Karl Lagerfeld and Roberto Cavalli

Fashion's Keynote Speakers

Fashion designers love nothing more than an audience – and the more intellectual the better. Calling on students “to give their studies 300 percent,” Karl Lagerfeld gave a “master class” at the Sciences Po (L’Institut d’études politiques) in Paris last November. The following night, Roberto Cavalli addressed the Oxford Union in Oxford. Fashion has rarely been more in awe of power of thought, as both events were packed, the designers revealing their highly contrasting philosophies.

“I think people look good in uniforms, and often religious uniforms,” opined the designer of Chanel, whose founder was profoundly influenced by the nuns in Aubazine Convent. “But, personally, I am an atheist,” cautioned Lagerfeld, the same night as actress Tilda Swinton and curator Olivier Saillard presented a fashion “tutorial” sponsored by Chloé around the corner in the Ecole des Beaux Arts. And guess who generously funded that restoration? Ralph Lauren, the American designer philantrophist.

“It’s quite complicated to become a designer. But if you decide to, then believe in yourself
and pray to God,” Cavalli told the Oxford students. Working methods differed, too. Expounded Lagerfeld: “I don’t like meetings. A waste of time. I draw all morning, and then bring my portfolio to our design studios after lunch, just like a student.” Cavalli compared himself to “a conductor. My team is like an orchestra, and my first gestures with a baton set them in the right direction.”
While the Italian studied at Florence’s Accademia delle Belle Arti, the German skipped university and went straight into fashion after finishing the lycée in Paris as a teenager.
“In my youth, fashion was not very fashionable,” sniffed the Chanel couturier, speaking beneath his own sketch of the Left Bank college’s emblem, as twitter messages continually appeared on six video screens.

“I’m against fashion that goes directly from a runway to a museum.”

Asked his greatest contribution to fashion, Cavalli – credited with inventing the first colour print leather – responded: “Exotic prints … I grew up with Leonardo and Michelangelo so that and a lot of rock’n’roll comes out when I print,” chuckled Cavalli, speaking in the dusty debating hall, where a dozen UK prime ministers have debated and three U.S. presidents have spoken.
“To be honest, this place reminds me of Harry Potter,” laughed Cavalli, winning a huge burst of laughter from the 200 students, half of whom later posed for photos with the Florentine.

Cavalli spoke as a guest of the Oxford Union Society, one of a series of meetings periodically organised where key figures in the fields of arts and politics address students, and on occasion large numbers of media. Guests who have participated in the past include: Anna Wintour, Bill Clinton, Michael Douglas, Tom Ford, the President of Pakistan Pervez Musharraf and the President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai. Both Lagerfeld and Cavalli produced successful collections for mass retailer H&M. Commented Lagerfeld: “I’m against fashion that goes directly from a runway to a museum.” While Cavalli recalled that a cigar he threw away when he walked into H&M’s New York opening was later auctioned for $150 on eBay. “Ten times what I paid for it. That’s fame for you! Though the best door opener is still my Ferrari,” he laughed.
Not exactly an intellectual’s car – but one no doubt they’d all accept a ride in.