Tortured genius behind the glasses: Elegantly confident on the outside, fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld gorged on cake and chocolate to cope with his lover’s betrayal, as a lavish new drama reveals

Autumn 1973, and a little-known designer by the name of Karl Lagerfeld is getting dressed for the day ahead. 

First he puts on a corset to smooth out the bumps and lend his clothes a much sleeker line. Then comes the monogrammed shirt with stiff collars, trousers, tie and waistcoat, followed by heeled boots with lifts to give him extra height. 

Finally he puts on dark glasses to shield his eyes, and hide the inner turmoil that blighted his life.

This scene from the upcoming Disney+ drama Becoming Karl Lagerfeld provides a perfect snapshot of the man himself – his outwardly elegant facade concealing a somewhat different reality underneath. 

Though he went on to become the creative director of Chanel in 1983 and dressed the likes of Princess Diana and Princess Caroline of Monaco, the six-part French series (with English subtitles) focuses on the period before he achieved worldwide renown as a fashion designer – what the filmmakers term ‘the origin story of this incredibly mysterious, enigmatic character’. 

Fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld poses with models backstage at Chanel’s ready-to-wear fall/winter show in Paris in 2004

It’s based on the book Kaiser Karl by French author Raphaëlle Bacqué, and as she explains, ‘Lagerfeld was both the world’s most famous fashion icon and a man who lied like no other, concealing and masking his true self beyond belief.’

At the heart of the story lies Karl’s tempestuous relationship with Jacques de Bascher – a fun-loving, 21-year-old dandy who instantly captured the heart of the rather staid Karl, who was some 18 years his senior. 

Though they were together for 18 years until Jacques’s death in 1989 (Karl died in 2019), their relationship was tainted when Jacques embarked on a hedonistic affair with Karl’s greatest rival Yves Saint Laurent, thus stoking the professional clashes and sexual jealousies that were to plague the two designers for years. 

‘Karl was living such an anachronistic life in the 70s, which was all sex, drugs and rock’n’roll,’ says Daniel Brühl (Rush, Inglourious Basterds), who plays him. ‘But there he was, in love with this one man who was the love of his life.’

The series opens in 1972, when Yves Saint Laurent is considered to be the ‘oracle of haute couture’ and 39-year-old Karl, despite being the designer for the respected Maison Chloé brand, is desperate to achieve greater recognition. 

Daniel likens their relationship to the purported rivalry between 18th-­century composers Mozart and Salieri, with Karl’s respect for Saint Laurent overshadowed by his intense jealousy at ‘seeing the other one being treated as a God, as an artist’. 

The rivalry is further inflamed by the arrival of Jacques (Théodore Pellerin), a minor aristocrat who is as freewheeling and wild as Karl is closed off. 

Though the two men share an instant attraction that develops into a lifelong bond, the series intimates that their relationship, somewhat surprisingly, remained chaste. As Karl himself once remarked, ‘I infinitely loved that boy but I had no physical contact with him.’

Though Karl is financially generous towards Jacques, paying his rent and expenses, emotionally he is withdrawn. Unable to get the intimacy he craves from Karl, Jacques embarks on a relationship with Yves Saint Laurent (Arnaud Valois). 

As they indulge their hedonistic desires, losing themselves in the louche underworld of 70s France, not only do they humiliate Karl but they also anger Pierre Bergé (Alex Lutz), Saint Laurent’s icy, controlling benefactor and lover.

Daniel Brühl (pictured) plays the legendary fashion figure in his younger years in new Disney+ drama Becoming Karl Lagerfeld

Daniel Brühl (pictured) plays the legendary fashion figure in his younger years in new Disney+ drama Becoming Karl Lagerfeld

As the president of the French Trade Association of Couturiers and Fashion Designers, Pierre has the power to destroy Karl’s standing in the industry and, as Raphaëlle Bacqué says, ‘There was a treasure trove of potential in those ten years between 1972 and 1982, and in the quadrangle of love and competition between Lagerfeld, de Bascher, Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé.’

Certainly, for four outwardly elegant individuals, their inner turmoil and loneliness is at times palpable. 

The series depicts Yves and Jacques indulging in reckless sexual behaviour and drug-taking, while the teetotal, non-smoking Karl subsumes his misery with food – gorging on cakes and chocolate in order to blot out his unhappiness.

It was claimed that Karl’s mother Elisabeth would strap him to the bed as a child to prevent him from feasting on night-time snacks, but as the show’s scriptwriter, Isaure Pisani-Ferry, notes, ‘The thing that struck me most was that Lagerfeld was a master storyteller. He built a persona even with those closest to him. He claimed to some he was an only child despite having a sister.

‘To others he described his mother as a terrible dragon, but several people who knew her well paint a picture of a loving parent who greatly admired her son. Our series tries to grasp at the truth behind his fiction.’

Karl fabricated his entire life story. And the reality is even more thrilling than the fiction 

Daniel Brühl himself met Karl several years ago during a photo shoot and found him to be ‘sharp, eloquent, funny’. But his aim in the series was, he says, ‘to explore who the man was before he became famous’. 

To prepare for the role, not only did he have to practise walking in Lagerfeld’s trademark heeled shoes (‘I thought of flamenco and bullfighters’), but the German-Spanish actor also had to perfect his distinctive German-accented French (Karl’s family had left Germany for France in 1947 when he was 14).

The series was filmed on location in Paris, Monaco and Rome, and as befits a show about two of the world’s most famous designers the stunning outfits – some 3,000 of them, brought together by costume designer Pascaline Chavanne – capture the colour and vibrancy of the 70s. 

In addition, production designer Jean Rabasse re-created the haunts and hangouts of Paris at that time, as well as the lavish private quarters of both Karl and Yves Saint Laurent, including Andy Warhol’s famous portraits of Saint Laurent which we see hanging in his home.

But while the series is beautiful to watch, it shies away from some of the uglier aspects of Karl’s life. Controversy dogged him in his later years as he earned a reputation for being ‘fatphobic’ thanks to disdainful comments he made about women (he once described the sylphlike model Heidi Klum as ‘too heavy’). 

Moreover, the show merely hints at his father Otto’s past as a suspected member of the Nazi party – something Karl took great pains to hide from the public once he became famous.

Karl Lagerfeld appears with Florence Welch (pictured, right) from UK band Florence and the Machine at the end of his spring/summer 2012 fashion show for French fashion house Chanel in Paris in 2011

Karl Lagerfeld appears with Florence Welch (pictured, right) from UK band Florence and the Machine at the end of his spring/summer 2012 fashion show for French fashion house Chanel in Paris in 2011

Yet the show is unequivocal about his devotion to Jacques, who discovered he was HIV-positive in 1984. Though he cut himself off from everyone, unable to deal with his physical decline, Karl installed an extra cot beside Jacques’ hospital bed to keep watch over him. 

After his death in 1989 at the age of 38, Karl bought a house near Hamburg and named it Villa Jako in his memory.

Just as Karl Lagerfeld created beautiful attire from the wisps of his imagination, the series also shows how he continued to fashion an elaborate and inscrutable persona right up until his death, masking his true self until the very end. 

‘There was no greater raconteur than Lagerfeld,’ says author Raphaëlle. ‘He fabricated his entire life story. When investigating him or hoping to write a series about him, you have to unravel all the tales to find the truth. And the reality is perhaps even more thrilling than the fiction.’

  • Becoming Karl Lagerfeld, from Friday, Disney+.