Becoming Karl Lagerfeld: Actor Daniel Brühl on Playing the Fashion Icon in a New Miniseries

Karl Lagerfeld

Actor Daniel Brühl talks about playing the iconic Karl Lagerfeld (seen above in 1983) in the new Disney+ miniseries 'Becoming Karl Lagerfeld.' Photo: Pierre Perrin/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Five years after his death at the age of 85, German-born fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld remains an icon, instantly recognizable merely by the silhouette of his oversized black sunglasses, powdered white ponytail and favourite accessory: his beloved cat Choupette. The designer’s influential work for the likes of Fendi, Chloé and, most famously, Chanel, was honoured by the Met’s Costume Institute exhibition and gala just last year. And this spring his life comes into focus in the new biographical drama Becoming Karl Lagerfeld (which premiered June 7 on Disney+ in Canada).

Fashion is in the fabric of society and Becoming Karl Lagerfeld comes at a time of renewed interest about its creatives and their place in cultural history. Recent series probing the intimate lives of bygone talents – be it dramatizing the entwined lives of Christian Dior and Coco Chanel (The New Look), Halston’s heyday (Halston), Cristobal Balenciaga (Cristobal Balenciaga) or the recent documentary assessing the complicated legacy of John Galliano. Since his death Lagerfeld alone has been the subject of several major published biographies, documentaries and docuseries, while a feature film (starring Jared Leto) is reportedly also in the works.

Set against the backdrop of hedonistic 1970s Paris, Becoming Karl Lagerfeld‘s six-part series bills itself as “freely inspired” by his life (based on French journalist Raphaëlle Bacqué’s biography Kaiser Karl). It charts his most transformative decade the 1970s – and, as he becomes artistic director of Chloé (whose visionary founder Gaby Aghion is played by César winner Agnès Jaoui), Lagerfeld slowly evolves into the iconic figure he became in 1983 after joining Chanel as creative director (a role he held until his death in 2019, reshaping Coco’s then-sleepy brand into a global luxury powerhouse).

Stepping into the designer’s Cuban heels (and fluent French) is pan-European character actor Daniel Brühl, 45, known for memorable turns in Inglorious Basterds, Rush and as Marvel villain Zemo. In an interview this spring, Brühl told Zoomer it was the project’s premise – and stage of life – that drew him.

Karl Lagerfeld
Daniel Brühl as a young Karl Lagerfeld in Becoming Karl Lagerfeld. Photo: Disney+

 

 

Middle-Aged Renaissance Man

The multi-faceted Lagerfeld had immense creative drive and pioneered the concept of a freelance designer early in his career. He juggled interests (photography, interior decor) with eclectic and often overlapping stints with labels like Jean Patou, Valentino, Fendi, Tiziani of Rome (where he was responsible for much of Elizabeth Taylor’s wardrobe in the camp 1968 cult classic Boom!), Charles Jourdan and Krizia before joining French fashion house Chloé – the key timeline of the series. Prolific, successful but still very much the underdog (and arguably without a recognizable style of his own), the designer was not yet enjoying a high-flying career or fame. 

“How did he get there? And who was that person before he created that persona?” Brühl says of finding an exploration of the complex, “flesh and blood and feelings” that led to such a cultivated self-presentation compelling. 

“And I could relate to many things because my midlife crisis was 44, when I was shooting the show,” he adds with a laugh. “I found I had a lot of empathy with the Karl Lagerfeld that we meet in this particular moment in in time.”

Brühl is referring to the fact that Becoming Karl Lagerfeld opens just as the designer is turning 40 (though he lied about his age at the time) and meeting Jacques de Bascher (Québecois rising talent Théodore Pellerin, 26), nearly 20 years his junior. The magnetic young dandy became the love of his life. “He was the person who amused me more than anyone,” Lagerfeld later said. “He was also impossible, despicable – he was perfect.”

Karl Lagerfeld
Daniel Brühl as Lagerfeld, with Québecois rising talent Théodore Pellerin as the love of Lagerfeld’s life, Jacques de Bascher. Photo: Disney+

 

The series dramatizes how de Bascher’s brief but scandalous affair with Yves Saint Laurent (Arnaud Valois), Lagerfeld’s longtime friend and, at the time, the superstar of French fashion, caused a legendary rift in the designers’ longtime friendship (the fallout is chronicled in Alicia Drake’s evocative social history The Beautiful Fall). 

The ensuing bitter romantic and professional rivalry drove Lagerfeld to inventive new heights – shaping him into the figure remembered today. Episodes retrace, for instance, the all-out war that Saint Laurent’s business and life partner Pierre Bergé (Alex Lutz) declared on Lagerfeld’s reputation as a result. Another sees the designers (and their respective entourages) face off over who will have the honour of creating the bridal gown for the 1978 wedding of friend Paloma Picasso.

 

The Last Days of Disco

The series recreates the louche haunts of Lagerfeld‘s heyday as he came into his own (like the mirrored Le Sept nightclub and others of the gay underground nightclub scene on rue Saint-Anne) and populates them with many cultural figures, such as Marlene Dietrich, Andy Warhol, Paloma Picasso and Italian Vogue editor Anna Piaggi. But along with Lagerfeld’s formidable and opinionated mother Elizabeth, who lived him at the time, the designer’s tempestuous relationship with de Bascher – until the latter’s death in 1989, from AIDS-related complications – is the creative catalyst at the heart of the series.

