At the Grand Palais

Andrew O’Hagan

Andrew O’Hagan goes to Karl Lagerfeld’s memorial in Paris.

Coco Chanel died in her suite at the Ritz Hotel on 10 January 1971. Her funeral, held a few days later, caused a traffic jam on the rue Royale, with throngs in front of the Madeleine desperate to catch a glimpse of the departing coffin. The church had originally been conceived as a monument to the glories of Napoleon’s army, and remains a favourite with battle-scarred artists. Chopin had his funeral there, so did Johnny Hallyday. Karl Lagerfeld, who died in February, stipulated a much quieter send-off, a cremation in Nanterre. He was the most famous person at Chanel since its founder, and he wanted less fuss, though he did request that his ashes be mingled with those of his beloved cat, Choupette, if she died before him. Maybe he forgot that the cat had even more lives than he did. Fuss, when it comes to fashion designers, has a way of multiplying, so it was inevitable that Lagerfeld’s memorial, when it came, would be a fabulous study in overstated understatement.

The sun was shining on the quai d’Orsay. Roses peeped from the gardens. Kids were going up and down on hired motorised scooters, and a swimwear convention was going overboard on the right bank of the Seine. When I arrived at the Grand Palais, I had already gone 12 rounds with the black limousines, trying to cross the road, so I was happy to encounter the young models willing to show me inside. The gargoyle count at Paris fashion events is always high and that is part of the entertainment. Before I’d even found my seat, I’d spotted Stella McCartney in a blue net veil talking to Suzy Menkes, Claudia Schiffer talking to Tommy Hilfiger, Brigitte Macron, dressed in black, whispering to somebody who knew Derek Blasberg, who was talking to Giancarlo Giammetti, who was looking at Anna Wintour. Fifty-foot posters of Lagerfeld looked down from every side of the soft-green painted iron of the palais. The chairs were set out in a perfect sequence of black and white. Sunlight was pouring through the glass canopy while cameras travelled overhead like drones, taking a bird’s-eye view of all the people who were watching themselves on a huge screen. ‘I live in total unreality,’ Lagerfeld once said, and now he was being celebrated in the same spirit.

Debussy’s ‘Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune’ faded from the soundtrack and Lagerfeld’s low ponytail and sunglasses combo appeared on the screen. He was interviewing himself. ‘Music and fashion are the same,’ he said. ‘They express their time.’ He had the good grace to get as impatient with himself as he would with any other interviewer, suggesting that most things are not worth asking about. Then a door was flung open on the white stage and the actress Tilda Swinton – madcap muse du jour – came on wearing a tweed peplum jacket, bloomers and a huge claret bow. She read an extract from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, said to be Lagerfeld’s favourite novel. Celebrations of the image don’t always show imagination – think how banal the Oscars can be – but the Lagerfeld fandango threw in a tango. There were Argentinian dancers, one in red shoes, and a blast of his favourite number, Carlos Gardel singing ‘Por una Cabeza’. You could see why he loved the tango: sharp turns and silhouettes.

I once asked Lagerfeld what survival meant to him. ‘Well, I’m a battlefield sort of person,’ he replied. ‘Personally, I make no effort to remember.’ I had gone to interview him in Paris and later followed him to South Korea. I wanted to go with him on his private jet but he hated people seeing him sleeping. (‘There’s no excuse for ugliness.’) I wanted to take him out to a bar or for a spin round the Luxembourg Gardens, but they told me he never went out on the streets any more. But he was great to talk to. He told me he wasn’t interested in posterity. He was a master at staging the present, not the past, and found memory as it existed for Proust to be a wacky indulgence. He admitted it was a mean thing to say, but he pointed out that Proust was something like the son of the concierge looking up to society people. I reminded him that two of his greatest heroes, Coco Chanel and Carlos Gardel, were the children of laundresses, and he nodded and shrugged. The point for him was that obsessing about the past will always deaden the present. ‘The past belonged to him privately,’ Emmanuelle Alt of French Vogue said at the Grand Palais, ‘it was the future he shared.’

