Unwaveringly brilliant and endlessly quotable, the German-born designer Karl Lagerfeld not only revolutionised some of the industry’s most iconic brands, he changed the direction of fashion itself. His vision broadened fashion’s reach to span everything from celebrity to fine art, and he injected an industry once famously fusty and white-gloved with daring, youth and irreverence.
Propelled by a dizzying forward momentum, even in later years the man’s workload was formidable. He designed fifteen collections per year for three visually distinct houses – Chanel, Fendi and his namesake label. He often photographed and filmed advertising campaigns for the houses under his creative direction, as well as capturing editorials for leading magazines.
Lagerfeld was an enthusiastic collaborator, kickstarting the high-street/designer partnership phenomenon with the Swedish retailer H&M in 2004 and lending his design talents to everything from Steiff bears to Steinway pianos. He even owned a Paris bookshop. Lagerfeld was also, of course, the keeper of Choupette, the white Birman cat that commands more than 100,000 Instagram followers.
Lagerfeld’s skill was in capturing the mood of the moment. He was an avid reader and observer, distilling everything he saw, heard and read into potent fashion images. (His library, mainly comprising photography and art books, is estimated to total more than 100,000 volumes.) “I get bored very easily. The thought of spending my life reworking the same theme over and over again is a nightmare”, he told the Guardian in 1985.
This tireless determination to stay ahead required a lack of sentimentality and ruthless detachment from his own work. As he told Suzy Menkes in an interview for British Vogue‘s June 2018 issue, his work process comes naturally: “I do it like I breathe. I wake up in the middle of the night and have an idea. I put it on a card I have next to my bed and I make the sketches in the morning before I forget it.”
And then there were the muses: Inès de la Fressange, Anna Piaggi and Amanda Harlech, right through to Rihanna, Kristen Stewart and Lily-Rose Depp. These women may not always have stayed in his affections – and outwardly share little in common – but each possesses a discernible strength of character and idiosyncratic beauty. They are, he said, essential to his creative process. “Without ‘muses’ the process would be very abstract and lifeless,” he told a journalist in 2014. “They help to give things expressions and form.”
Born to a wealthy family in Germany in the mid-1930s (there is some discussion over his actual birth date) Lagerfeld moved to Paris aged 14, where he completed his education at Lycée Montaigne, and learnt to sketch. He achieved early success, winning the coat award in the 1954 International Wool Secretariat competition (now known as the Woolmark Prize) aged 21. (A 19-year-old Yves Saint Laurent won the cocktail dress category, and the two became friends.) Lagerfeld was immediately hired as a junior assistant and then apprentice at Balmain, the haute couture house, who also reproduced his winning coat design. This was followed by a stint at Jean Patou as designer in 1958.
When he left Jean Patou in 1962 he also left haute couture, apparently tired of creating formal clothing for the rich. At the time, the decision to become a freelance ready-to-wear designer was regarded as bold, even foolhardy. His friend, the designer Fernando Sanchez, said that Lagerfeld understood that the fashion landscape was changing: “He totally grasped the epoch”, Sanchez said in an interview with Alicia Drake, author of Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent’s twin biography The Beautiful Fall. “He knew he wanted to do his own thing and not in some old couture house”.
Lagerfeld began working at Chloé in 1964. Chloé’s founder, Gaby Aghion, encouraged him to escape from his formal couture training and take a freer approach to design. By the early ’70s, Chloé had evolved from an in-the-know Parisian label into an internationally-recognised powerhouse.
In 1965 Lagerfeld added Fendi, the Rome-based fashion house, to his client list. Collaborating closely with the Fendi sisters, Lagerfeld helped catapult the Italian brand to global fame with a focus on designing luxury furs. And despite his self-professed short attention span, his six-decade tenure at Fendi is unparalleled by any other designer. (In context: Lagerfeld began designing for Fendi before man walked on the moon.) His work at the Italian house was not without controversy. At a 1993 show he put porn star Moana Pozzi and a series of dancers in lacy swimwear, causing American Vogue‘s editor Anna Wintour to walk out, and the use of fur in collections led to much public criticism from PETA and elsewhere.
