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Karl Lagerfeld's Diet Book: A Batty Y2K Relic
If the goal was to make food as unappealing as possible, Karl and his doctor certainly succeeded.
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***Disclaimer: Today’s issue is about Karl Lagerfeld’s diet book. In the interest of being abundantly clear: I do not endorse this diet. This will likely become quickly obvious.***
Karl Lagerfeld went on a diet to be thin because, he said, “one fine morning” in the year 2000 he woke up and decided he “suddenly wanted… to wear clothes designed by Hedi Slimane.” This is as close as we get to a thesis statement in the book The Karl Lagerfeld Diet, which is also probably the closest thing we have to a memoir by the late designer, considered one of the most significant fashion figures of all time. Karl noted that Slimane’s clothes were “being modeled by very slim boys” and therefore he would need to lose 80 pounds. At which point he would move to a loft apartment in Williamsburg with more roommates than walls and live the indie sleaze dream. Just kidding, he just kept being one of the fanciest people on the planet — which is exactly the kind of person his high-maintenance diet is for — just in tighter clothes.
(For those of you unfamiliar with Slimane: in the aughts, his Dior Homme shows included skinny suits on skinny men in a trend that was something like the TikTok of men’s runway fashion at the time, which is to say explosive. A fashion earthquake. The Beatlemania of tailoring. From there sprang skinny jeans, which begat the “jeans wars,” etc. Vogue Runway will take you as far back as spring 2005 if you want to reminisce more deeply about this.)
Karl wrote the book in collaboration with Dr. Jean-Claude Houdret. This is the photo of Houdret that appears in the book. Hopefully Anna Wintour is looking at this and imagining the fashion fireworks this man could ignite on her Met Gala red carpet next year, because that’s all I see, personally.
Karl’s legacy is something fashion followers will confront in the run-up to the forthcoming exhibition of his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. The diet book presents a slice of his persona that was as meticulously constructed as the book’s recipe for low-calorie ham and raspberry mousse, which requires pureeing or finely chopping ham, mixing it with crème fraîche and eggs, layering it with raspberries, and then baking it in a gratin dish placed in a water bath. Along with Karl’s desire to lose weight came the desire to bid “[f]arewell to my magnificent nineteenth-century furniture” and even “my Japanese clothes after ten years of faithful service.” Such frippery out of the way along with the 80 pounds he no longer desired to carry, Karl wrote, “Hello to modern furniture and minimalist decor. Hello to serenity and dealing calmly with problems.” And hello to protein sachets that must be purchased from Dr. Houdret’s company!
The crux of the “Spoonlight” diet outlined in the book is calorie restriction. Those embarking on a weight loss journey are advised to do all the things women’s magazines suggested ad nauseum in the pre-internet era — keeping a food diary, eating before going to parties so as to feel full and avoid eating caloric party food, not doing anything else while you eat (like reading or watching TV) so as to derive maximum satisfaction from a meal. This diet also requires consuming Houdret’s sachets, as many as six per day in the “level one” or most restrictive phase. Christine Muhlke tried the diet when the book came out in 2005, and ordered the sachets from www.sunrexparis.com. For $264, she wrote in The New York Times Magazine, she got two weeks’ worth of powders and supplements, which come in sweet and savory flavors. A footnote in tiny type in the book explains how to use, for instance, the dessert sachets:
Preparation of Spoonlight 1 protein sachets. Desserts: Pour the powder into a food processor and add 6 to 8 ounces mineral water or nonfat milk. You can mix in a stiffly beaten egg white to give a lighter consistency.
Among Muhkle’s complaints about the diet was “lugg[ing] a hand-held blender to the office [to] loudly make my shakes in the art department, dripping cacao chaud or goût poulet onto the fax machine…” Karl Lagerfeld was a man who provided his cat Choupette with two caretakers, a body guard, and a chef. So yeah, I’m sure it was no big deal to for him to have a private chef use an implement as cumbersome as a food processor just to whip up a foamy little low-cal nightcap. Such is this diet: expensive, cumbersome, and often brutally unappetizing.
However, Karl is very clear that he’s willing to sacrifice foods he loves, like the “slices of black bread thickly spread with delicious salted butter” he once enjoyed for breakfast at Café Flore for purely superficial reasons. He makes this point repeatedly: “I had to lose weight to be able to wear tight-fitting clothes.” (On another page: “There is nothing worse than looking longingly at clothes that you would like to wear but that are definitely too tight for you.” Well — and I’m just throwing out ideas here — maybe the book’s recipe for tuna and blackberry mousse? Maybe that is worse.) Yet, perhaps either because Houdret is operating under the prefix of “Dr.” or because an editor told them to, the book contains some information about health. In a long introductory Q&A with Karl, he talks primarily about how he lost weight solely to “become a perfect clotheshorse of 132 pounds (for a height of five foot eleven).” A page or two later, Houdret tells us that diet matters for health as well, writing, “In order to live a long and happy life, it is certainly essential to stay in good health.”
