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The Making of Hulu’s Becoming Karl Lagerfeld

The Making of Hulu’s Becoming Karl Lagerfeld

The Making of Hulu’s Becoming Karl Lagerfeld

How does one make a biography of an artist, if the artist refuses to acknowledge he is one?

Karl Lagerfeld, the late German coutier, and subject of Hulu‘s new biopic series Becoming Karl Lagerfeld, “always bristled at designers who thought they were artists,” says Miles Socha, editor, international at fashion trade journal Women’s Wear Daily. “He’d say: ‘You’re a dressmaker, that’s all.’”

Lagerfeld was a fashion icon — the 2023 Met Gala was dedicated to him — without a signature style. His close friend and bitter competitor Yves Saint Laurent (their rivalry, professional and romantic, is at the center of Becoming Karl Lagerfeld), is credited with inventing the safari jacket, the Mondrian dress, and Le Smoking, the female tuxedo. But Lagerfeld’s impact on the fashion industry, which many would argue was far greater than YSL’s, cannot be sketched out with reference to an outfit or hemline. Instead, over a career that stretched from the 1960s to the 2010s, he helped transform the business of fashion itself.

Most famously, he rescued Chanel. When Lagerfeld took over as Chanel’s art director in 1983, he revived the label, which had been floundering since the death of founder Coco Canel in 1971, rejuvenating the brand — including creating the label’s now-iconic interlocking CC monogram — and restoring Chanel to the summit of international luxury. Lagerfeld pulled off a similar revival with Fendi and Chloé, two labels he worked with for decades.

“I think Karl was very prescient in seeing that rejuvenating and animating heritage brands would be the future of fashion,” says Socha. “If you look at the landscape today, the fashion industry is dominated by giant heritage houses — Chanel, Dior, Saint Laurent, Balenciaga, Gucci, Hermes, Louis Vuitton — that require, yes, exciting designs but also storytelling, content, cultural relevance, surprise and some show-business razzmatazz. Karl was the master of all that and anticipated the evolution of the industry.”

Daniel Brühl in Becoming Karl Lagerfeld

Courtesy of Hulu

But that isn’t the story of Becoming Karl Lagerfeld. Instead, the six-part series, based on Raphaëlle Bacqué’s best-selling 2020 biography Kaiser Karl, looks at his life before Chanel, before the sunglasses and the starched collars. The series traces a decade of his life from the early 70s, when Lagerfeld was still a struggling dressmaker in Paris, working as a freelancer-for-hire. Meanwhile, his old friend Yves Saint Laurent, was at the height of his fame.

“It’s only when I focused on the 70s, that I found a story which isn’t just opportunistic, about a famous person doing famous things, but is a real human drama rich enough and dense enough to be universal,” says Isaure Pisani Ferry, one of the series’ showrunners. “This is the time when what happens in Lagerfeld’s love life” — it was the start of Karl’s relationship with French dandy Jacques de Bascher, who was also briefly Saint Laurent’s lover — “plus his professional life and how the two end up being completely mixed together, where I felt, this is so rich, so universal, it will be something for everyone, including people who are not interested in Lagerfeld nor fashion.”

The designer in Becoming Karl Lagerfeld, played by German star Daniel Brühl, is a far cry from the portrait of a tortured artist beloved by celebrity biopics. (See the dual YSL features Yves Saint Laurent, starring Pierre Niney, and Saint Laurent, with Gaspard Ulliel, both from 2014.) Brühl, tapping into the contained energy he brought to his BAFTA and Golden Globe-nominated performance as obsessive Austrian race car driver Niki Lauda in Rush, depicts Kaiser Karl as a driven workaholic who constructs his elaborate aloof image as a shell to protect himself.

“He was an outsider in this elitist world,” says Brühl, “as a German in Paris, with Yves Saint Laurent, as a friend and companion but also a constant competitor and enemy, who was more famous, more successful,” says Brühl. “With everyone around him giving him the feeling he wasn’t artistic enough, he didn’t belong to the club.”

Théodore Pellerin as Jacques de Bascher and Arnaud Valois as Yves Saint Laurent in Becoming Karl Lagerfeld.

“One of the people we talked to for our research, who knew them both in the 70s, said: ‘Lagerfeld was the soft one, trying to play the tough guy,’” says Ferry. “‘And Saint Laurent was the one who looked so fragile, but inside he was made of steel. It’s when I heard that I started really loving Lagerfeld.”

Brühl, who says the series was a rare opportunity to “play an iconic, German figure without, to put it bluntly, having to put on the Nazi boots,” went deep into research for the role. “I interviewed people who knew him, I went to live in Paris where he lived, went to the same cafes he frequented, the same book shops,” he says. He took drawing classes to brush up on his draftsman skills — Lagerfeld was a masterful sketch artist — and slavishly practiced his French to speak as fluently, and as fast, as KL, especially alongside his native-speaker co-stars, including France’s Arnaud Valois, who plays Saint Laurent, and Quebecois actor Théodore Pellerin as de Bascher.

