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'Becoming Karl Lagerfeld' miniseries profiles fashion icon

Anastassia Boutsko
July 1, 2024

A new French miniseries celebrates German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, with Daniel Brühl in the lead role. Besides haute couture, it's about a passionate love affair.

Two men turn to look at the camera. One is wearing tinted glasses and has his hand on the other man's lapel.
Daniel Brühl (left) as fashion legend Karl Lagerfeld, who has fallen for Jacques de Bascher (Theodore Pellerin)Image: Disney+

Who says no man is a prophet in his own land? Just a few weeks ago, the senate of the German state of Hamburg decided to rename a section of a street Karl Lagerfeld Promenade. Although it's only 150 meters (490 feet) long, it is very central and even close to Felix Jud, Lagerfeld's favorite bookshop. The Hamburg native was known to be a book lover.

Meanwhile, the French, who are usually skeptical of German fashion, have dedicated a glossy streaming series to the designer called "Becoming Karl Lagerfeld." 

Behind the project is the venerable French film group Gaumont, which was founded in 1895 and is one of the world's oldest film production companies.

That provenance is a good thing, entertainment reporter Simone Schlosser, one of Germany's leading experts on series, told DW. "It would be strange to do the whole thing from a German perspective — after all, Lagerfeld spent almost his entire life in France," she said.

A German in Paris

The first six episodes have been available on the streaming providers Disney+ and Hulu since the beginning of June. If they're successful, they will be the start of a much longer production.

Director Jerome Salle and the team of screenwriters initially focused on just one decade of Lagerfeld's eventful life, from the early 1970s to the early 1980s. The last episode (for now) ends with a supposed fax in June 1981, in which Lagerfeld is invited to take over the renowned Maison Chanel as the new artistic director.

A group of people are at a fashion show in a room. In the center is a man in tinted glasses and a black jackets, surrounded by models.
In the spotlight: the lavishly recreated life of 1970s Paris is one of the series' strengthsImage: Disney+

Some viewers may have preferred to see the Lagerfeld series start with this scene, when his design success really began to take off. Others might find it fascinating to see the young Karl, who was born into a wealthy Hamburg business family in 1933, the year of Hitler's rise to power, as he comes to Paris as a 19-year-old from a less-than-popular Germany and works his way up to become head designer of major houses in the world's fashion capital. 

Intrigue, sex and fashion in the City of Light

At any rate, limiting the focus to Paris in the 1970s makes for an exciting setting. The fashion industry is booming, parties and drugs abound and practically everyone is sleeping with everyone else.

Paloma Picasso, daughter of modern art legend Pablo, sets the tone among the jet set, Andy Warhol drops by and behind the closed doors of her boudoir, Marlene Dietrich (played by Sunnyi Melles) celebrates her self-imposed isolation. And there is an enfant terrible, a genius around whom the fashion world revolves: Yves Saint Laurent, played by Arnaud Valois. Unstable, eccentric, very French — a contrast to the eccentric but business-minded and somehow very German Karl Lagerfeld, played by Daniel Brühl.

Two men face each other, standing in front of a lavish flower arrangement.
Jacques and KarlImage: Disney+

Yves and Karl are two opposites who attract each other; they are both adversaries and confidants. They compete with each other and can't let go of each other — especially not when the seductively handsome dandy Jacques de Bascher (Theodore Pellerin) shows up. Bascher, Lagerfeld's great love, also has a passionate affair with Yves Saint Laurent. This love triangle alone would be worth a series.

Are stories about fashion fashionable?

"Becoming Karl Lagerfeld" is the third series about a fashion designer to hit the international streaming market since the beginning of 2024. Productions about the Spanish fashion designer Cristobal Balenciaga (named after him) and "The New Look," a production focusing on Christian Dior and Coco Chanel, were launched at the beginning of the year. Coincidence?

A street scene in Germany: a man walkign towards the camera turns to look back at advertising for the series "Being Karl Lagerfeld."
Though produced by a French company, the series is being heavily promoted in GermanyImage: Ivan Dyachenko/DW

To some extent, said series expert Schlosser. But only partly, because the productions are following a trend. "They all have an interesting main character who in some way does not embody the mainstream figure of the 'old white man.' These are queer characters, for example. So, you can use them to explore questions of identity," she said.

At the same time, fashion series in particular serve as a form of escapism that is typical of the times, said Schlosser.

"Because they have everything we need — it's a fascination with stories, the historical background, beautiful costumes and sets. You immerse yourself in another world, the world of catwalks and ateliers, which is otherwise far removed from you."

Brühl transforms into Lagerfeld

But, Schlosser pointed out, "Becoming Karl Lagerfeld" has something the other series don't: lead actor Daniel Brühl.

"I think Brühl is simply great as Lagerfeld!" Schlosser enthused, echoing the universal praise directed at the German actor. His casting may seem unlikely at first, as the gentle-looking star of films like "Good Bye, Lenin!" has little in common with the notoriously acerbic fashion czar.

It's that much more fascinating, said Schlosser, to observe Brühl's transformation. "At first, his Lagerfeld doesn't yet have anything iconic about him: no ponytail, fan or sunglasses. Then it starts, slowly. His hair gradually gets longer, his glasses are increasingly tinted," she observed. And then comes the magic of acting and we see Karl Lagerfeld, the man, with all his flaws.

A man wearing tinted glasses and holding a fan tilts his head as he looks into the camera. A kaleidoscope of colored lights and women is behind him.
Back to the 1970s: Daniel Brühl as Karl LagerfeldImage: Disney+

Series is 'uncomfortably voyeuristic'

That's the result of Brühl's painstaking research into the role, which involved interviewing Lagerfeld's friends and closely studying the designer's gestures and gait.

He and co-star Pellerin became so immersed in their roles that they even posed as a romantic couple off set: Brühl informed his wife that he was "temporarily" in love with a man. And in describing the enormous bouquet of red roses Pellerin sent him, he admitted, "My wife has never received something like that."

"Daniel Brühl's performance is very restrained. He doesn't make it a caricature, but plays the role with great sincerity and appreciation," said Schlosser. His portrayal allows us to see Lagerfeld as a great romantic, and sometimes as a tragic figure.

A black-and-white photo of two men. The one on the right is in the foreground, wearing tinted glasses and smiling. The one on the left, with a moustache, is looking off to the side.
A great love: Jacques de Bascher and Karl Lagerfeld in 1978 Image: Guy Marineaux/Starface/IMAGO

But Schlosser's praise doesn't extend to the production as a whole. "I think the series doesn't really do justice to the figure of Lagerfeld, and it's often uncomfortably voyeuristic," she said.

There's a lot about the designer's personal life, even though he never revealed much of that. "He was a very discreet person," she said.

Of course, Lagerfeld and de Bascher loved each other, otherwise the real Lagerfeld would not have spent months at the bedside of his AIDS-stricken companion (his beloved "Jaco" died in 1989). "But the series creators keep trying to put the two in sex scenes together, and I don't think that's good, " said Schlosser.

As Lagerfeld himself once said, "I don't like sleeping with people I really love. I don't want to sleep with them because sex cannot last, but affection can last forever."

This article was originally written in German.