Is there Madness in Genius, Lovers in Success and Pain in Power?
Kaiser Karl, The life of Karl Lagerfeld
Yves Saint Laurent
Fashion is what makes me feel most alive, it is what allows me truly to express myself. The world of fashion is full of interesting characters, mad geniuses who changed the world at their time and left behind a legacy bigger than the fashion world itself. These people have always interested me. I want to know if there are lovers in success, madness is genius, and pain is power. For this reason, I decided to take a deep dive into the world of fashion by reading books and articles, watching movies, and searching for information about these three fashion icons that changed history. Their stories are tangled with each other in ways that shock you. Let’s find out how Coco Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, and Karl Lagerfeld changed the world of fashion forever.
Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel was born in Saumur, France in 1883. Her father was a salesman who could disappear for long periods of time. Gabrielle’s mother was weak and sick from the beginning and she eventually died when Gabrielle was 6 years old. Their father disappeared for good, and the children were sent to an orphanage. Even though she had 2 brothers and 2 sisters, Gabrielle would later forget them all to get rid of her humble beginning. She would never mention that she was raised in an orphanage, it made her sick to even think someone would later learn about it. Chanel called the nuns of the orphanage her “aunts” whenever talking about this period in her life. These aunts were mean, judging, and harsh. According to her, this is what lights up the fire in her to show the world who Gabrielle Chanel truly was. Coco described herself as a feisty little creature who said no to everything. This stubbornness and fire would later be seen in her riding a horse like a man on a time woman could be arrested for such a thing. (Madsen, 2011)
Yves Saint Laurent was born in 1936, in Oran, Algeria. His mother was his biggest supporter and wore his early designs and showed them to her friends. Life was not easy, because being gay was seen as a crime back then especially in that area. He was bullied a lot and that made him very nervous and shy. He had two younger sisters who also wore his designs. Everything changed when Yves was 17 and his mother took him to Paris. His designs impressed the vogue editor who introduced him to Christian Dior, one of the biggest names in fashion at that time. Dior hired him as an assistant to design together and when he passed away, Yves was at the age of 21 signed as his successor running the house of Dior. (A&E Television Networks, 2014) People were questioning whether a such young man would be capable of running a fashion house, but he proved them wrong. To showcase how supporting his mother was, she saw all his shows and even moved to Paris to be close to him. (Yves Saint Laurent, 2013)
Lagerfeld or Kaiser Karl as he was also known, was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1933. He was a very lucky little boy because his parents let him pursue his passion and even funded it until he started to make more money than them. As a little boy, Karl was known for drawing constantly wherever he could. When he turned nineteen, he managed to persuade his parents to let him move to Paris. His father who owned a milk factory in Germany funded his life from housing to clothes and everything else the young man would need when living in Paris. Karl was able to speak three different languages fluently: German, English, and French. Karl did not like to talk about his German roots and often times did not mention his father at all. It was as if the man funding his life abroad didn’t even exist. People would be left wondering where he was from. In the early stages of his career, he started to create this image of himself as a nobleman. He would wear a monocle and tell stories about how his mother was an aristocrat. Nobody bothered to check if these claims were true and so the curtain of mystery stayed up. (Bacqué, 2020)
This is where we first see similarities and differences in the stories of these three fashion icons. Yves and Karl were both very lucky to be born in families that supported them and their passion for fashion. Their mothers were their biggest supporters all the way and even cheered them on as they started. I find it very heart-warming that at a time when being gay was very much illegal, these two men still had their mothers loving and supporting them. I think it’s very beautiful and must have helped them a lot to be able to express themselves from the start. In a way Coco had also her difficulties, as a woman, at that time she would not be respected in the same way as men. Her family background is however very different from these two men. She would not have parents helping or supporting her in the beginning. Her father abandoned her and her mother had died, so no personal cheerleader for her. She fought her way through with the fire she had within.