The influence of these relationships at the pivotal midpoint of both Lagerfeld’s life and career shed light on the contradictions of his reputation as provocateur. He became well-known for pithy bon mots and for scathing pronouncements on everything from ugliness and fatness to casual dressing. The series considers how the icon’s refreshing (and often shocking) candour likely developed as a defence mechanism when bantering with his imperious and cruelly critical mother.

“It must have been tough coming from Germany to France,” Brühl says of Lagerfeld’s move to Paris in the early 1950s, when the memories of the Second World War were still so fresh. “Coming to France, being homosexual – it’s a lot, and with and omnipresent, huge mother figure!” Lagerfeld would escape by creating fairytale parallel worlds of aesthetic beauty, always new spaces, new worlds, new universes, the actor explains of the designer’s penchant for complete vision in his interiors, from Memphis design to that he would then shed like a skin. “When he bought a castle, he didn’t only buy the castle but the whole decoration, everything about it had to be done as he imagined it to be, to create a dream.”

Karl Lagerfeld
The real Karl Lagerfeld at home in Paris in 1983. Photo: Pierre Vauthey/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

 

Dressing the Part

Costume is always important to character but never more so than in Becoming Karl Lagerfeld’s titular self-invention. Under celebrated César-winning costume designer Pascaline Chavanne (who frequently works with filmmaker François Ozon), the costume department rented or created 3,000 period pieces, including more than 40 originals (some of which recreate Karl’s signature outfits, like a favourite brashly-patterned shirt) and dozens of outfits for the Chloé and Saint Laurent runway show recreations.

At several junctures, the camera lingers on Lagerfeld’s methodical and extremely disciplined dressing room toilette. 

“He wasn’t a relaxed person,” Brühl says by way of understatement, “and probably didn’t even know what that means.” 

Even years before the trademark powdered ponytail and driving gloves, his daily uniform of exquisitely tailored suits (worn with a tie bar, antique jewellery lapel pin, silk foulard and tinted aviators) was a disguise, a carefully-controlled caricature and public persona to mask vulnerability. Costume, the German and Spanish actor says, was one of the crucial first steps to believing himself as the character. He even took a few wardrobe pieces back to his apartment to work with; the high heels Lagerfeld favoured in the 1970s were especially helpful (“I’m half Spanish, so I immediately thought of flamenco”). 

Karl Lagerfeld in his trademark heels, with a model wearing a plissé-dress from Lagerfeld’s Chloe-Collection, in Hamburg, 1977. Photo: Werner Baum/picture alliance via Getty Images

 

The Man Behind the Mask

The later Lagerfeld of popular imagination is the one Brühl personally remembers, seeing him on German talk shows: “it was always a pleasure listening to him answering these sometimes very boring questions with his natural wit – that eloquence and sharp sense of humour.” 

Early in his career nearly 20 years ago, while still an emerging twentysomething actor, theirs path actually crossed at the Berlin Film Festival, when Lagerfeld was shooting a group portrait of German actors. 

“Many of the actors wanted to squeeze themselves onto a tiny little platform because they knew it would ultimately be the cover of the magazine,” he recalls, explaining that he found the jostling ‘humiliating and embarrassing’ so stepped away from the pack. 

“Karl noticed that and gave me a little nod. Then when he took my picture, he could tell I was young and nervous and restrained so he started making jokes and talking about the history of the building – to make me feel looser. I thought he was very kind in that moment.”

To unlock the private Lagerfeld who had many “friends” but was truly known by very few, Brühl read several biographies and enthuses about spending time with art historian Patrick Hourcade, 78, a former creative at Vogue Paris whose own Karl: No Regrets biography sheds light on his dynamism. 

Brühl read several biographies to understand Lagerfeld’s character. Photo: Disney+

 

“He was real friend who had spent almost two decades with Karl and had written a book about him that I very much enjoyed.” 

Hourcade had the actor walk back and forth across his apartment and gesture, he recalls, “so I felt like I’m on a catwalk.” After insights and information shared privately, his way into the physical portrayal came as an epiphany: a bullfighter. “Because the bullfighter in Spain has both – very feminine and graceful and elegant and very much a masculine on the other hand.” 

There is also the corset, Brühl explains, that bullfighters are pressed into “to show that pride and ambition, making them more beautiful and more perfect than they actually are.” Brühl says he brought this clear image to mind before every take.

Fashion creators are only recently being recognized as major social and cultural forces of their generations, alongside their contemporaries like Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Baquiat. Their influence goes far beyond fashion, Brühl posits. 

“It’s not just about fabrics and colours and clothes and dresses, but about art in general. To capture the zeitgeist – in Karl’s case literature, the movies, theatre, architecture, design,” he says with admiration, “and that he managed to stay inspired his whole life, capturing what he was perceiving and translating all this into fashion.”

Becoming Karl Lagerfeld is streaming now on Disney+ in Canada.

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