Karl Lagerfeld was generous with his friends and confidants. He offered them Swiss watches, Italian sports cars, flats in Paris, houses on the French Riviera and more clothes than they knew what to do with.
But who received most gifts from the German fashion designer? Who was his favorite? Who can claim to be the de facto descendant of the creative director of Chanel and Fendi?
Meet the Rivals
Three men, one boy and a Birman cat are disputing the title — not to mention the status, contracts and popularity that go with it. Their rivalry, which had been largely kept hidden during Lagerfeld’s lifetime, emerged into the open last week with the publication of a book by Sébastien Jondeau, who was nominally his chauffeur and bodyguard but who claims to have been much more than that — his alter ego, his most trusted adviser, his spiritual son.
In Ça Va, Cher Karl? (Are You OK, Dear Karl?), which was written with Virginie Mouzat, Le Figaro’s fashion critic, Jondeau says that he spent 20 years with Lagerfeld, protecting him, helping him and, in the end, holding his hand as he breathed his last breath at the age of 85 in a Parisian hospital in February 2019.
Jondeau, 45, writes of his seemingly endless series of affairs with the women, notably the models, whom he met during his time with Lagerfeld, but describes his relationship with the designer himself as very different.
It was platonic, pure and marked by “harmony”, he says, before denouncing conflicting claims to have been the designer’s closest companion as “fiction” and “hot air”.
His rivals crop up from time to time during Jondeau’s 266-page account of his two decades with Lagerfeld, and rarely in a flattering light. Jondeau has little time for Baptiste Giabiconi, a French model, and Brad Kroenig, an American model. Kroenig’s 12-year-old son, Hudson, was Lagerfeld’s godchild and a Chanel model at the age of six, who was so spoiled by his godfather that he will be better off now that he is dead, according to Jondeau.
Then there is Choupette, the female Birman given to Lagerfeld by Giabiconi, which lived a life of luxury on a scale to make most felines screech with envy, eating off fine china as Françoise Caçote, the designer’s housekeeper, tended to its every need.
The cat is not exactly Jondeau’s enemy, but neither is he flattering about its role on social media, where it featured in an Instagram account set up by an American marketing consultant that had 250,000 followers before it was closed last year. Jondeau says that Choupette’s stardom served only to expose Lagerfeld’s private life to the public gaze.
Lagerfeld had no children and lost the great love of his life, Jacques de Bascher, his partner for 18 years, in 1989. In de Bascher’s absence, he is understood to have left his fortune, roughly estimated at $240 million, to the seven members of the “family of his heart”, including Giabiconi, Kroenig and his son, Jondeau and Choupette.
The exact details of the will have yet to be revealed, although Giabiconi has claimed to have been left more than anyone else, proving that he was Lagerfeld’s real favorite, he says. As for Choupette, the cat is barred from being a legatee under French law, which means its inheritance is likely to go to Caçote on condition that she agrees to continue to look after it.
Very Odd Jobs
Just as important, however, is the status that he bequeathed, and which the coterie are jostling to maintain.
Giabiconi, 31, for instance, was a moderately successful model until Lagerfeld made him the face of Chanel in 2008, which turned him into a household name in France and a regular on such shows as the country’s version of Strictly Come Dancing.
Jondeau’s rise was even more spectacular. Before meeting the designer, he was a removal man and a small-time boxer from a tough Paris suburb. Now he is a sportswear designer for Fendi and an ambassador for the Karl Lagerfeld brand.
Jondeau met Lagerfeld as a teenager when working for his father-in-law’s removal business, which often transported the designer’s belongings, notably between his home in Paris and his villa in Biarritz. He asked Lagerfeld if he could work for him full-time.
At first, he did odd jobs for the designer, delivering letters around Paris, opening the door of his studio to such celebrities as Gérard Depardieu.
He went on to become his chauffeur and his bodyguard as well, but also his confidant, at least according to Ça Va, Cher Karl? “My relationship with Karl was such that often we no longer really needed to talk.”
With Lagerfeld, Jondeau discovered a life of glamour that featured private jets, dinners in chic restaurants, and a swirl of celebrities, from Sir Mick Jagger to Dolly Parton and Jack Nicholson. He became acquainted with the world’s most powerful fashion editors, dated models, befriended Princess Caroline of Monaco and took her children surfing in the Atlantic.
Jondeau was initially treated by the rich and famous as an insignificant member of Lagerfeld’s staff. But soon “I discover the respect that certain people show me because they detect a proximity with Karl,” he writes.
When Lagerfeld developed prostate cancer, he was among a handful of people in the know, he says, adding pointedly that neither Giabiconi nor Kroenig were told of the illness.
Every morning, Jondeau sent his mentor a text message: “Ça Va, Cher Karl?” He says he worked round-the-clock seven days a week for an annual salary of $50,000 but never asked for a raise because “Karl is so generous on the side”, offering him luxury watches, signed photographs, cars that included a $240,000 Lamborghini, a flat in central Paris likely to fetch more than $1.2 million at today’s prices, and a loan for a house in the refined French Riviera resort of Ramatuelle.
He Said, He Said
The only clouds were the presence of the models with whom he became “infatuated”, Jondeau says.
First, there was Kroenig, who started to appear “all over the place, in the advertising campaigns, in the photographic work, on the journeys, in the fashion shows”.
Jondeau writes: “I have the impression that Brad is someone who is self-interested, he doesn’t want to spend any money, he is a little capricious with the people with whom he works.”
As for Kroenig’s son, he was “pampered, overprotected and over-spoilt” by Lagerfeld, Jondeau writes. “Hudson was 11 when Karl disappeared from his life. It is perhaps fortunate for him.”
Jondeau is more disparaging still of Giabiconi, who he says “pushes his way” into Lagerfeld’s life, adding “Karl changes behaviour as soon as he is around. He becomes not so nice.”
Ça Va, Cher Karl? reads in many ways like a riposte to Karl et Moi (Karl and Me), which was published by Giabiconi last February. In it, the model had his own dig at Jondeau: “I don’t feel at ease with him, what with his invasive cough and anxiety,” he writes. “You should be careful of people who straight away share their fears, their ailments, their problems.”
Despite their differences, however, Giabiconi and Jondeau have things in common. Both described their relationship with Lagerfeld as like family; in Giabiconi’s words “more of a filial relationship, like between a father and son”.
Both would like it thought that they were above material gain. “Money is of no interest,” said Giabiconi. With Lagerfeld “we share the same religion of sharing”, writes Jondeau.
And both are up against a formidable foe in their struggle to enter history as Lagerfeld’s true heir. It has fur, four legs, and, following the designer’s death, an official Instagram account run by its own agent, reportedly on behalf of the Karl Lagerfeld brand.
Last autumn, Choupette signed her first commercial deal. It was to promote cat hammocks.