PICTURE 1. Chanel, picture taken by Cecil Beaton in 1937 (Axel Madsen, 2011. Coco Chanel)
The first world war was great for Coco. While other businesses were closing their doors, Chanel’s hat boutique turned into the House of Chanel we know today. Her love for simple style was just what the public craved during the war. Coco provided from materials like jersey that was unheard of to be used in fashion. Coco chopped her hair and others followed making it trendy. Coco wanted to design for young women, the new era began. Coco was an incredible businesswoman with her marketing skills. She would give her clothes for free to famous women, who could whisper “Chanel” when asked where they got their fashion. As Coco tackled the perfume business, she marketed the product by spraying it on the streets to get questions from random people about where to get it from. Her seamstresses would spray the perfume around the store to get customers asking what it was. Coco would simply reply; “Oh you like it, maybe I should start manufacturing it then”. When Chanel Number 5 launched it already had a customer base ready. (Madsen, 2011)
Another tactic she used was surrounding herself with mystery. She wouldn’t spend too much time in the boutique in order not to be seen too often. As mentioned, she was ashamed of her background, so she went to great lengths to hide it once she became famous enough to be invited to everything. She even went as far as to paying her brothers to stop working because she was afraid, they would be found. Coco altered her past to fit better into her version of the truth. She’d tell multiple versions of the same story to make it difficult to follow what was true and whatnot. For example, the name ‘Coco’ in one version is said to be a nickname given by her father, but in another version, she got it from the audience in a nightclub when she was singing a song titled ‘Coco’. The changing of truth was not new to Coco, she already did that when living in the orphanage. She’d claim that her father was traveling to get a proper income to be able to come and pick her up. (Madsen, 2011)
Even though Karl kept his mother in his life, both in his stories and by physically living together, she was not immune to the alterations he made to his backstory. After his mother Lagerfeld passed away, he started to reinvent her. The image he painted of her was not as pretty, loving, and supporting as she had been as reported by those who knew her. He would tell stories describing a cold and harsh woman, who would tell him to learn how to play the piano, but then close the lid on his fingers and say, “Go back to drawing, it’s less noisy”. Karl would state that his mother had no interest in his passion, even though she was his biggest supporter. Mother Lagerfeld would be seen wearing almost only designs made by her son. He went even so far as to say that his sisters were forgotten in boarding school because their mother did not care. (Bacqué, 2020)
PICTURE 2. Yves Saint Laurent wearing his own design; black leather coat in 1968. Photo by: Jeanloup Sieff. (Pierre Bergé, 1997. Yves Saint Laurent)
Yves has been described to have changed the way women dressed, he changed the world of fashion. First, he was said to be competing with Chanel because he was also making simple designs. But later his designs turned more revolutionary, and people loved them. His collection Libération was going over the limits of good taste. It showcased women in tuxedos, not equal to men but competing with them. Yves was described as the little prince of fashion, but soon that changed to the king of fashion. (Yves Saint Laurent, 2013)
Later in his life when Algeria was fighting for its independence Yves was also called for duty. It took a toll on him; he was beaten up for being gay and he started to resent his mother for not protecting him. This left a mark on him and Yves was sent to a psychiatric ward for his mental issues. He was diagnosed with manic depression. When he was at his lowest in the hospital, he found out he had been fired from his position at Dior. Pierre Berge, his companion, lover, and business partner, helped him sue the house of Dior and they won. With that money, they were able to start the house of YSL together. (Yves Saint Laurent, 2013)
One difference between Chanel and the other two was that she did not design by drawing. She would shape the garment while it was worn by a mannequin. These fittings could take an entire day, the young mannequins would be exhausted, but mademoiselle Chanel was full of fire. She had her famous scissors hanging on her pearl necklace and she would be on her knees on the floor pinning, cutting and ripping, until she was satisfied with the result. (Madsen, 2011) Yves and Karl designed through drawings and made the fashion come alive through that. Karl kept the heart of Chanel when working for the house Chanel but made it younger and fresher. (Bacqué, 2020) Yves had some ways similar styles with Coco for a long but became much bolder with his creations. (Yves Saint Laurent, 2013)
Yves, I see, is different from the others in a way that he never altered his story. He did not seem to have the need to change his past to be more interesting. Could it be the fact that his fame skyrocketed from the very beginning unlike the other two who slowly build their way onto the hall of fame? Could that explain why Karl and Coco were so keen on building their own version of their story? I mean Yves was said to be the prince of fashion right when he started and later named the king. It could also be that Yves was too busy fighting his inner demons to have time to think about what the world thought of him. Coco and Karl build their fame slowly, so they had the time and the interest to shape themselves how they preferred before everyone knowing their name. I’m also wondering could it be a sign of some kind of sickness to be so obsessed with people not knowing the truth about you. Yves was clearly shy and insecure of himself, he was very uncomfortable in front of the press, but Coco and Karl seemed poised and confident, but maybe that was how they wanted to be seen. They calculated carefully every word coming out of their mouth even though to outsiders it looked like Coco had a sharp tongue and Karl was straightforward. What a scam, I’d say!
