THERE is no bigger star in fashion today than Karl Lagerfeld. When Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman learned he would be creating a new line with his name on it, they ordered it sight unseen for spring. His first runway show for the collection, on Feb. 10 in New York, has created such anticipation that Apple Computer, which has never before approached a fashion designer to provide content, plans to make a video podcast available that night as a free download on iTunes.
Oprah Winfrey even arranged for Mr. Lagerfeld to squeeze in a trip to Chicago to tape an episode on Wednesday, with 10 models wearing the line.
"All you need to do is put the Lagerfeld name on anything, and people line up at the door," said Sara Albrecht, the owner of Ultimo in Chicago, a pillar of designer fashion in the Midwest. "Normally when I hear about a designer doing a lower-price line, I cringe. But he has such a perception of the consumer and how they wear clothes in reality that it could really work."
Therein lies the intrigue. The protean Mr. Lagerfeld, who already creates eight collections a year for Chanel and Fendi, in addition to pursuing flourishing side careers in photography and book publishing, has relied on others to complete this latest line. How will the emperor's new clothes measure up when Mr. Lagerfeld's involvement, like that of Jennifer Lopez and Sean Combs in their lines, is more creative inspiration than hands-on designer?
The clothes, to be shown on the final day of New York Fashion Week, which begins tomorrow, are a collaboration between Mr. Lagerfeld and the sportswear colossus Tommy Hilfiger, who bought Mr. Lagerfeld's brand in December 2004. The clothes — two lines actually, known as Karl Lagerfeld and Lagerfeld Collection, distinguished by their price — are being designed simultaneously by Mr. Lagerfeld in Paris, his home, and by a team in New York, Mr. Hilfiger's headquarters.
Mr. Lagerfeld, who is expected to arrive from Paris on Tuesday, has not yet seen many of the designs that have been made in New York. The designers there, headed by the stylist Melanie Ward, have not seen the clothes Mr. Lagerfeld has designed in Paris. The results, judging by recent visits to both studios, had the appearance of a first-born child of two parents who look nothing alike; you weren't exactly sure what traits you were getting from whom, except for the last name.
Last Friday, three days after his spring haute couture show, Mr. Lagerfeld was in his studio in Paris for fittings. That day he had done a radio program on music with Hélène Arnault, had lunch with Mr. Hilfiger and company executives at his house on the Rue de l'Université and visited with his friend Princess Caroline of Monaco for two hours. That evening he was to be a guest on a French TV show. The night before he had photographed couture from different houses for Numéro magazine until 4 a.m., and the night before that he did another couture shoot for Chinese Vogue with his assistant and muse, Amanda Harlech, also until 4.
Organized chaos is routine chez Lagerfeld, something of a clash with Mr. Hilfiger's more disciplined approach to time management. The clothes designed in New York will bear the label Karl Lagerfeld and are priced at $475 for a dress, $275 for jeans and $155 for a T-shirt. The Paris clothes are called Lagerfeld Collection, and prices are roughly double: $1,100 for a dress, $634 for pants and $235 for a T-shirt. "It's a bit early to say how it will work out," Mr. Lagerfeld said of how he will show the two collections. "Perhaps we'll keep the lines more separate if we don't like the mix."
The long-held industry belief that lower-price collections ultimately dilute a brand's value does not seem to apply to Mr. Lagerfeld. His inexpensive designs for the fast-fashion chain H&M, offered as a one-time collection in 2004, were a litmus test. The skinny jeans and T-shirts sold furiously, and the surprise was that Mr. Lagerfeld, rather than damaging his name, managed to enhance his status as fashion's biggest star.
Jim Gold, the chief executive of Bergdorf Goodman, described Mr. Lagerfeld as a visionary, "and there aren't many designers with rock star power," he said. "When the best of the best designers informs you they are going to delve into a new venture, often you're going to get behind it." The store had wanted Mr. Lagerfeld to make an appearance on March 17, when his Karl Lagerfeld line for spring, exclusive to Bergdorf's and Neiman's, goes on sale. "He's so crazed between all his collections, he couldn't commit," Mr. Gold said.
