Karl Lagerfeld’s is one of many high-profile recent deaths in fashion, yet losing him seems like something structural has disappeared.
Best known as Creative Director of Chanel, he was also a Renaissance man with a tireless work ethic whose cultural impact spanned the globe. He’s been involved in the fashion industry for more than half a century at multiple levels, designing couture, jewellery, hotels, interiors and much more.
He made Chanel’s linked Cs logo as recognisable as Diet Coke (which he designed too, three times), while making himself an international celebrity. Save for a notable grieving period in the '90s, he was an inspiring example of one trying to wring everything he could from life’s fabric.
Growing up in Hamburg, the son of a German mother and Swedish father, he did not know one could make a living in fashion and instead wanted to be an illustrator.
After learning he’d been born a little too late to earn much in that field, Lagerfeld entered an amateur design contest and won with a design for a coat.
Aged just 17, he was offered a job as an assistant at Pierre Balmain, he then became Art Director of Jean Patou (less famous now, but still known for its ‘Joy’ perfume), and then freelanced between European fashion capitals.
He was a key player in a generation that redefined modern luxury ready-to-wear which saw off-the-rack designer clothes available at Brown Thomas or Bond Street boutiques), transforming it from haute couture’s less respectable cousin (referred to derisively as confectionne in Paris or ‘Seventh Avenue” in New York) in the 1960s, to the label- focussed, multi-billion pound industry it is today.
“I thought it was the future,” he told US broadcast journalist Charlie Rose in 2006. “And it turns out I wasn’t wrong.”
He spent most of his career simultaneously creative directing Fendi (from 1965) and Chanel (from 1983), among his many other design, art and photography projects.
“Chanel is me, Paris and my idea of French fashion and Fendi is my vision, as a person from the north, of Italian culture and Roman history. So I either have no personality or three,” he told Rose.
“Thanks to his creative genius, generosity and exceptional intuition, Karl Lagerfeld was ahead of his time, which widely contributed to the House of Chanel’s success throughout the world,” Alain Wertheimer, CEO of Chanel, said in a statement.
Today, not only have I lost a friend, but we have all lost an extraordinarily creative mind to whom I gave carte blanche in the early 1980s to reinvent the brand.
The brand's sales reached £7.7bn in 2017, according to its own release.
He was a master brander, cultivating a signature look that changed with his weight (he got rounder after losing the love of his life, the French aristocrat Jacques de Bascher, to an AIDS-related illness in 1989, then lost it all to wear Dior Homme by Hedi Slimane in the 2000s), but was still all about black and white and extra-large shades.
Even his cat Choupette is famous, with her own book and numerous designer accessories made in her image.
He sustained all this not just with flawless fashion but by keeping company— well into his 80s — with the ‘It’ girls and boys du jour, from models to rock n' roll royalty to genuine royals and A-list stars.
Before the white hair, shades & gloves look was... young Karl Lagerfeld, including great pics of KL preparing his first Jean Patou collection ‘58 pic.twitter.com/7TCGCZObLf— John Wilson (@JohnWilson14) February 19, 2019
His tastes were sometimes confusing — he rejected Pippa Middleton, but embraced her sister Kate, and the Kardashians — but his business sense was keen. Everyone loved Karl and wanted to be dressed by and photographed with him.
“I’ve become like a Lacoste alligator, soon I’ll have to be sewn onto clothes,” reads one of the ‘Karlisms’ on his personal website.
His image and extravagant visions were such that people parodied him as totally removed from reality (Will Ferrell’s Zoolander character perhaps owes a little to him), and indeed someone who thinks to stage a Fendi show on top of the Great Wall of China or having his bosses restore the Trevi fountain seem sort of other-worldly.
But he had an interest in fashion at every price point. He also designed a €40-piece H&M collection and did an affordable makeup collaboration with ModelCo, saying he disliked the term ‘second line’ as it sounded wrongly inferior.
There are only lines, this [mixing price points] is the way people dress now and it is modern.
He never took holidays, his foreign travel was always work-related because “I hate to be a tourist, tourists are stupid” as he told Canadian television in 2015— and his work ethic has had a profound impact on the fashion cycle as a whole.
His introduction of high-quality mid-season lines — Cruise, Pre-Fall, etc. — for Chanel and Fendi, as well as multiple first-time collaborations, set industry standards.
Younger designers are arguably not built to follow this lead, though that does not mean shareholders don’t want them to try.
Chanel, unlike brands within the luxury stables of LVMH and the Kering Group, is a private company, with a vision shaped by Lagerfeld’s own dreams, style and international wealth of industry contacts. He kept outdoing himself.
He set the bar. Many collapsed trying to reach it.
He is unlikely to be emulated and we can expect to read about him in fashion media for the rest of our lives.