any children’s books, and I was never interested in toys. The only gifts I wanted were drawing materials. I didn’t need anything else. Don’t forget that I lived on a rather isolated farm in the German countryside near the Danish border. My mother and I seemed very exotic there. We wondered what we were doing there – the atmosphere was a bit like that in Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon. People had the same faces. I even asked Haneke if he had shot his movie in that area. He said no, but it’s not far away.

It was also a time when less attention was paid to children.

KL I thought I was the center of the world. My sisters, my half-sister and my parents did not much like my attitude. I have a half-sister from another marriage of my father. My sister, who is dead now, was older than me. She was adorable, but she married an American who was extremely religious and disapproved of my life in fashion. I acted as if I were an only child. Even worse: a child king. There was only me.

Among your favorite books, you mention poetry often, but I have rarely heard you talk about novels.

KL If a novel is not great, I won’t read it. I prefer essays, philosophy, poetry and biographies. And I love literature. The first novel I read was Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. There is another book by Mann called Tonio Kröger. I remember that Tonio Kröger’s home address was the same as that of my father’s office in Hamburg.

What are you reading right now?

KL I always read several books at a time. I am re-reading Johann Gottlieb Fichte. I am re-reading The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler, which are about German cultural life from 1898 to 1933. It’s fascinating. I know the eight volumes by heart. When they did a French edition in five volumes, I wrote a letter insulting the editor for the bad translation. Kessler was a great patron who introduced Art Nouveau around 1900. He founded the Bauhaus and launched the Nietzsche Foundation with Nietzsche’s sister. But I also read nonsense like Closer, even though it interests me less and less since I don’t know who those people are. The best time of the day is the morning, when I read the German, French and English newspapers. I have to be aware of everything because I have a political cartoon page once a month in the biggest German newspaper, Frankfurter Allgemeine.

Do you work at home?

KL I prepare everything at home. I wake up at 8am. I read the newspapers and then I draw. They bring me lunch, and then I draw some more. I only go to the studio at the end of the afternoon. I walk on the street in the evening, when no one is around. I can even have a drink on a terrace. It’s very nice. This is a village. I know the neighborhood, the sixth and seventh arrondissements, like the back of my hand. I have never lived elsewhere in my life. At one time, I also loved the Marais, which had not yet been completely renovated. I knew every building and who had lived there. That is still true, by the way. I like to know what has happened in this or that building.

Why did you move to Paris?

KL Well, if Berlin had been the Berlin that existed before 1933, I would have gone there, but it was horrible. My mother, who had lived in Berlin in the 1920s, never wanted to go back there. For someone who loved fashion and clothing, there was no choice but Paris. And don’t forget that my father had business in France. His evaporated milk company was very big on the French market at the time.

Does literature sometimes inspire your drawings and designs?

KL Yes and no. I don’t analyze. I don’t think we should analyze. It comes as it comes, and, since it comes a lot, I don’t think we should ask too many questions.

Coco Chanel had a lot of writer friends. She was sometimes their patron, sometimes their mistress. Do you have many friends who are writers?

KL We don’t live in the same time period. I would have liked to know Colette, for example. I love her writing. My two favorite French authors are Colette and Paul Léautaud. I can’t walk on a street in the neighborhood where he lived without thinking about what he said, what he was doing when he went to the apartment of the “Panthère” on Rue Dauphine and all that.

The best time of the day is the morning, when I read the German, French and, English newspapers. I have to be aware of everything. Karl Lagerfeld

Léautaud wrote: “I have always been indifferent to ambition, exhibition, reputation, enrichment – only one thing counts for me: Pleasure. I see the word pleasure as the driving force for all human activities.” Has pleasure been a driving force for you?

KL For me, what’s important is what makes me happy; it’s not the same – he was a bit of a sex maniac, and I’m not.

Yes, but he also talks about the pleasure of writing. He speaks of “writing to the devil” to describe a kind of overflow of creativity.

KL I share that with him. I don’t write because I have nothing to say. I leave it to people who have talent. Also, since I am trilingual, I would not know which language to write in. That said, I advise everyone to be trilingual; it opens doors. Sometimes I am annoyed with myself for not having learned Spanish and Portuguese well, because I love Argentinean literature.

How did you learn French?

KL I had a lady named Madame Rissl, who had been a German teacher before the war of 1914 in a school for girls from good families in Paris. Since she was a refugee from the east and didn’t have much money, my parents hired her to teach me French. My father spoke nine languages, but my mother only German, French and English. And, since I was always eavesdropping on their conversations, they spoke French so that I couldn’t understand them. I knew that Madame Rissl, whom I liked very much, spoke excellent French, so I asked her to give me lessons. Guess what the first book I read in French was? Balzac’s Béatrix. I still remember the passage in which Béatrix, who is 32 years old, is in a theater box and hides the wrinkles on her neck with a red muslin scarf.

And is French a language that has given you something special?

KL Yes, absolutely. I remember the first line of the first poem I learned in French. It was Marie Stuart’s Farewell, which begins with: “Adieu, plaisant pays de France. O ma patrie.” I know 17th-century literature very well. I love the Grand Siècle.

The 17th century also valued wit, subversion…

KL Oh yes, it’s not like today. And the role of women in literature was very interesting at the time. I still have my edition of Racine from my childhood. It’s wonderful French, as beautiful as Baroque music. It’s like Lully with words.

You should have lived at the court of Versailles.

KL Yes. I have the feeling that today we can’t say anything anymore. You have to pay attention on television because everything is misinterpreted, and the next day you receive insults and hateful comments. Well, I don’t because I’m not on social media. For example, I’m portrayed as someone who doesn’t like feminists. Just the opposite is true. Did you know that the first feminist was a German Jew named Hedwig Dohm? It was well before the suffragettes, and she went to jail for her positions. She defended the matriarchy because she said that women do not send their children to be killed. I knew Alice Schweitzer well, too. Of course, she has lost some of her prestige because of her problems with the tax authorities, but she is very friendly and speaks French very well because she was Simone de Beauvoir’s secretary. Schweitzer asked my mother what she thought of feminism. My mother said, “I am for it, but the problem is that I was not ugly enough.”

If we impose on him the codes of our times, he undoubtedly becomes impossible to comprehend or appreciate. Leïla Slimani

How do you feel when you are in Germany?

KL I don’t ask myself that question. I am neither a patriot nor a nationalist. The only thing I’m quite militant about is anti-Semitism, because the Germans cannot afford it. That’s why I am angry with Angela Merkel: there were no neo-Nazi deputies before, now there are 100. I am not at all nationalistic, and I didn’t have any religious education either – for a pretty funny reason. My mother had a cousin who was Archbishop of Münster. One day, I saw him in his long cassock and found it very chic. I said, “When I grow up, I want to dress like you.” My mother was scandalized. She told me later: “I did not go through nine months of pregnancy to end up with a priest.” So, I was not allowed to go to church, not for a Christmas mass, a funeral or anything.

You belong to a generation of cosmopolitan, secular, polyglot and open-minded Europeans. When you see what is going on everywhere in Europe now, it must sadden you.

KL Unfortunately, yes. A certain Europe has disappeared or is completely disappearing: the Europe of Princess Bibesco. She wrote The Green Parrot. Have you read it?

This feature was originally published in Mastermind 04 – buy all issues here.

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