This is just one of a number of maddening contradictions in the book. In another instance, Karl writes, “I had no health problems nor — which would be worse — emotional problems!” Yet he later says that, along with saying goodbye to his lost pounds, he welcomes saying “hello to serenity and dealing calmly with problems.”
Toward the end of the book in a section about quitting smoking, Karl says:
I myself have never smoked — I can’t see the point. I tried it, of course, but it didn’t do anything for me. What’s more, it seems to me that to be constantly carrying around a pack of cigarettes and a lighter, and having to find somewhere to dispose of the ash, is a completely unnecessary source of irritation. Nevertheless, I completely accept that those around me smoke, even if I don’t approve of it.
In moments like this I’m grateful to Dr. Houdret, who in the next paragraph advises giving up smoking because it can cause deadly cancer among other serious health issues.
A large chunk of the book contains recipes and suggested meal plans. Karl’s “summer diet” is outlined. (The difference between “summer” and “winter” meal plans isn’t exactly specified, but a suggested summer breakfast includes cold yogurt and fruit while a winter breakfast includes an egg — yes, one sad little egg to keep you warm — fried without oil.) A summer day for Karl began with a glass of water. He moved onto breakfast including bread with low-fat butter, low-fat yogurt or cheese, and coffee or tea; lunch including two sachets, vegetables, and yogurt; and then dinner, for which the book suggests a number of options that would be completely alien in most American households — but perhaps slightly less alien to the hipster demographic Karl undertook the diet to join. Dinner choices include:
Baked rabbit spread with fromage frais, pain yogurt, or 1/2 teaspoon mustard
Steamed fennel with lemon or steamed broccoli with 1 tablespoon low-fat butter
2 plain yogurts, or 1 piece permitted fruit
2 cooked heads of endive rolled in half a slice of ham, baked with 3 teaspoons grated gruyère and 1 tablespoon low-fat butter
Lettuce, celery, cucumber, mint sauce no. 4
2 plain yogurts or 1 piece permitted fruit
If you’re not a mint sauce no. 4 type of girl, perhaps you’d prefer the sixteenth sauce on the sauce list, a diet béchamel:
Whip a beaten egg yolk into 1/4 cup boiling soy milk. Add a few finely sliced mushrooms, salt, pepper, and nutmeg.
If you’re reading this and thinking this diet might work because it makes food so complicated as to be completely unappetizing but also just is unappetizing, well, you haven’t seen the photos of the food! Which was styled alongside little statues, as though each plate is a tiny Trevi Fountain — a physical thing, but more of an idea of a thing than something you can truly engage with. Because that’s how big of a deal it is to arrive at the hour when, on this strange and terrible-sounding diet, you can finally eat — like you’ve arrived at a monumentally important and ceremonial juncture in your day. I actually wonder if these photos were designed to turn readers off from food altogether. Or maybe the soy-based béchamel didn’t photograph beautifully. Who’s to say?
Among the other bizarre aspects of this book is all the commentary about women’s breasts. Karl says repeatedly that he had never had plastic surgery — perhaps because of speculation at the time that he lost the weight via liposuction — but the book advocates it in a number of instances, including “to correct sagging stomachs, inner thighs, and upper arms.” But this is nothing compared to the tittie shaming that soon follows:
A severe weight loss diet may, in some cases, lead to significant loss of the fatty tissue in the breasts, leading to drooping breasts (“rabbits ears”). Here also, cosmetic surgery is possible, either simply to raise the breasts or to insert implants behind the pectoral muscle in order to give the breasts a pleasing shape and size.
If surgery isn’t for you, this is suggested as an alternative, under “Bust exercises” (emphasis mine):
To tone them, sprinkle them with cold water every morning and perform the following exercises:
In a standing position, with the back straight, staring at a point level with your eyes, squeeze your hands and palms tightly together on a level with your neck and mouth. Leave hands pressed together for ten seconds. Relax. (5 times)
In a standing position, with arms crossed, grip the opposite forearm, alternately pushing and pulling. (5 times)
This book is OK entertainment, if you’re looking for information on Karl’s life and want to remember how freely and unselfconsciously he spoke. (Counterpoint: maybe you don’t want to remember that.) And he even had some choice comments about aging that many would probably agree with. Such as:
“What I do deplore is how some of my acquaintances have had face-lift after face-lift.”
“It doesn’t bother me that I am getting old and wrinkled. I don’t want to be young and cute.”
“At my age I don’t need to be a sexy bundle of muscles thank you very much.” (He notes later that too much working out is not advised if you, men, want your jackets to fit perfectly.)
And there’s this in the intro — though the rest of the book that followed would seem to dispute it:
There comes a moment in life when the idea of youth and beauty has to give way to style and elegance. That’s how it is. The gaze of youth is pitiless. Do you recall what you thought, at the age of twenty, or anyone over thirty? Everyone is the same.
By that logic, who cares how you look in tight pants? Thanksgiving is next week and I wish you all a wonderful day eating whatever the fuck you want, free from the miserable tyranny of dieting according to Jean-Claude Houdret and his godforsaken sachets.