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Karl Lagerfeld just won't quit. Some 22 years after he was recruited to revive the Paris fashion house Chanel, the 66-year-old designer still wins plaudits for keeping the brand fresh while preserving its classic appeal. He also designs for Italy's Fendi, and churns out collections under his own Lagerfeld labels. So potent is his name that last fall's launch of the bargain-priced "Karl Lagerfeld for H&M" apparel line for Sweden's Hennes & Mauritz touched off near-riots in stores from Manhattan to Milan. With his white ponytail, dark glasses, and black-and-white wardrobe, Lagerfeld is an enduring icon in an industry where superstardom is usually fleeting. Yet he recoils at the suggestion that he has become an institution. "The moment you stop and think about your past, the magic starts to fade," he says. "Change is the healthiest way to survive."
Born in Germany, Lagerfeld was apprenticed at age 17 to the legendary designer Pierre Balmain in Paris. Despite his deep roots in haute couture, Lagerfeld says the most exciting part of the fashion business today is in mass-produced apparel. That's why he signed on for the one-time deal with H&M, he says -- and why, last December, he sold several of his trademarks, including Lagerfeld Gallery and KL, to U.S. apparel group Tommy Hilfiger Corp. (TOM ) for an undisclosed sum. "I like the idea of modern distribution of well-designed clothes that are not expensive," he says.
Is he concerned that overexposure might cheapen the Lagerfeld name? Lagerfeld says he doesn't have time for such worries. He's just back from the gala opening of a retrospective on Chanel at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, for which he designed the catalogue. A stickler for detail, he also designs the advertising for all his apparel lines. And he's a serious fashion photographer; he recently shot an ad campaign for Adidas (ADDDY ). Does he ever think about retiring? "Coco Chanel died doing a collection at age 86," Lagerfeld says. "I still have plenty of time."
By Carol Matlack