Karl Lagerfeld: Iconic, Enigmatic, Transatlantic

Fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, who passed away on February 19, 2019, at the age of 85, was as much at home in Paris, where he had lived since the 1950s, as in New York, where he opened his first boutique last April.

Karl Lagerfeld appeared as an emperor of fashion, rarely seen without his black sunglasses, diamond-patterned tie, and ponytail worn in the style of an aristocrat from times past. He personally preferred the term “caricature” to describe himself, posed for photographer Annie Leibovitz with his immaculate white Burmese cat, Choupette, and gladly lent his image to a Ken doll, a Japanese figurine, a teddy bear, and a bottle of Coca-Cola Light. In 2009, a playful Parisian designer even created a canvas bag printed with the words “Karl Who?”

The man who became a King Midas figure of merch’ and marketing revered as the “Kaiser” of haute couture was born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1933. At the age of 16 he attended a Dior show with his mother and found his calling: he would design clothes. He first worked as a fashion illustrator in Paris, then as Pierre Balmain’s assistant during the 1950s, before becoming the creative director of Fendi in 1965 and Chanel in 1983. Even after his 80th birthday the designer produced 14 collections per year and countless collaborations with Burberry, Puma, H&M, Vans, Christofle, Volkswagen, Madonna, Snoop Dog, Magnum ice creams, and even the French national soccer team for whom he designed a new kit in 2011. The New York Times joked that, at his age, his fellow stylists had already retired to their yachts and country estates!

When Lagerfeld joined Chanel in the early 1980s the fashion house was on the brink of bankruptcy. Its tailors were outmoded and the brand was only getting by thanks to its fragrance lines. “When I took on Chanel, it was a sleeping beauty,” said the creative director in the 2007 documentary Lagerfeld Confidential. “Not even a beautiful one. She snored. So I was to revive a dead woman.” With irreverence and a healthy dose of street inspiration, Lagerfeld revamped Chanel’s flagship pieces. He revisited the little black jacket designed by Coco Chanel, adding rhinestones, black leather, sponge, and faux fur, and restyled the two-tone heels popularized by Catherine Deneuve and Romy Schneider to create leather booties and riding boots.

Putting Down New Roots

The move caused an uproar. Many said that Coco Chanel must have been turning in her grave. Lagerfeld’s nemesis Saint Laurent mocked the S&M style of leather and chains. “To survive,” replied Lagerfeld to his detractors, “you have to cut the roots to make new roots.” Yet throughout his career he refused to use flashy colors, remaining true to the house’s historical black and white. He also chose Inès de la Fressange as a brand ambassador. Her slender silhouette brought to mind Coco’s, and she was the first model to sign an exclusivity contract with a haute couture house. “Karl’s idea was to show that we could wear Chanel in the 80s and that it was very contemporary, that it was for women, not models,” she says. The rebellious yet lucrative strategy did retain a certain respect for tradition, and was soon adopted by other haute couture brands such as Louis Vuitton, Dior, and Lanvin. This daring earned Lagerfeld the Couture Council Fashion Visionary Award, a prize created especially for him by the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York in 2010.

Not satisfied with breathing new life into Chanel, Lagerfeld also designed his own clothing via the Karl Lagerfeld and Karl Lagerfeld Paris brands, which are also available in New York, Orlando, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Chicago. And drawing on his skills as a photographer, he personally shot the Chanel collections and recently made forays into interior design. His projects included the décor of the Coco Chanel suite at the Ritz and two suites at the Hotel Crillon in Paris, the swimming pool at the Hotel Métropole in Monaco, and the lobby of a luxury apartment complex set to open in Miami in 2020.

In 2008, he bought a house in Vermont, a residence built in 1850 on an island in Lake Champlain. The empty rooms and high, ascetic walls won him over, and he even used the house to photograph the Chanel spring-summer 2009 ready-to-wear collection. Dressed in black and white, model Heidi Mount is in perfect harmony with the puritanical atmosphere of the setting. Chic and sober. “I love this house,” said Lagerfeld. “It is so Emily Dickinson.” 

=> Don’t miss out: The fifth episode of the documentary series 7 Days Out, shown on Netflix, follows Karl Lagerfeld and the Chanel teams over the seven days running up to the spring-summer 2018 haute couture show at the Grand Palais in Paris.

  • Je suis a mille lieux de la mode, encore plus loin de la “haute couture”. La mode est pour moi synonyme de gaspillage. En installant dans les esprits des gens, surtout des femmes, qu’elles doivent suivre la mode du jour, nous encourageons le gaspillage, la pollution et ce pour le grand plaisir des gens d’argent assoiffés de profit. Des inventifs comme Lagerfeld seraient plus utiles dans la peinture ou la sculpture. Ils feraient du beau tout en protégeant notre environnement.

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