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Meeting Karl Lagerfeld

Malavika Sangghvi

As a journalist one gets to meet many extraordinary people: saints like Baba Amte and Mother Theresa, spiritualists like Eckhart Tolle and Mata Amritanandamayi, statesmen like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair and savants like Karl Lagerfeld, photographer, visionary creative director, head designer for fashion houses Fendi and Chanel and possessor of the most famous pony tail in the world!

For the last, we have had to take a flight to Paris (Air France very pleasant), a taxi to our hotel (the Westin Vendome) and finally a cycle rickshaw (to beat the crazy Paris rush hour traffic) to the banks of the Seine (the irony that we are the grand niece of Balraj Sahni whose depiction of a humble rickshaw puller in Do Bigha Zameen made for the most searing social commentary is not lost on us as we are being transported) where Lagerfeld’s exhibition The Glory of Water is housed in a huddle of tented domes.


Karl Lagerfeld at his exhibition The Glory of Water. The exhibition is a photographic homage to Rome’s fountains

But before we meet the master, we are given a sneak preview of the exhibition: a homage to the fountains of Rome following Fendi’s undertaking of the restoration of Rome’s celebrated fountains, photographed by him and presented as a series of dark brooding images. Fifty of them daguerreotype and fifty as platinotypes, both rare and antique processes of photographic development that call for platinum palladium and Japanese paper. It is an extraordinary experience, this exhibition: the sound of rushing water, heady fragrances, amplified acoustics and the feeling that we are submerged under water a fitting prelude to our meeting.

Here’s the thing about visionaries like Karl: they are a force of nature and their creativity is unceasing and unbound. They are also unpredictable: for a man who recently announced that he was so in love with his pet Siamese cat, Choupette that he would marry her if marriage between animals and humans were legalised far from the whimsical eccentric that we expect him to be, Karl is all no-nonsense German practicality: when asked if like the little boy standing timidly at the edge of the sea in the documentary KL: Confidential who still fears water he says, “Oh but there’s a difference no, between what one is like when one is four and a hundred years old!” That self-deprecating reference to his senior citizen status (he’ll be 80 in three years) breaks the ice, and we chat like old friends, while behind us the Eiffel Tower stands like a totem to French savoir faire.

A cat named Karl
Fendi’s commitment to water is not a recent thing. Way back in 1977 to present his first ready to wear collection for the brand, Lagerfeld oversaw the creation of a short 18-minute film The History of Water, starring actress Suzie Dyson. It was a precursor to the ubiquitous fashion film and way before its time and is evidence of the designer’s early genius. Dyson plays a capricious flighty young American woman obsessed with the fountains of Rome.


Photographs taken by Karl Lagerfeld at his exhibition

Her mother believes she is taking the cure at Baden Baden indeed her postcards refer to this subterfuge while she is shown sipping champagne, bathing in fountains and indulging her innocent delights dressed in Fendi’s handsome new ready to wear collection. The film ends with her receiving a cryptic invitation from the five Fendi sisters (‘Suzy darling, the furs are ready’) to visit their atelier.


Karl Lagerfeld, Silvia Fendi and Pietro Beccari

Dressed only in patent leather pants, the young woman tries on one magnificent coat after another, in front of a series of dramatic mirrors, mesmerised by her own beauty before joining the sisters for a camp and sensual meal (a teenage Silvia Venturini Fendi, now the fashion house’s most visible heads, makes a fleeting appearance.) Full of white lies, a poignant melancholy and a throbbing sensuality the film rises above the ordinary to achieve an art house respectability. Our favourite scene? The one in which Dyson writes to her mother. ‘I have a cat named Karl’ and she’s shown clearly hugging a dog!


Dinner settings the Petit Palais

The taking of Paris
And finally to make the Fendi taking of Paris (that too at the height of Paris couture week) complete, a sumptuous dinner at the Petit Palais where amidst European masterpieces, vaulting fountains, a light show amongst the trees and non stop champagne Lagerfeld, Pietro Beccari, Fendi’s dashing president and Silvia Fendi have invited their friends to dinner. The Romans have come! They have conquered Paris once again! Veni, vidi, vici and Fendi!

Naomie Harris
Naomie Harris

Fendi’s flagship style
Not satiated with our interview with Lagerfeld, the mesmerising short film The History of Water and the exhibition of his photographs of Rome’s fountains, we find ourselves making our way to Fendi’s hyper glam and very high-profile flagship store opening on N° 51 Avenue Montaigne where Hollywood and fashion celebrities have gathered.

Portia Freeman
Portia Freeman

Designed by Gwenaël Nicolas, it has a brilliant glow to it, enhanced by standalone specially created art installations and sculpture like a spiralling column by Tony Cragg that winds upwards near the entrance and Paris-based artist Maria Pergay’s three site-specific works in stainless steel and wood, each evoking nature (a table molded from an enormous tree trunk, a funnel-shaped light fixture covered in Perspex and a wall devoted to Fendi’s iconic Baguette pierced with 30,000 bronze needles).

Sharon Stone
Sharon Stone

The back of the store is for Fendi’s made to order service where it’s well-heeled clients can choose their choice of material from a framed section (even this resembles an installation namely a Mondrian canvas!) It is here amidst statement furniture by Gio Ponti, and Gabriella Crespi that we bump into Sharon Stone elegant in a black Fendi dress and escorted by a serious and suited young man: my son she says bringing the young child forward when we meet.

Natalia Vodianova
Natalia Vodianova

Coiffed, well-shod and heeled and channelling her inner grande dame it is obvious that Stone’s Basic Instinct days are well behind her! Other invitees at the event are Marisa Berenson and Portia Freeman, Chiara Mastroianni, Natalia Vodianova, Clotilde Courau, Naomie Harris and Adele Exarchopoulos.

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