The designer founded his eponymous ready-to-wear label in 1984. It was later sold to the Tommy Hilfiger Group, in 2005, and is currently owned by investment fund Apax Partners. But Lagerfeld always seemed most at home designing under someone else’s name – most famously that of Coco Chanel.
In 1982, the chairman of Chanel, Alain Wertheimer, asked Lagerfeld to design for the house. The announcement was met with mutterings about whether this German stylist – and not a couturier – was up to the job of tackling this national monument. Lagerfeld had spent much of his career loudly criticising haute couture, insisting that it was a relic from the ’50s and “pas du tout moderne”. But from his first Chanel couture collection, for spring/summer 1983, Lagerfeld made his detractors eat their words. “Without disturbing the Chanel spirit, he managed to enliven the character of the clothes”, the New York Times reporter wrote of his debut couture collection.
His genius was in his irreverent manipulation of the Chanel oeuvre. Lagerfeld made cult items of the house’s bouclé tweeds, pearls, gilt buttons, two-toned footwear and interlocking C’s for a new generation. He shrunk the jackets, shortened the skirts and blinged up the accessories. In doing so he helped build a multibillion-pound luxury empire – and created a blueprint for designers such as Tom Ford, Nicolas Ghesquière and Marc Jacobs, who have since gone on to revitalise languishing fashion houses.
“Tradition is something that you have to handle carefully, because it can kill you. Respect was never creative. What I did, in a way, was to update the Chanel… it’s an exercice de style”, he told Vogue in 1984. Lagerfeld’s relationship with haute couture’s petites mains, the highly skilled artisans who painstakingly bring the clothes to life, marked him out from other designers. In 2003 he conceived Chanel’s Métiers d’Art, an annual runway show designed to highlight the rare craftsmanship of storied French workshops such as Desrues and Lesage.
Lagerfeld’s Chanel fashion shows perfectly illustrated the designer’s belief that fashion cannot exist in a bubble.
“Fashion is also an attempt to make certain invisible aspects of the reality of the moment visible,” he wrote, in the catalogue that accompanied Chanel’s 2005 show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
From the off, his Chanel shows revealed an astute understanding of the power of image and hype.
The runway sets became legendary, and he sent models down the runway with branded hockey sticks and surfboards and, more recently, pushing shopping trollies in a Chanel supermarket. “Lagerfeld’s strength is that he is good at creating context as he is good at creating fashion”, Joan Juliet Buck, his friend and the former editor-in-chief of Vogue Paris, wrote in 1979.
His desire to reflect popular culture wasn’t without its provocative moments. In autumn/winter 1991 he presented a rap and hip-hop themed show considered risqué and distasteful for the venerable French fashion house. “Rappers tell the truth – that’s what’s needed now,” he said, with a shrug, in a filmed post-show interview.
More recently, the spring/summer 2015 show, in which models stormed down the runway holding signs stamped with well-worn feminist slogans such as ‘History is Her Story’, received criticism from some camps for appropriating a political message to sell clothes.
The ability to defy expectations extended well beyond the runway. In 2001, Lagerfeld lost 92 pounds so that, he said, he could be slim enough to wear Dior Homme suits. Ever savvy, his subsequent book, The Karl Lagerfeld Diet, became an international bestseller.
In 2004 H&M launched its first-ever designer collaboration with Lagerfeld. The unprecedented concept of a high-street brand piggybacking on luxury fashion helped break down the divide between high and low fashion. Its success made designer collaborations an annual part of the fashion calendar, with subsequent collections by Comme des Garçons, Lanvin and Maison Margiela.
Indeed, it seemed Lagerfeld’s personal fame was inevitable. As he told Suzy Menkes in 2018: “I want to have a superficial image – I don’t want to look serious. You can be serious, but you mustn’t show it.” Elsewhere, it is difficult to identify Lagerfeld with a specific design ethos; his tastes have been described as straddling the rich baroque and the strictly modern.
“I am not one of these people who feel they have established their look and want to keep on re-doing it,” he told the New York Times in 1979. He leaves a legacy that is as rich and varied as the library in his Paris apartment.