Fashion / Style

The Extraordinary Life of Misunderstood Fashion Icon Karl Lagerfeld Is Examined in William Middleton’s Latest Book

An Author With Texas Ties Tells His Story From Paris

BY Donatella Benckenstein // 04.05.24

Editor’s note: In this new PaperCity series, “Postcards from Paris,” Donatella Benckenstein chronicles her adventures in the French capital. With a Dutch mother and Italian-American diplomat father, Benckenstein was raised all over the world. She was schooled under the French academic and university systems, and anchored herself in Paris, both professionally and privately. Now, this well-traveled sophisticate is back in Paris after living in Houston for more than two decades.

In this first story, Donatella Benckenstein sits down for a Q&A with journalist and acclaimed de Menil biographer William Middleton.

Located in the historically artsy 6th arrondissement of Paris’ Left Bank, which is home to many literary figures and creative icons, is Hotel Lutetia and its striking Le Saint-Germain salon. This seems like the perfect setting to discuss William Middleton’s second biography, Paradise Now: The Extraordinary Life of Karl Lagerfeld.

Published in 2023, this book about the fashion icon, late Chanel creative director and legendary designer is now being translated into a dozen languages and will soon be the object of a Paramount documentary, with Middleton serving as an executive producer for the first time.

Middleton, a friendly Kansas native who started his professional life in New York after studying journalism, approached me with his companion: An adorable French bulldog named Simon, pronounced “See-mon” in French.

Café au lait in hand, we sat down and began the interview.

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Donatella Benckenstein (right) with William Middleton, author of <em>Paradise Now: The Extraordinary Life of Karl Lagerfeld</em>
Donatella Benckenstein (right) with William Middleton, author of Paradise Now: The Extraordinary Life of Karl Lagerfeld

Donatella Benckenstein: Tell me how this special project came about?

William Middleton: I have wanted to write a book about Lagerfeld ever since my first encounter with him in 1995.

At that time, I was Paris bureau chief for Fairchild Media, responsible for all fashion-related stories, representing publications such as W and Womens Wear Daily, to name a few. After leaving Paris, I dedicated the following years to writing the de Menil biography Double Vision, which became somewhat of an important artistic reference and comprehensive account on this legendary Houston couple’s life.

Then, following Karl Lagerfeld’s death, I moved here in 2019 with a specific goal in mind: to write the biography of this fashion icon. The writing of Paradise Now took me three and a half years of research and writing. It brought me back to Paris.

We are approaching the fifth anniversary of Lagerfeld’s death. What impression did Monsieur Lagerfeld leave with you when you met him as a younger man back in the nineties?

At that point, he had a harsh image — oversized Yamamoto suits, hand fans — and he had just started to powder his hair. Once I got to know him, though, I said to him: “I have rarely seen someone who has a public image that is harsh and almost unpleasant, but getting to know them, you find out that they are much warmer and kinder, and almost touching.”

And Karl said to that, “It is better that than the opposite, non?”

Karl Lagerfeld adorned the cover of <em>PaperCity</em>'s December 2013 issue. (Self-portrait)
Karl Lagerfeld adorned the cover of PaperCity‘s December 2013 issue. (Self-portrait)

You mention that this is a cultural biography. Can you define what that means?

The book tells the story of his life, but particularly focuses on his cultural and intellectual journey. He was a fashion designer and that was super important to him, but he was also someone who was completely engaged in the culture of his time.

Writing this book required a lot of research. How were you able to access all the facts and data?

I spent many thousands of hours on this book — research, archival reviews, discussions with Chanel representatives, friends of Karl’s, listening to and viewing interviews, combined with my own experience of many years in fashion journalism at a most revolutionary time.

The House of Chanel was, at first, less than excited about the idea. It took some time to convince them, but it grew into a meaningful and productive collaboration, thanks to the contributions of the Chanel archivist dedicated to maintaining the brand’s patrimony. They saw that the work was serious.

It was to be a comprehensive account of Lagerfeld’s entire life, including the pivotal era spent revolutionizing the House of Chanel.

You saw Karl debut the Chanel “Métiers dArt” show in Texas. What was that like?

Karl loved Texas, and the first runway show of the collection “Métiers d’Art,” in 2013 was to be held there. (I thought) “What is the Chanel Paris-Dallas 2013/14 collection going to be like?” So I went there, and it was extraordinary. It was the first time Chanel was launching a collection, under Lagerfeld’s direction, specifically to celebrate and showcase Parisian Couture’s artisans’ work.

The show was preceded by a short film orchestrated by Lagerfeld about the Neiman Marcus award given to Gabrielle Chanel in 1954, after she had relaunched her brand with her comeback collection. Neiman’s had recognized her importance before others did, so there was a reason to do it in Dallas.