One thing that really intrigues me is the knowledge that all of them had lovers. Coco was an independent woman even though she had many lovers who helped her in the beginning, she eventually made more money than any of them. (Madsen, 2011) Yves fell hard for Pierre Berge and their bond was strong even though he tackled a scandalous love affair with someone connected to Karl. (Bacqué, 2020)
Coco’s first one was Etienne who did not believe in her when she wanted to start her own hat business in Paris. Etienne offered to let her use his apartment in Paris, but not to give any money for the start. Luckily for Coco, there is no story about her without the love of her life Boy Capel. According to Coco, it was love at first sight. Boy believed in her hat business idea and funded her to get started with it. Boy Capel died in a car accident and that truly broke Coco. She had her bedroom covered in black and then went there for three minutes just to demand to be taken away from that grave. After Boy died, Chanel designed her famous classic that changed the world of Fashion: Little black dress. Before this, black was only the color of sadness and misery, but Chanel made it the ultimate fashion color. She was once quoted saying that she designed the little black dress to make the entire world mourn for Boy’s death. (Madsen, 2011)
PICTURE 3. Mademoiselle Chanel at the age of 50, picture by George Hoynigen-Hunen. (Axel Madsen, 2011. Coco Chanel)
Some other lovers included in Chanel’s life were composer Igor Stravinsky, Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovits Romanov, Duke of Westminster Bendor Westminster, and German Nazi known as Spatz. Dmitri gave Chanel the pearls of the Romanov family and she made a fake copy of them. This is how Chanel started the fashion of wearing fake pearls. This shows how her lovers were also her muses. When Chanel was dating Bendor, she was rumored to become the Duchess of Westminster. This could have been true if Bendor was not demanding her to quit her business in case getting married to him. The worst thing Chanel could imagine was being dependent on a man. Her money and fame were what made her so independent. Her business was her baby, she would never let that go. The house of Chanel was the true love she had, and she was not willing to give that up to anyone. Any man suggesting such a thing had to go. When she was asked about the rumors of marriage, she clapped back saying; “We are both taken, him by his wife and me to my fashion house”. Oh yes, Bendor was married when he had the affair with Chanel. (Madsen, 2011)
When Karl’s mother passed away, he was nowhere near her. Death was taboo to him. He avoided it in any way he could. There was no one who could talk about the possibility of himself dying too. The only person he is known to witness die was his lover, Jacques. Jacques was his muse and source of inspiration for decades. Jacques would spend wild nightlife in the heart of fashion and then share his stories, all gossip he heard, and what were the latest trends in the nightlife of Paris. Karl loved hearing all of it and used it as his inspiration when creating his new designs. He was incredible at turning anything into inspiration, one time he got inspired by a washing machine and turned it into buttons. Jacques was important to Karl, probably the most important person ever to enter his life. I say this because as I said he witnessed Jacques died. All the drugs, careless sex and nightlife came to an end when Jacques was diagnosed with HIV. Karl would spend every day by his lover’s side in the hospital or made sure there was someone else with him at all times. When Jacques passed away it had a huge impact on Karl. Even though Jacques was called Karl’s lover their relationship apparently was never intimate. (Bacqué, 2020)
After Jacques passed away, Karl drowned his sorrow into the one true love, he had: his work. He was a workaholic in the true definition of that word. He had his hand in everything, worked for multiple different labels at once as a freelancer, and ruled over four brands at best: Chanel, Chloé, Fendi, and Karl Lagerfeld. His passion was the most important thing for him, and he would spend most of his time drawing, designing, planning, having fittings, and talking to seamstresses. Work was his only drug of choice. I found it very interesting that a person at his position with all doors open for him during a time when using drugs was normal, chose not to do it. Karl did not even drink alcohol at all. The only drink that would be constantly seen in his hand was Coca-Cola. It was known that when he went to work, someone should have an ice-cold Coca Cola ready for him, even though no one ever knew what time the Kaiser would decide to arrive at fittings or anything else. Kaiser arrived when it suited him. He was quoted in some article saying that “I don’t like alcohol, I don’t like drugs and I’ve never been obsessed with sex”. (Bacqué, 2020, p.74)
