Karl Lagerfeld, one of the most prolific, admired and multitalented fashion figures of the modern age, has died in Paris, the house of Chanel said on Tuesday.
Lagerfeld was creative director of Chanel, the French house founded by Gabrielle Chanel, for an era-defining, age-defying 36 years. Upon assuming the reins in 1983, Lagerfeld swiftly revived Chanel, reinterpreting the house founder’s iconic tweed skirt suits, little black dresses, and quilted handbags. He did it via the lens of hip-hop one season and California surfer chicks the next—he was a pop culture savant—without ever forgetting what the revolutionary Coco stood for: independence, freedom, and modernity.
His legendary runway shows, rumored to cost over a million dollars a season, ranged from 115-foot-tall rocket ships to full-scale beaches with waves and a real-life supermarket with over 500 Chanel branded products. For his pre-collections, Karl brought his audience of big editors, buyers and influencers to far-flung destinations including Versailles, Dallas, Seoul, Scotland and most famously Havana, Cuba. His shows featured more than just banal fashion, he created art.
Lagerfeld was also the creative force behind the furs and rtw at Fendi for more than half a century, as well as his signature fashion house, which — although it encompassed everything from designer rtw to jeans and fragrance over the years — rarely approached the heights of the other brands Lagerfeld touched, which included Chloé from the Sixties into the Nineties.
“A prolific creative mind with endless imagination, Karl Lagerfeld explored many artistic horizons, including photography and short films. The house of Chanel benefited from his talent for all the branding campaigns related to fashion since 1987. Finally, one cannot refer to Karl Lagerfeld without mentioning his innate sense of repartee and self-mockery,” it added.
“What I love best in life is new starts,” Lagerfeld once said. And thank goodness. In addition to his duties for Chanel, Lagerfeld was the Creative Director of fur and ready-to-wear at Fendi, a position he assumed in 1965. In an era of designer musical chairs, when creative directors are given three years—or even less—to make a brand work, Lagerfeld was the eminence gris that broke the rule. The multitasking designer also designed collections under his own name, but despite his international fame, neither his eponymous collections or the ones he did for Fendi achieved the status of his work for Chanel.
He understood the power of branding like no other, transforming Chanel’s interlocking “CC” logo into cultural signifiers of wealth and luxury. “Logos are the Esperanto of marketing, luxury, and business today,” he said.
But Lagerfeld was much more than just a fashion designer. He was a photographer, director, artist, author and to the general public, those that work outside of the fashion industry, he made fashion accessible.
The life of a True Icon
Karl Lagerfeld was born on September 10, 1933, in Hamburg, Germany, to Otto Lagerfeld and Elisabeth Bahlmann, though, as his peer Azzedine Alaia was wont to do, Lagerfeld often lied about his age, as well as the occupation and background of his parents. This much is inarguable: His name has been in lights from the very earliest moments of his fashion career.
In 1954, at barely 21 Lagerfeld won the International Wool Secretariat in the coat category, sharing the stage with a man who would become his rival in fashion (and in love), Yves Saint Laurent, who won for his dress design. The recognition landed Lagerfeld a job with the couturier Pierre Balmain, where he designed for films and dressed stars including Sophia Loren, after which he became head designer at Jean Patou. In 1963, he began freelancing for Gaby Agihon at Chloé, which is widely considered to be France’s first ready-to-wear label, and took a fulltime spot there in 1974, but not before he assumed the creative director job at the Roman furrier label Fendi, a post that he held until his death. His stint at Chloé paralleled the rise of designers from backroom workmen to stars worthy of the spotlight. Lagerfeld shared that spotlight with Yves Saint Laurent, who is similarly credited with introducing the concept of ready-to-wear to the world with his Rive Gauche line, launched in 1966.
In 1983, Alain Wertheimer, the owner of Chanel, asked Lagerfeld to breathe new life into the iconic French house, which had been in sleepy decline since Coco Chanel’s death at the age of 87 in 1971. Lagerfeld obliged in spectacular fashion. Capitalizing on the burgeoning post-modernism of the 1980s, he quoted Coco-isms with such verve his Chanel became the paragon of heritage brand revivals. He didn’t so much honor the Chanel codes as subvert and amplify them—see that Fall ’91 hip-hop collection. And he delivered the goods off the runway, too. “Fashion without wit is disastrous,” he once said, and he was rarely, if ever, without a quippy soundbite. But even as the shows became spectacles, the Chanel signature tweed suit was the canvas Lagerfeld returned to and reinterpreted again and again. The marvel of his many scores of collections is that although the silhouette changed dramatically, often from one season to the next, they all looked recognizably, archetypally Chanel.
That goes for his ready-to-wear collections, his couture, and the annual Métiers d’Art show the house stages every December—most recently Karl and co. took over the Temple of Dendur at the Met. Lagerfeld launched the Métiers d’Art concept in 2002 in order to celebrate the workmanship of the ateliers that Chanel acquired via its Paraffection subsidiary. There are 26 maisons in all, including Lesage (embroidery), Goosens (goldsmithing), Lemarié (feathers), and Maison Michel (millinery), some of which Coco herself worked with.
Longevity is Lagerfeld’s greatest achievement, but his career has been marked by countless smaller ones. At Chloé he defined the easeful look and feel of ready-to-wear, which was then a nascent category. In the 1990s, he began developing a second career as a commercial photographer, which enabled him to shoot his own advertising campaigns and portfolios for various international magazines, Vogueincluded. In 2004, Lagerfeld lent his imprimatur to H&M’s first designer collaboration. Labels from Comme des Garçons and Maison Margiela signed on with the Swedish fast fashion giant in his wake, and collaborations remain the lingua franca of the fashion industry to this day. The one constant in his life was drawing; he was fashion’s most prolific and gifted sketcher. His drawings have fetched thousands of dollars at auction over the years. Recently, he’s used his prolific skills in this medium to wade into politics and social commentary, skewering the German Chancellor Angela Merkel for her immigration policies and the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein in the wake of his sexual assault scandal.
