G. Bruce Boyer’s True Style might have been the best serious #menswear book of 2015, but the Where’s Waldo? parody Where’s Karl? may have been my favorite fashion book of last year. Where’s Karl? sets out and sends up in hilarious, delirious pageantry the fanciful fleshpots flit through by the international fashion set, all as seen through the inspired pen of fictional French blogger Florence “Fleur” de la Sabine as she attempts to track down couture’s favorite cipher, Karl Lagerfeld. As in the Where’s Waldo? books, dozens of Easter Eggs abound in each scene, in the persons of other omnipresent media figures, from Karl’s cat Choupette to late NYT snapper Bill Cunningham in bleu de travail, to the occasional Coddington (Grace) or Kardashian (disgraceful). Like Waldo, Karl has a distinctive uniform that doesn’t change from scene to scene. Unlike Waldo, Karl’s uniform is a skinny black Slimane suit, high-collared custom Hilditch & Key Paris shirt, and abundant Chrome Hearts jewelry, and his haunts are the more rarefied, still rambunctious, environs of the Met Ball, Tulum, Milan, Paris, Tokyo, Art Basel Miami and other launches, openings and fashion weeks along the way. Presented with an opportunity to interview one of Where’s Karl?’s creators, writer, stylist and blogger Ajiri Aki, I couldn’t pass up inquiring what inspired and went into the creation and conceits of one of the most entertaining books about fashion I’ve ever read. With thanks to her patience and generous time, her answers are below.
Ajiri co-wrote Where’s Karl? with Stacey Caldwell, while Michelle Baron drew the intricately, rewardingly detailed and amusing illustrations. Ajiri and Stacey met at college in Texas, and kept in touch over the years, which saw Ajiri become a writer for the late Daily News Record (which was once a men’s fashion industry periodical and website and has since been folded into Women’s Wear Daily) and fashion stylist, as well as co-curator on museum exhibitions like 2006’s “AngloMania: Tradition and Transgression in British Fashion.”
RJ: What got you interested in fashion? In writing?
AA: I have been interested in fashion since high school really when I subscribed to about 10 different magazines from my home in Austin, Texas and drooled over the pages. I have been writing since I was a child and fashion and writing just naturally came together, not to mention it is necessary for everything I did at magazines and museums.
RJ: What gave you the idea to write the book? Does it have something to do with, in Fleur’s words, Karl being “truly the definition of a savant and a modern-day Renaissance man [designing] for three brands, direct[ing] commercials, collaborat[ing] on special projects, work[ing] as a photographer and an illustrator, and read[ing] a zillion books?” How does one pitch the idea of a Where’s Waldo parody featuring Karl Lagerfeld?
AA: Stacey and I met at university in Texas (TCU) and we always meet up in Paris four times a year during the shows and market. We think Karl is genius and after a few glasses of wine in the Marais the idea unfolded. And how does one pitch it? Ha! It was an easy sell because it’s Karl!
RJ: I find Karl hilarious. I asked my mom for a Karl Lagerfeld teddy bear when they came out, but she refused. The fact I was over 30 probably had something to do with it. Karl’s such a bizarre, nearly unearthly character, or that is the persona he has very successfully cultivated for the last 50 years: icy, distant, mannered, and strictly uniformed, depending on the decade, in anything from a fitted black suit and high-collared white shirt to, in the 1990s, a Yohji muumuu. Were you expecting the book to resonate the way it did with so many people to become a bestseller?
AA: Karl is actually not what he seems. He is actually really funny and kind. I think he comes off as bizarre and icy. Aren’t all people who work in fashion a bit bizarre? […] We were confident the book would do well because Karl is such an interesting character and becoming a bestseller was a welcome surprise!
RJ: The attention to detail inherent in your background and curation work, that meticulousness, seems to have translated well to this book and the intricate conceits of each new location, all the little activities. How much time did it take to plan this?
AA: It took us 6 months of around-the-clock work to put this book together. Stacey lives in Brooklyn, Michelle lives in Philadelphia, and I live in Paris, so we were always passing work off to one another to work in different time zones. […] We Skyped at all hours of the day and night then one started a city and the other would make additions, or one started a text then the other would make additions or changes. I don’t know if that is standard co-author work flow but it worked for us.
RJ: How did you meet your illustrator? How did you design the crowds, the settings, the layouts?
AA: We found Michelle on Pinterest and would make Pinterest boards of all the cities and characters in each scene and what they should be wearing. Then we would send her a list of what they should be doing and local additions to the scene. Sometimes I would send her chicken scratch drawings of how we envisioned a scene to help explain our ideas.
RJ: One of the most charming parts of Where’s Karl? is the settings of each search, the supposed haunts of the fashion elite rendered in satirical self-regard. Had you been to these locations, like Art Basel Miami, Tulum, and the like? How did you choose them?
AA: It was easy because fashion people are predictable and travel to the same places every year. There are certain events on the calendar that do not change from year to year.
RJ: How did you think of some of these crazy scenarios? It goes without saying that every time I look at the book I notice something new, some new detail, like the Where’s Karl? logo that’s two question marks interlocked Chanel-style, or the little camera-wielding paparazzi parachuting in to ambush a party at Chateau Marmont, or, at the Grand Prix de Monte Carlo, what appears to be a Barbie racecar, a dog driving a full-size racecar, Daft Punk looking even more like The Stig from Top Gear, and Tony Stark re-enacting a scene from Iron Man 2. In middlebrow terms, each scene is a bit like a cross between a vignette from The Devil Wears Prada and a Buñuel film. Without veering (no pun intended) into the surrealism of the Grand Prix pages, were you ever privy to scenes of this craziness at fashion’s bacchanals? Would you be able to tell us the craziest thing you have seen?
AA: Interesting analysis and yes some fashion parties are pretty crazy like this. Craziest thing I have seen…hmm unfortunately there are so many things I have seen but after lots of bubbly not sure I can recall them accurately. Ha!
RJ: Did you know Karl and Choupette before writing this?
AA: Not personally, no.
RJ: What have been the reactions of the people you featured in Where’s Karl? Have you heard from them/about their reactions?
AA: Yes, everyone loves the book and some people complain about the outfit we put them in or wanting to be in more scenes. But everyone has fun with it.
RJ: I saw from the book bio that you are a fashion video producer, and from the Where’s Karl? website that you run an expat blog. It’s a valuable service – having been an expat it can be difficult to put down roots of any kind. It’s also easy to live on the surface, a sort of tourist’s Paris, moving only in superficially nice parts of the city, or continuing to see things with that distanced eye. I had a quick look at your blog that mentions you returned to Paris for love. Coincidentally, I left it for the same reason. Do you or your collaborators have any current new projects? What are you working on now?