The English model Cara Delevingne came onstage wearing a dress of pale pink marabou feathers. A visual onomatopoeia, looking like the thing she described, she almost purred as she read a passage from Colette about the life of a cat. Unlike many designers, Lagerfeld actually liked models. He particularly liked actresses. Vanessa Paradis suggested he could set your personality free, Monica Bellucci said something similar, and one could see him, even in absentia, having that exact effect on Helen Mirren, who came on to the stage doing a black and white impersonation of the maestro himself.

He once showed a collection in the Trevi fountain. Another show took place under a space rocket, which ‘blasted off’ at the end. For autumn-winter 2010, he created a polar landscape and imported a 256-tonne iceberg as the centrepiece. There were giant wind turbines one season, a supermarket the next year, two years later an airport, or an island in Dubai where they had to bring in running water and electricity in order to have the show. If self-transport is your thing, Lagerfeld was your man. He raised the game. He asked for sets that were like worlds. The average fashion show is 12 minutes long and it involves buyers and journalists inspecting new clothes. But, with Lagerfeld’s shows for Chanel, you’d suddenly find yourself in a forest, or in a huge, beautiful brasserie, or in ancient Greece, the Verdon Gorge, or in a data centre. He sold handbags and perfume, for sure, but to my mind he hastened the development of what might become a properly permissive society.

On an unlacquered Steinway, placed on top of a rug from one of Lagerfeld’s offices, Lang Lang played Chopin’s Waltz No. 1 in E flat, but the entire memorial came to a head when Pharrell Williams took to the stage. He looked like a schoolboy in grey shorts and blazer. (He’s 46.) But, for all his years, he also looked like a manifestation of the current moment: a rapper, producer, entrepreneur, designer, climate-change activist and Oscar nominee. To headline in the Grand Palais appeared to many in his camp to be a testament to something real for a black artist. Aspiration is a weird concept, but it means a hell of a lot to young people from nowhere, who feel they can get a little closer to Paris by buying a sweatshirt or a lipstick. Lagerfeld said he didn’t care about the commercial side – $11.1 billion sales in his last year at Chanel – but he cared about the freedom. The light began to change, and I saw clouds had gathered above the huge glass ceiling. Pharrell was bouncing on his toes and everybody stood up. The person in front of me was wearing a leather skirt and silver platform heels. She had red hair, a jacket of red peonies, blood-red nails and a full, dark beard. She wiped a tear.

‘Fashion is also an attempt to make certain invisible aspects of the reality of the moment visible,’ Lagerfeld wrote. The digital world seemed to him a morass of contesting freedoms, and he loved it, not so much for what it is now as for what it might be in the future. Selfhood was altering, sometimes under his baton, and like his old friend Andy Warhol he found it hard to imagine a world without his own intelligence still gaming at the centre of it. By the end he seemed to imagine that ideas alone might sustain the body. He lived on Diet Coke. When I first sat with him, in an hôtel particulier off the boulevard St-Germain that he retained for lunches, Frédéric Gouby, his maître d’hôtel, brought him a carafe of Diet Coke on a silver salver. The food was so minimal that even Lagerfeld remarked on its meagreness. He asked me if I wanted a glass of wine and when I said yes, Monsieur Gouby brought me something unordinary, and I wondered if Lagerfeld was in some quiet process of emptying himself out. His breath was dank. He said he was never lonely because of Choupette and that he was reading the philosopher David Hume. I mentioned the efforts of James Boswell to convert Hume to Christianity on his deathbed, and Lagerfeld said it was always possible to be someone else.

Hundreds of bottles of Moët stood on bars in the Grand Palais and rows of filled glasses went round on trays. Non-drinkers of alcohol could have peach, apple or pear juice, but most people seemed to be drinking champagne. Ladies in Fendi chokers. A pair of guys with identical afros and their trousers on back-to-front. Anna Wintour stood in a white dress and her colleague Hamish Bowles had two little bees on the front of his slippers. Some of the guests discussed the poems that had been read out earlier, ‘Tarantella’ by Edith Sitwell (‘He loved Edith’s rings, darling. It was all about her rings. And her nose’) and ‘A Fan’ by Mallarmé: ‘It’s a tribute to his capacity for work. And his love of fans. And being a fan.’ As the music grew louder, and people finished their champagne and prepared to head off to supper, several of the seamstresses and managers began to think of the work they had to do. Magazine editors went down the steps thinking about their next issue. In fashion, even mourning is ephemeral. ‘It’s important to do and not to have done,’ he said.