To Yves the relationship with Pierre was complex. When they met Pierre was dating someone else but fell madly in love with him and it did not take long for them to move in together like a real couple. Even though Pierre slept with Victoire and Yves slept with other people, their bond somehow stayed. Pierre helped Yves to build his fashion empire and whenever his inner demons started to whisper, Pierre was there to calm him down. Pierre was the abutment to hold him up when he was falling – emotionally and physically. When Yves was spiraling down with his addictions and mental health, he said that Pierre was the only person capable of helping him. Pierre tried to send him to a psychiatrist and even to rehab him from the drugs and alcohol he was addicted to. At times Yves was thankful for it but two seconds later he would hate him for it. No matter how Pierre tried, he could not save Yves from the crazy life he wanted to live. (Yves Saint Laurent, 2013)
In the beginning, Yves did not drink at all, but the more famous he became, the more pressure he felt and that drove him to alcohol, cocaine, and crazy parties with orgies. It was in one of these parties, he met Jacques de Bascher, yes, the Jacques the lover of Karl Lagerfeld. These two fell madly in love and could not stay away from each other. The things connecting them were not good for either of them. They did cocaine together, partied, and lived on the edge. At some point, Pierre and Karl had had enough. Pierre shouted to Karl that he should call his seductress away from Yves. Pierre threatened Jacques and also Karl told him that it needed to end. Jacques was forbidden to see Yves ever again. This broke the already fragile Yves who blamed Pierre for it even calling him nothing. (Yves Saint Laurent, 2013)
PICTURE 4. The masculine woman by Yves Saint Laurent, photo by Helmut Newton 1975. (Pierre Bergé, 1997. Yves Saint Laurent)
To me, it seems quite normal at that time to have lovers, even though it might have been a scandal, but when reading about times before the 21st century, it seems like everyone had lovers. Even when we say that our world is more open-minded nowadays, we are not willing to let our companions have lovers. It is very controversial if someone is fine with it. Is it right of the ones succeeding to have lovers, is what I’m thinking? Does that help them somehow deal with the pressure they’re facing? Is it a way to be in control maybe? But imagine that Yves and Karl even shared the same lover! That is how entangled their stories are. Yves seems to be a person who falls madly in love as if his emotions are heightened. It’s clear that a truly creative person needs their muse. One difference between Coco and Karl was the fact that she was not afraid of death, but to Karl, it was taboo.
Even though Coco went to great lengths to seal her past, she was also very helpful to the ones she loved. While the war was raging on, Coco made sure her brother’s wife and children had everything they needed. When Cocteau, Coco’s friend got addicted to drugs, she would pay for all the rounds of rehab he went through. Her friend Djagilev had a Russian ballet that was suffering, and Coco funded it to keep going. It also happened so that Coco could decide not to be involved with someone anymore and so that person disappeared. Coco kept people around until they became a threat to her. (Madsen, 2011)
When Yves still worked with Dior, he became really good friends with one of the models; Victoire. Yves joked that she was the woman he would’ve wanted to marry and Victoire joked that if Yves was not gay, everyone would be fighting over him. The two were very close and she even helped him to get funding for the house of YSL in the beginning, she had left Dior and followed him to his brand. She was the main model who showcased the best of the best creations. Their fun, lighthearted friendship however ended, when Pierre slept with Victoire. Yves was so hurt he ridiculed Victoire at a fashion event and behind the scenes told her that her new haircut looked vulgar. Victoire slapped Yves and left the house of YSL. Yves said her looks were outdated anyway. When Yves was with Jacques he showered him with gifts and affection. Yves had also shown this love and affection to Pierre, who he loved in one moment and hated the next. (Yves Saint Laurent, 2013)
