Four years ago, when the couturier Karl Lagerfeld dropped 92 pounds in 13 months, a public obsessed with the vicissitudes of celebrity weight took notice. How did a man who once swathed his ample girth in layers of oversized black clothing, who hid his double chin behind a fluttering Spanish fan, manage to lose the fleshly equivalent of an adolescent girl? The press blamed drugs, liposuction, illness, anorexia. But the gossip was merely a pretext to pose the question that arises whenever a celebrity trims down: How did he shed the weight?
Never one to miss a lucrative opportunity, Lagerfeld, who has designed for Chanel since 1983, codified his diet secrets in book form. Since its 2004 publication, The Karl Lagerfeld Diet has sold nearly 200,000 copies in Europe and Asia, and last month it was released in America. Not that you would know. In a country where diet manuals are the national literature, the book has received scant attention. Perhaps this is because The Karl Lagerfeld Diet makes few concessions for an American audience, aside from changing kilos to pounds and "fat people" to "overweight." Unlike the best-selling French Women Don't Get Fat, whose Gallic philosophy is presented in a relentlessly cheerful tone, The Karl Lagerfeld Diet arrives stateside boasting snooty European airs. To Americans, it no doubt appears as odd and incongruous as a chevalier at a state fair.
Though the regimen bears the designer's famous name, it's actually the creation of Lagerfeld's Parisian physician, Jean-Claude Houdret, who pens most of the book, with Lagerfeld swooping in on occasion. The diet, also called "The Spoonlight Program," is a low-carb, low-fat, low-calorie affair that is unmistakably French. The book includes recipes for dishes such as fish soufflé, quail flambé, ham and raspberry mousse, vegetables in aspic, and roast guinea fowl with tarragon. One meal per day must consist of Slim Fast-style"protein sachets," available in delectable flavors like "cream soup," "egg-based custard," and "bread and cakes." And health-conscious readers will recognize certain recommendations as suspect: Houdret encourages the liberal use of artificial sweeteners and diet sodas and discourages exercise because it "runs the risk of making you hungry." If dieters do feel peckish—at 1,000 to 1,200 calories a day this is a very real prospect—they should not despair. "You can have a little homeopathic granule if you are very hungry," Lagerfeld says indulgently.
Unlike most American gurus, who optimistically insist that dieters need never feel hungry, Lagerfeld and Houdret view deprivation as part of the project of slimming down. "It has to be a sort of punishment," the German-born Lagerfeld tells Ingrid Sischy in a prefatory interview. A dieter, he tells her, must submit to his own martial law: "You are a general and you have a single soldier in your army. You must give him instructions and he must carry them out. It may annoy him but he has no choice." But it's Houdret who takes the book's bleak, unforgiving tone to its extreme. "Do you have enough moral strength?" he demands, a drill sergeant barking at recruits. "Without real commitment, without the determination to understand and accept the diet, all those who embark upon it are destined to failure." Imagine Suzanne Somers saying that.
Of course, maintaining an iron will is easy if one has minimal contact with food. Lagerfeld lives like an Old-World aristocrat ("The only calendar I follow is that of circumstance and desire"), with homes in Paris, Biarritz, and Monte Carlo, and he has a personal chef to cook his meals. "I enjoy eating what my chef prepares for me. ... I also appreciate his little discoveries such as mixing my protein supplements with sauces, soups, or soufflés" he says, apparently unaware that his readers may be flambéing the quail themselves. With regard to leftovers, the book urges, "Throw them away! That way you won't be tempted to finish them." Hardly a cost-effective solution when you're dining on guinea fowl and veal.
Perhaps most alien, and potentially alienating, is the book's unapologetic emphasis on appearance. Lagerfeld repeatedly states that fashion, specifically the desire to wear the superslim fashions of the aptly named Hedi Slimane (who designs for Dior Homme), motivated him. When discussing their belief in the importance of one's exterior, Lagerfeld and Houdret, clearly a like-minded pair, don't mince words. "In order to have a place in society," Houdret writes, "both men and women have to be active, good looking and above all young—and therefore slim." Lagerfeld, ever extenuatory, puts it more concisely: "A respectable appearance is sufficient to make people more interested in your soul." Such an opinion is seldom heard in this country, where we tend to be embarrassed about superficiality. Instead, Americans often speak of dieting as a spiritual quest—a view that Lagerfeld sniffs at as "literary psychology." "A diet does not need a philosophical explanation, nor all those excuses behind which people often feel the need to take refuge," he tells Sischy.
As silly as all this is, it's also refreshing. Lagerfeld explains that losing weight for sartorial reasons is a clever form of reverse psychology. "Going on a diet because of clothes is a completely different thing," he says. "It's a superficial reason; there's no obligation, nothing in your life depends upon it, apart from your wardrobe. ... You have to treat it as an unimportant challenge and that's why you succeed." Indeed, it may be easier to drop a few (or 90) pounds if the endeavor is not treated as such a, well, weighty matter.
True to its Continental spirit, The Karl Lagerfeld Diet concludes with a peculiar literary exploration of the dandy—evidently because Lagerfeld, with his starched-collar shirts and willfully eccentric attitudes, fancies himself a Wildean character. Americans might not have given much thought to the plight of the dandy in modern society, but Houdret insists it is a critical issue. "Dandies have to put up with all sorts of irritation and insults," he writes. "Often criticized and sometimes jeered at, they are in a perpetual state of conflict with themselves—torn between what they are and what they would like to be, trying to achieve harmony with their ideal." So, if the diet fails to catch on with the overweight, who may prefer their fish fried to flambéed, it may still find a sympathetic audience among America's vast, underrepresented dandy population.