Essence of the present

Vanity is the healthiest thing in life." "Think pink, but don't wear it."

Karl Lagerfeld's infamous one-liners could fill a book. (In fact, they have: Last year, Rizzoli published The World According To Karl.)

He was born pre-World War II (his age vacillates between 78 and 80, depending on which report you read), but is the perfect designer for our post-millennium era. He speaks in sound bites, relishes technology and has an insatiable appetite for creating.

In spite of the relentless chew-'em-up-and-spit-'em-out pace of the fashion industry, Lagerfeld has managed - over 60 years - to fit in collaborations with Diet Coke, Volkswagen and even Barbie, on top of his day job at Chanel and Fendi.

Like every modern-day visionary from Jobs to Zuckerberg, he also understands the power of marketing an image.

Lagerfeld needs no introduction. His profile is so famous the world over, even the name card for his eponymous label features merely an etching: black shades, nifty white ponytail and a high-collared shirt.

His own Kaiser aesthetic and brand were first launched in 1974, and reintroduced in 2012. In a pioneering move then, he chose to unveil the brand's new look by partnering exclusively with global e-commerce phenomenon Net-a-porter.

The apparel brand's growth has been exponential, hitting 26 distribution points in two years. The staples that make up Lagerfeld's own wardrobe line the white steel rails: skinny black jeans, razor-sharp blazers, leather biker jackets and stark white shirts. Fragrance seems like a natural progression.

I'm in Paris for the launch of the first fragrance duo under the revamped Karl Lagerfeld brand. (Fact: He has created scents before, but those were over 30 years ago and reminiscent of the Lagerfeld of yesteryear - a far cry from the sleek, angular bottles hitting the stores this month. And this project is reportedly the first time he has introduced a scent for men and women in one go.)

The vision behind this fragrance is mass luxe. It is the same ethos that drove the designer to resurrect and reinvent his namesake line to be in sync with a new generation and era. "It's not too expensive," he asserts.

The first words out of his mouth as we settle down for a chat, it is clear this is a point he is eager to make. "I want it to be completely different from what I do at Chanel and Fendi. It's a completely different way of approaching and selling fashion. It's a modern attitude to luxury."

Today "masstige" is a buzzword, but as recently as a decade ago, the concept of mass market prestige was unfathomable. Ms Caroline Lebar, who has been Lagerfeld's director of communications for the past 30 years, shares: "There are two key dates in Karl's career - 1983 when he joined Chanel, and 2005 when he collaborated with H&M. They wanted to team up with the world's most famous high-fashion designer, and their research led them to Karl Lagerfeld. The experience was pivotal because it made him realise that luxury can be made accessible."

With lavender and mandarin zest, enhanced by crispy apple and violet leaves, the new fragrance ends with a spicy whiff of sandalwood and an amber blend.

The women's version plays off the same contrasts. It opens with a burst of fresh lemon and velvety peach, before wrapping up with the elegant aroma of roses, magnolias and plumeria.

The designer's greater gift, however, is in nailing down what's hot right now. So I ask him: "What makes this the right essence for this moment?"

His intelligence has been well documented, but to see his quick mind in action is to understand why, after 40 years, he is still at the top of the game. There's no fannying around with Lagerfeld. Speaking in clipped, lightning bursts, he is swift, decisive and pointed: "In fact, the question has no answer now. I'm pretty good with words, I could tell you all kinds of bulls**t, but there is only one proof and that is if people buy it. Let's see how the public reacts to this, then we will see if this perfume is one for our times."

It wasn't the response I was expecting, but it's unpretentious, refreshingly honest and makes complete sense. It also reminds me of an oft-cited Karlism: "My motto is there's no credit in the past. To have done something before is of no interest.

"There is not a single retro note in this perfume," he affirms. "It's not an essence that reminds you of the '20s or '30s. I know men who use fragrances from another era; classics from another world. This one, however, is for today and just today."

Desirability in our digital age is about a product that gets people talking. No one understands that better than Lagerfeld. The following week, he will go on to create Paris Fashion Week's most Instagrammed show, transforming the Grand Palais into a Chanel supermarket.

"Today in fashion, you need a total look, but you also need a total look in fragrance," he explains. "You need a beautiful box, a beautiful bottle, and the scent has to be up to it. A beautiful bottle with a bad scent doesn't sell. A good scent that is boring doesn't sell either. It's a very difficult thing. It needs to be a marriage of all three. The packaging. The bottle. The scent."

"The way of selling a perfume now is very different," he tells me. "Twenty years ago, you didn't buy perfume online. Now, the Internet is more important than big perfume stores like Sephora. The little charming perfume shop doesn't exist anymore. If you know a scent, you don't need to go to the shop and buy it." Always sound-bite-ready, he laughs: "Clothes, you have to fit. The good thing about perfume is that everybody has a model size!"

Lagerfeld the pop icon is the genius of a body of work that is defined by the present, but does not date. His parting shot: "The important thing for a perfume is to be new when it comes out, and then turn into a classic in your bathroom. This fragrance has no past, but I hope it's going to have a future." He chuckles heartily. I can't see behind his black shades, but I'm sure there is a twinkle in his eye.

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