June 11, 1984 12:00 PM

In France the couturier is always king. Back in the late 1940s the great Christian Dior wore the crown. Next to step into the spotlight was Pierre Cardin. He yielded center stage to Yves Saint Laurent in the early 1970s. And now the fashion focus has shifted once again, to a man who dresses like a banker but wears a dandy’s ponytail, the brilliant German-born designer, Karl Lagerfeld.

“I would like to be a one-man multinational fashion phenomenon,” says Lagerfeld. He already is. For many years, while Saint Laurent dominated the fashion scene, Karl stayed in the background, discreetly designing ready-to-wear clothes for the French firm Chloé as well as furs for the fabulous Fendi sisters of Rome. Then, in a well-calculated move that shook up the world of haute couture, Lagerfeld took over the House of Chanel, which had been in serious decline ever since Coco Chanel’s death in 1971, and this winter he dropped Chloé. In an equally daring move, Lagerfeld, 46, has produced his first ready-to-wear collection under his own name. The clothes, available in U.S. stores later this summer, will carry Karl’s logo, a jet black fan emblazoned with the initials KL. He has his own line of perfume as well. “There are no borders as far as Lagerfeld is concerned,” says Patrick McCarthy, editor of Women’s Wear Daily. “He’s a one-man band.”

Overseeing his far-flung empire in France, Japan, the U.S., Germany and Italy keeps Lagerfeld constantly on the move. Always hidden behind tinted glasses, he has mastered the art of the quick doze on planes, in cars and during meetings. On a typical day he hops a 7 a.m. flight from Paris to Rome to brainstorm with the Fendis. His imaginative work for the five sisters has revolutionized the fur industry. “Use everything,” he has said. “Treat rabbit like sable or sable like rabbit. When you get respectful, things are lost.” Once inside the Fendi palazzo, Karl perches on a black stool bearing his name, reviewing the models for the fall ’84 collection. He nods approval as the house mannequin shimmies past him in a dazzling creation of rose-colored Mongolian lamb and squirrel. “My job,” says Lagerfeld, “is to bring out in people what they wouldn’t dare do themselves.”

Early the next morning back in Paris, in his chauffeur-driven silver Mercedes, Lagerfeld spins toward the Rue Cambon. There he breezes up the steps of the House of Chanel. The word “Mademoiselle” has been left on the studio door, but inside a Lagerfeld-trained team has been busy pumping fresh ideas into the fossilized fashion house. Judith Krantz, Lena Horne, Bianca Jagger are among the women smitten with the new Chanel. In homage to Coco’s extravagant early period in the ’20s, Karl has given the classic Chanel suits a sleeker look. He has lengthened the jackets and skirts, lining them with precious silks and embroidering them with pearls and beads. Already the legend around Lagerfeld is growing with reports that on a good day he can turn out 200 sketches in a 12-hour stretch.

Lagerfeld inherits this prodigious energy from his father, a Swedish-born banker who built a fortune in condensed milk in Germany. Shadowed by nannies, young Karl and an older sister grew up in a lavish country estate outside Hamburg. At the age of 4, Lagerfeld, a willful child, asked for and received his own personal valet. When he showed no affinity for the piano, his mother stopped the lessons and suggested he draw instead. “She had no time for hopeless children with no talent,” Karl recalls. At 14, he headed for Paris, where he studied drawing. Then in 1954 he entered a fashion contest. In a delicious twist of fate he shared first prize with a young Saint Laurent. Lagerfeld went on to learn the fashion ropes under the wing of designer Pierre Balmain and, during the early 1960s, as art director to the couture House of Jean Patou.

Lagerfeld is undoubtedly a multimillionaire. In addition to the sizable fortune he inherited from his father, the amount of money he pulls in from his contracts with the Fendis and Chanel combined with the income from his own line is, according to Lagerfeld, “incalculable. The power and volume is enormous.”

All this enables Lagerfeld to live like a bachelor king in one of five private residences—an apartment in Rome, chateaus in Brittany and West Germany, an 18th-century town house in Paris and a modern high-rise apartment in Monaco. Lagerfeld, who claims he isn’t interested in either sex, has said “I [liked women] when I was very young, but I quickly realized I didn’t want any kind of human liaison. Perhaps I put my passion into other things.”

Lagerfeld concedes that the wild days, 10 years ago, when he whirled through Paris dressed like an 18th-century seigneur in a gold brocade jacket and dancing pumps, are over. “I’m a working-class person,” he says, then adds, with a pause for effect, “working with class.”

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