Lagerfeld’s ceaseless pursuit of the new at work—with six collections a year at Chanel, just for starters, it was a job requirement—was reflected in his homes. Museum-worthy collections of Louis XV, Art Deco, and Memphis have been amassed and summarily sold off. Before the advent of the iPhone, he was famous for owning 300 iPods, each one programmed with different music. The only collection he never de-acquisitioned was his “zillions” of books. His home in Biarritz was said to hold “three miles” of them. So passionate a bibliophile was Lagerfeld that in 1999 he opened a small bookshop in Paris’s seventh district with Steidel, 7L, and the following year launched an imprint with the German publisher.
Lagerfeld received many accolades over the years. Nicole Kidman presented him with a Lifetime Achievement Award on behalf of The Council of Fashion Designers of America in 2002, and the British Fashion Council recognized him in 2015 with its Outstanding Achievement Award. He received France’s highest honor, the Legion d’Honneur, from then-President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010. And in 2005, Chanel was the subject of a Costume Institute exhibition that juxtaposed period pieces with Lagerfeld’s creations.
Lagerfeld’s death leaves open the plummest gig in Paris fashion. The designer once claimed he’d like Haider Ackermann to be his successor, though he later denied it. More recently, Hedi Slimane was rumored to be launching menswear for the house, but that claim was likewise refuted. Chanel has not indicated when or even if it will replace him; his right of hand Virgine Viard came out in his place at the January couture show. Nonetheless, there will be much maneuvering for the position. The truth of the matter is that Karl Lagerfeld is irreplaceable.
“Today the world lost a giant among men. Karl was so much more than our greatest and most prolific designer—his creative genius was breathtaking and to be his friend was an exceptional gift. Karl was brilliant, he was wicked, he was funny, he was generous beyond measure, and he was deeply kind. I will miss him so very much.”Anna Wintour remembers Karl Lagerfeld.
More than a designer, Lagerfeld was a fashion mastermind, adroit at all aspects of image-making and communications — and especially staging events. Late in his career, he orchestrated some of the most astonishing fashion spectacles the industry has witnessed, from sending models in Fendi down the Great Wall of China at sunset in 2007 to creating an artificial beach in the Grand Palais in Paris for Chanel’s spring rtw show last October.
Inside the World of Karl Lagerfeld
Karl introduced the model to some of the world’s most influential fashion editors, photographing him for the pages of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, V Man, Interview, Numero Homme, Elle, Purple and other titles.
Lagerfeld once described Giabiconi as “a boy version of Gisele Bundchen: skinny, skinny but with an athletic body—good for clothes and great with no clothes.”
Besides being the highest paid male model in the world, when he was 22 year-old is also Karl Lagerfeld’s muse. Just one year after he was signed by New York’s DNA Model Management, the ever-enterprising clothing designer got the new model to close Chanel’s spring 2009 show.
Although the Mr Giabiconi walked his first Chanel show in 2008 (the year he had signed to DNA), the grand placing cemented a new order in a powerful fashion hierarchy. The newcomer had officially stolen the limelight from the designer’s former male muse, Brad Kroenig, despite walking alongside Mr Giabiconi in the couture show.
Model Brad Kroenig is the most senior member of an elite group of male models known as ‘Karl’s boys’ and with his six-year-old son Hudson he travels the world in Lagerfeld’s private jet attending fashion shows and exclusive parties.
In an interview in The Times’s Saturday magazine, Kroenig reveals how the designer likes to lavish gifts on his ‘boys’, with a rose-gold Rolex and a diamond bracelet by Chrome Hearts, Lagerfeld’s favourite jewellery brand, among his latest presents.
Kroenig, whom Lagerfeld once shot as the Greek god Zeus and compiled the photos in a four-volume book devoted entirely to his muse, said: ‘Karl is really generous. He likes his friends to look chic.’
Kroenig’s son Hudson is Lagerfeld’s godson and has been appearing in Chanel shows since he was two.
While Lagerfeld claimed not to be interested in business, he kept close tabs on Chanel’s fortunes, especially when sales were soaring, which was often.
And he was a business innovator, igniting the so-called “masstige” movement in 2004 by teaming with Swedish fast-fashion giant H&M for a one-off collection that sold out in a flash, perpetuating the annual designer tie-up at H&M and inspiring scores of other low-cost players to do the same. He also pushed luxury to new extremes, and helped popularize itinerant fashion shows by taking Chanel’s pre-fall and cruise lines as far afield as Shanghai, Los Angeles, Dubai and Edinburgh.
Lagerfeld’s passing marks the end of an era of long-reigning creative directors in an age where speed and change is constant. His death leaves a hard-to-fill hole at Chanel. Nonetheless, WWD is reporting that Chanel Studio Director, and Lagerfeld’s right-hand woman, Virginie Viard will continue the legendary creative’s work. The legacy he leaves behind, however, will be incredibly hard to level up to, for anyone, Karl was that iconic.
At 10:30AM on Tuesday, March 5, the last day of a long women’s fashion month, Chanel will show its Fall/Winter 2019 runway collection without Karl. It will be sad, unified and above all memorable.
Artists, Photographers, Celebrities remembers Karl Lagerfeld on Instagram.
Excerpts words from Vogue.com / highsnobiety.com / wwd.com