“I knew I wanted to do it in French and my French isn’t bad, I have family in France, I grew up with it to a degree,” notes Brühl, “but in the first script reading, when all the French actors were rattling their lines off like machine gun fire, I was like ‘Oh sh**, I really have to pick up the pace. I have to be the fastest.’”

Becoming Karl Lagerfeld is also the first time the Inglourious Basterds and Captain America: Civil War actor has played a gay man. “Which concerned me a lot, because I knew I couldn’t make his sexuality artificial or polished, I had to be as emotionally real, as close as possible,” says Brühl.

Daniel Brühl as Karl Lagerfeld, Théodore Pellerin as Jacques de Bascher in Becoming Karl Lagerfeld

Courtesy of Hulu

“It really could have been a disaster, because we didn’t do screen tests together, there might have been a complete lack of chemistry between us. The first time we met was our first scene together, which is the one where Karl and Jacques first meet at that little bar,” recalls Pellerin. “But immediately, I knew it was going to be alright, because, and this will sound corny, but when Daniel is acting, you can just look at him and you believe what is happening is true because he believes it. For the whole duration of the shoot, it was like that. We were living the scenes.”

What also helped, says Pellerin, were the show’s outfits, designed by the César award-winning Pascaline Chavanne (8 Women, Swimming Pool, An Officier and a Spy). “She’s a legend and truly masterful,” says Pellerin. “I could talk about her costumes for hours. Just putting them on, I felt Jacques’ confidence. He projected himself as someone who attracts eyes, who wants to be watched, and Pascaline’s costumes were so well made and so beautiful and so right. Putting them on, I understood something about how Jacques moved through the world, how he saw himself and how he wanted to be seen.”

Karl Largerfeld’s original sketches for Chloe were used as the basis for the costumes in the series.

Courtesy of Chloe

Answering questions via email, Chavanne says she had access to “a large number of Chloé archives, including Karl Lagerfeld’s original sketches,” as well as “photos, descriptions of fashion shows at the time and authentic pieces,” allowing her to precisely match “the color range and patterns before printing the fabrics” for the show’s costumes.

Recreating Chloé spring 1973 runway show, the moment that marked Lagerfeld’s transition from dressmaker-for-hire to the fashion big leagues, Chavanne says she “tried to be as close as possible to reality,” with every aspect of the show, from the designs to the staging, fitting the historical record.

“It was a less stuffy, less classic fashion show where the models danced, smoked, and drank on the runway, [which] tells the story of Karl Lagerfeld’s originality in the face of the haute couture world in the 1970s.”

“Looking at Karl Lagerfeld’s sketches is like watching a movement,” adds Chavanne. “You can sense a kind of urgency, a proliferation of ideas, a constant renewal.

Courtesy of Chloe

Dressing the young Lagerfeld, however, was a bigger challenge, with few photos or newspaper reports to go on. “His existence was almost unknown” in the 1970s, says Chavanne. “He was so far from the iconic figure we all know” with his white ponytail, black sunglasses, stiff white collar and fingerless gloves.

Chavanne chose to draw from a wide palate of styles and colors of the era, giving Brühl a wardrobe of flared trousers and heeled boots, of cravats with matching pocket squares, of pinstripes and ties in jewel and earth tones.

“I like anonymity,” Brühl as Lagerfeld tells de Bascher in the show’s first episode. “Of course,” de Bacher deadpans. “You dress like the Sun King to go unnoticed.”

Becoming Karl Lagerfeld‘s portrait won’t please everyone. The nastier sides of his character — Lagerfeld was infamous for countless controversial statements, including ones disparaging curvy models, gay marriage and the #MeToo movement — are conviently expunged from the series. “If the series continues, and we get into the later part of this life, we’ll of course have to get into that,” says Brühl.

Ferry defends her mostly empathic portrait of a fashion-icon-in-the-making.

Daniel Brühl in Becoming Karl Lagerfeld

Courtesy of Hulu

“There’s so many aspects to Lagerfeld. When for example, he does his fat shaming, you have to wonder how much he is actually talking about himself, because he struggled with problems with food and weight his whole life. So he is giving voice to violence he’s actually imposing on himself?,” she says. “People say his best creation was himself, but I think that creation came from a place of trauma. To me, it makes him very contempory, like an Instagram influencer trying to create this better, filtered version of themselves to show the world, but living with the fear that if people see you for who they really are, they would walk away.”

Ferry says Becoming Karl Largerfeld “is largely a tragedy,” the story of a young man who “comes to Paris, aged 20, with big dreams and finds himself in the shadow of his best friend [Saint Laurent] who has the career, the reputation, he wanted for himself.” But reflecting on the life of KL, she finds much to admire.

“One of the most beautiful thing is how he kept reinventing himself, at every age,” she says. “He only really started being famous at age 50 and then stayed on top for decades after, in an industry that usually builds up young people that last 10 years before they burnout. His life is a beautiful lesson that it doesn’t all have to be about youth. Karl Lagerfeld showed that every age is interesting and worth living and that you can keep reinventing yourself until the very end.”

Daniel Brühl in Becoming Karl Lagerfeld

Courtesy of Hulu

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