On Monday, as boxes containing the first samples of the Karl Lagerfeld line began arriving in a 17th-floor photography studio in Chelsea, Ms. Ward, the creative director of the line, tried on a knit dress that had been finished in a factory in Europe. "He's such a modernist, and that's definitely my aesthetic," she said. Ms. Ward, whose fair features and pulled-back hair, framed by a wardrobe of only black, recall the luminous subjects of Vermeer paintings, had worked with Helmut Lang for 13 years, partly in a design capacity, until he left his company last year. She shares Mr. Lagerfeld's passion for art, photography and furniture design and multiple professional pursuits. The exchange of books and photographs, and long trans-Atlantic conversations, became the points of reference in design, fleshed out as concepts by Ms. Ward and a team of about 20 designers over the summer in New York and shown in pieces to Mr. Lagerfeld during visits to the city in October and December. The direction from Mr. Lagerfeld could be encapsulated as simply as this: cool, urban, modern, effortless.
"He is supportive and trusting," Ms. Ward said. "He is not somebody who would instill fear in the design department. For us, Karl is fashion."
In Paris the Lagerfeld Collection clothes are predominantly black, with long skinny coats with high collars and strips of black leather sewn on tulle on the cuffs and on the waists of slim black suits. The silhouettes were more linear than the past two seasons, a direction that is paralleled at least in the few pieces of Karl Lagerfeld that could be seen this week in New York.
The men's collection was nearly complete in a muddy gray palette, with charcoal wool pinhead suitings, dark wool flannel madras shirts, striped sweaters, shrunken sweatshirts and jeans made of deeply dyed selvage denim from Japan in cuts simultaneously baggy in the crotch and skinny with scrunched legs. (For those who are anxious for details, the denim is coated with resin to appear slightly damp, an effect that will improve with wear.) With a strong dark edge, the comparisons to Ms. Ward's association with Helmut Lang will be inevitable; many of his devotees are expecting the Karl Lagerfeld line will serve as a replacement for Mr. Lang's basic, functional — but well-designed — clothes.
Mr. Lagerfeld smiled at the suggestion. "I have a tendency toward severe clothes, but I can play," he said. "I have a large range."
Mr. Lagerfeld said he wanted to have one show in Paris, where he shows Chanel ready-to-wear and couture, one in Milan for Fendi and one in New York for his own label.
As with Chanel and Fendi, Mr. Lagerfeld does not venture widely beyond his role in design, and this can be maddening for corporate types. He is fond of saying he can design an Empire-waisted dress, but not an empire, though that may come across as feigned ignorance or as a shield, as Mr. Lagerfeld is well aware of the commercial side of the business.
"Listen, I'm a very basic, down-to-earth person," he said. "But if I showed that publicly, people would say, 'What a bore.' "
Mr. Hilfiger and Mr. Lagerfeld met for the first time in July 2004, when Mr. Lagerfeld was photographing Mr. Hilfiger for Harper's Bazaar. Mr. Hilfiger realized an opportunity to acquire Mr. Lagerfeld's small signature label, then known as Lagerfeld Gallery, and he did so for $27.5 million, according to a company filing last month.
From afar Mr. Lagerfeld "seems unreachable and untouchable," said Ann Acierno, the president of Hilfiger's Lagerfeld division. "But from the moment I met him he was very open and very opinionated. He's probably the most open-minded person you'll ever meet."
The company hopes to expand the Lagerfeld name to accessories like watches, handbags and shoes, and has continued negotiations with other companies while the sale of Tommy Hilfiger to a private equity group, Apax Partners, proceeds. The deal is expected to close this spring.
One reason Mr. Lagerfeld was interested in selling to the Hilfiger company was the promise of better manufacturing and distribution of his clothing. It was also an opportunity to give credibility to his small signature brand, long considered by American department stores to be an afterthought.
But so far this spring, the transition to Hilfiger's corporate control has been difficult as the company becomes accustomed to producing collections far more detailed and expensive than Tommy Hilfiger sportswear. Several stores that ordered the signature collection said deliveries of spring merchandise are exceptionally late. Missy Hebson, an owner of Neopolitan, a two-year-old designer store in Winnetka, Ill., said that after a trunk show last July the company could not complete many of its orders.
"We kept calling them, and they said there was no more fabric," she said. "We ended up turning off a lot of customers."
Spring deliveries are also late at Ultimo in Chicago and Capitol in Charlotte, N.C., and partly complete at Mix in Houston. This is a common problem after a designer company changes ownership, executives at those stores said, and the merchandise will probably sell well when it arrives.
"The appeal is Karl Lagerfeld," said Evelyn Gorman, the owner of Mix. "He is one of those figures in fashion who is like what Madonna is to music. They just seem larger than life because they continue to reinvent themselves."