The set was made up of vintage cars in an indoor area that looked like an exhibition space, with sawdust on the floors. It resembled a drive-in theatre. Karl was seated with Anna Wintour in the back seat of his car, with Geraldine Page (who played Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel) and Andre Talley in the front.

Lagerfeld’s headquarters were at The Mansion. From there we did a few road trips with Karl and friends to Marfa and to Houston, where we had a Texas-themed party for him at the Menil house.

January 1983, Karl Lagerfeld is named creative director of Chanel, and is immortalized by Helmut Newton on the mirrored staircase at 31, rue Cambon where Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel once perched. (Courtesy Patrimoine de Chanel, Paris; © The Helmut Newton Foundation)
January 1983, Karl Lagerfeld is named creative director of Chanel, and is immortalized by Helmut Newton on the mirrored staircase at 31, rue Cambon where Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel once perched. (Courtesy Patrimoine de Chanel, Paris; © The Helmut Newton Foundation)

Tell me about the last time you saw him.

It was briefly in 2016 at a Paris event. I approached him and said, “I just wanted to let you know that the de Menil book I have been working on is almost finished, and I think it will be good. Once it is finished, I would like to talk to you about doing something with you.”

Then, Karl responded “Hmmm,” and nodded his head up and to the side. He didn’t say “No,” but he certainly didn’t say “Yes.” He did not want a book about himself. . .  and then I later found out that he had cancer, so the last thing he wanted was someone hanging around him trying to get the story when he didn’t want anyone to know he was sick.

How did the book title come about?

On another occasion Karl was pressed further on this matter and asked, “What about your memoirs, are you going to write your memoirs?”

He said, “Hell no, I am not writing memoirs, I am too busy living. I don’t want to write about it.”

At one point in this same conversation, Lagerfeld was reminded that “We write our memoirs also for posterity.” His response was: “La posterité, je m’en fous. Paradise now” (“Posterity I don’t care about at all. Paradise now).”

<em>Paradise Now: The Extraordinary Life of Karl Lagerfeld</em> by William Middleton
Paradise Now: The Extraordinary Life of Karl Lagerfeld by William Middleton

Karl was a visionary; his creativity abounded. What has Karl done for fashion?

As relates to Chanel, he not only saved the brand — he moved it into the 21st century by reviving and transforming this, at the time, fragrance-dominated company into an equally celebrated and revered modern, cutting edge clothing and fashion brand.

Lagerfeld accomplished this in huge strides, at a tremendous scale, in whatever he undertook. He created true excitement at Chanel.

At a time when the artisans, or maisons, who provided their crafts and art to the big Paris design houses were suffering, Chanel — on Lagerfeld’s behalf — started “Paraffection,” a consortium of these artisan companies that continue to deliver amazing work for Haute Couture and Ready to Wear.

It was a way of guaranteeing the survival of some of the oldest crafts in Couture, including handwork embroidery, fabrics, beading, leather goods and other embellishments. The result was the establishment of Le 19 M, a museum-like building that houses several different companies, where a new generation of these artisans works and ensures the future of their specific skills. Chanel continues to hold the “Métiers d’Art” show annually, using all of the artisans to display the brilliance of their craft.

Karl Lagerfeld’s drawing of the elegant line of Jacques de Bascher, 1975, in Karl’s chateau in Brittany, Grand-Champ.<br />(Courtesy Patrimoine de Chanel, Paris)
Karl Lagerfeld’s drawing of the elegant line of Jacques de Bascher, 1975, in Karl’s chateau in Brittany, Grand-Champ.
(Courtesy Patrimoine de Chanel, Paris)

Lagerfeld was remarkable in whatever he did, a true innovator. He had a vision and used all the modern-day communication tools available to us nowadays.

Some might say he went too far, but Karl sensed the idea of social media. The shows became larger. They became social media food. Through spectacles such as the Chanel rocket liftoff at the Grand Palais, Karl harnessed celebrities from all sectors.

He also showed that a designer could do more than just design. He was engaged in photography, an art form which he pursued successfully, and an avid fan of architecture and history.

He even decided to buy a building that had belonged to a French filmmaker on 7 rue de Lille and open a bookstore in front. This, Karl’s studio, is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Two stories tall, all books, with the skylight reserved for his photography studio.

The studio, now owned by Chanel, is being used for events, book launches and literary evenings. The French version of my book was launched there recently.

All for now, with love from Paris — Paradise Now. 

William Middleton will do a book launch and talk for Paradise Now: The Extraordinary Life of Karl Lagerfeld on Saturday, April 20 from  2 pm to 3 pm, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. For more information and tickets, go here

Then catch William Middleton’s talk, The Art of Biography on Tuesday, April 23 from 10 am to 11:30 am, at Midtown Arts and Theater Center Houston (MATCH), presented by The Houston Seminar. For more information and tickets, go here.

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