Jacques was not the only muse Karl had in his life. There were plenty of young fashionable women to play that part until they crossed him, or he simply decided that it was time for a change. One example of a muse who was sent packing was Inès de la Fressange who was known for having that ‘coco’ look. She was known for her short, dark hair and tall, slender figure. She would host important guests with Karl such as journalists. Inès was the main model on the catwalk and was walking in double the outfits, the others wore. She was also given a lot of freedom to “perform” on stage by posing extra long, strutting, and even smoking. When Karl was designing, he had Inès in his mind, she was the muse of that time. However, just like the others, she was cut off by Karl as well. There is no certainty what was the true reason for this break up that shook the fashion world. Was the reason jealousy over the fact that Inès was a look-alike to Chanel made her even more popular to fans than Karl or was it perhaps the fact that she would have the guts to question Karl or perhaps it was the feeling of betrayal when Inès accepted a job outside the house of Chanel. Whatever the true reason was, Karl would tell everyone that Inès did not inspire him anymore and would even go as far as to trash her by comparing her to being a money-hungry evil as if she was the devil after a soul. Just like everyone in Karl’s life, Inès remembered him as a very generous and dear friend until he decided otherwise. (Bacqué, 2020)
PICTURE 5. Karl Lagerfeld fitting his design on Inès de la Fressange in 1983. Photo by: Pierre Vauthey. (Raphaëlle Bacqué, 2020. Kaiser Karl
These examples show that success brings power with it. The person whose name is known as widely as theirs has the power to decide who gets a share of that fame. How I see it, is that these artistic people also have their whims of mind, meaning that their thoughts and feelings can change rapidly. In one moment, they’ll shower you with gifts, love, and fame and in the other, they despise you, hate you, and through you away like you were nothing to them. Is it a consequence of fame and pressure or is it something build in these people beforehand? Does this sudden coldness help them to move forward faster than the competition? I also want to see the good heart of these famous icons, when it comes to their loved ones. There was no one in their inner circle they wouldn’t have helped when needed, especially Coco and Karl did that to the ones they cared for seemingly selflessly.
Another person who was a dear friend to Karl before everything changed into rivalry, was no other than Yves Saint Laurent himself. They are being photographed side by side after both being winners of a fashion design competition. Karl, Yves, and their third dear friend Pierre Balmain would hang out together at one of their flats. These three men were very close and even visited a fortune teller together. The prediction was that after the two other men are falling from grace, Karl’s true fame will begin. When these three started their careers in fashion Yves’ success skyrocketed immediately. Pierre also had his name well known in a very early state. Yves became the prince of fashion and the label carrying his name became a huge hit. At this point, Karl was not that big of a success, even though his name was known, and he was designing for multiple different labels. As with everything in Karl’s life, also the breakup between Karl and Yves is shrouded in mystery. However, these friends turned into enemies that formed their cliques like teenage girls in high school. At the highlight of this rivalry, you could not even be friends with both of them, you were either sitting at the table with Karl or Yves. The last nail on the coffin was when the house of Chanel announced that Karl would be the successor of the queen of fashion. Yves, who was a huge Chanel fan and even took part in her funeral, was devastated by the news. (Bacqué, 2020) When Coco was still alive, she had even said she liked Yves’ fashion because it was not too much. (Chanel) The friendship between Yves and Karl was permanently over. Then there came the famous mess of Jacques being the lover to both of them. What a scandal. When the prince of fashion came crashing down, and the queen of fashion had died, the Kaiser rose above all. (Bacqué, 2020)
PICTURE 6. Karl (on the left) and Yves (in the middle) together when they both won a fashion design competition in 1954. Photo by: Keystone-France. (Raphaëlle Bacqué, 2020. Kaiser Karl)
The addictions Yves had, were probably a way for him to deal with his inner demons and mental health issues. On one hand, he said he’d go mad if he could not design, saying that working helps him shut down the voices in his head, but on the other, he felt so much pressure from succeeding with every collection of 300 clothes that it started to push him over the edge. (Yves Saint Laurent, 2013) He designed his last collection in 2002 and retired after that, selling his fashion house with Pierre Berge. Yves died in 2008. (A&E Television Networks, 2014)
During world war two, the house of Chanel closed its doors. Coco started an affair with Spatz, a German Nazi who was in Paris as part of the seize. She in the beginning approached this man to get her brother out of a prisoner camp. She managed to do that. While the house of Chanel was closed mademoiselle found herself entangled in the war when she suggested Germany would negotiate about peace with Britain. She had connections there she said she could use them to find a solution to the never-ending situation. After the war, Coco was accused of war crimes and associated with the Nazis. When she was asked whether or not Spatz was her lover, she replied “A woman at my age does not check the passport of their lover if one shows into her life”. She was released, but her reputation took a hit. (Madsen, 2011)
It took years for the House of Chanel to reopen its doors and when they did the beginning was a failure. People were gotten so used to seeing new, weird, and innovative fashion that Chanel’s classic style seemed outdated. It took a while for the fashion world to start appreciating her style again. Coco had a new mannequin that she adored until that mannequin was rumored to be her successor and she fired her. When Coco was asked how old she was she kept saying 100 years always. Coco died, like she lived, making her witty comments. She said, “So this is how you die”, right before she did in 1971. (Madsen, 2011)
When Karl stepped into the shoes of Coco, it was a failure at first. The world of fashion did not care about Chanel anymore and the old ladies who did thought Karl’s designs were too much for Chanel style. Karl managed however to breathe new air to the house of Chanel and make it chic again as Coco did before him all those years ago. (Baqué, 2020)
When Karl got older, he started to wear gloves to hide the part of himself showing his true age. The people around Karl would be replaced by younger people to make sure he was always surrounded by young people. Was this because our society is so obsessed with youth and telling us to stay young forever? Was it the fear of death that caused him to avoid death so much and surround himself with people who were far away from death? I’m wondering about what Karl was trying to hide so much with all the changes in his past. Did he try to hide his German roots because world war two had just ended and Germans were not very popular in the world? Was Karl trying to reinvent himself to make himself somehow more interesting and relevant to the fashion world? Was this his way of standing out? A man of mystery to be solved. Did the alterations he did on his mother make him seem more successful? The image of a young man pursuing his passion even when he had no support from his mother does make quite the story. Could Karl have been mad and telling these weird stories about his past because he thought they happened? Or was Karl a genius and found what all famous people are looking for; a mask to hide. Kaiser Karl found that mask from a face everyone recognized and thought to know, even though no one knew what was behind it. (Bacqué, 2020)
Saying that I love fashion is an understatement. My biggest dream is to become a fashion icon like these icons before me, which is why diving into their history intrigues me so much. I can feel the inner battles Yves was facing because I’ve battled with mental health myself. I can relate to the desire all these three had to revolutionize fashion because I want to be revolutionary in our time. I can see the doubt in oneself when everyone tells you you’re great, but you can’t see that. Again and again, everyone told Yves that he’s a genius, even though he was so insecure about himself. I feel like there needs to be a little madness in being a genius, that madness is what gives the drive, the passion, and the special ingredient to creating something different. I don’t know if lovers are the way to success, but I think they have been some form of comfort to these people so well known by name to all, but not by heart to anyone. There is a pain in power. The more powerful you become, the more people expect from you which grows the pressure even bigger and bigger. This pressure leads to anxiety, stress, and the so-called pain of creation. Because everyone knows you can be loved by an all-in-one moment and hated the next. Even these icons did that to the people in their inner circle because they knew the world of fashion could do it to them. All of them; Coco, Karl, and Yves had a passion for fashion and determination to make it. They truly loved their work. Maybe I’ll be the next big name in fashion, like Yves, I’ve been told all my life I’m going to be something great. My conclusion is that Coco needed fashion to change her life, Yves needed fashion to keep his mind somewhat balanced and Karl needed Fashion to satisfy his workaholic mind. Maybe I’ll be the next one to change the world of fashion?
Bacqué, R. 2020. Kaiser Karl The Life of Karl Lagerfeld.
Madsen, A. 2011. Coco Chanel.
YvesSaintLaurent. 2013. Direction: Jalil Lespert. Production: WY Productions Movie. Production countries: France.
A&E Television Networks. 02.04.2014. Yves Saint Laurent. Website. Published 02.04.2014. Updated 08.04.2020. Read 08.04.2021. https://www.biography.com/fashion-designer/yves-saint-laurent
Written by: Emilia Parikka