Hailed as a genius and a visionary by his myriad of admirers, supporters and friends within the world of high fashion, Karl Lagerfeld has died aged 85 leaving behind an incomparable legacy.
In his version of his early life, Lagerfeld was born 1938 and raised on a country estate against a glamorous upper-class background. In reality, he was born 1933 and although in not quite the same type of a high-flying life, he was raised in a well-off environment by his father, a businessman, and his mother who had been a lingerie saleswoman. After attending private school, he completed his education studying drawing and history at the Lycée Montaigne in Paris.
In 1954, Lagerfeld won the coat design category of the International Wool Secretariat at the same time that his contemporary, Yves Saint Laurent, saw success in the dress category. As a result, he was invited to work as an apprentice in Pierre Balmain’s house. He later moved to Fendi and Chanel respectively in 1967 and 1983, both of which he would remain with for the rest of his life (as well as Chloe), where his task was to modernize, reinvent and revolutionise. With the former, it was with fur that he achieved praise on a groundbreaking scale. In the case of the latter, Lagerfeld entered Chanel with the challenge of turning around a dying brand still suffering after the death of its founder a decade earlier. He succeeded in bringing it back to life on the grandest scale.
Embracing both tradition and innovation, the brand and its “CC” monograph once again became the centre of the fashion sphere. Even in old age, Lagerfeld never allowed himself to fall behind the times. Acutely alert to the ever-changing social zeitgeist, he was consistently fashion-forward whilst always maintaining Chanel’s core tokens- the tweed skirt suits, the little black dress, the pearls and the quilted handbag. He reinvented the Chanel image time and time again via a multitude of lenses from hip-hop to climate change.
Lagerfeld was known for having developed his own personal brand, characterised by the fingerless gloves, white ponytail and sunglasses, which was instantly recognisable even beyond the exclusive bubble of luxury fashion. Once stating that he “would like to be a one-man multinational fashion phenomenon” and that he aspired to be not a real being but an “apparition” in other people’s lives, Lagerfeld clearly took much pride in creating what he identified himself as his caricature image. Choupette the cat was part of this personal branding. Choupette was gifted with her own bodyguard, personal chef and two maids in return for what many saw as her role in his marketing mission.
His creativity was not just limited to the creation of clothing. Drawing was his enduring passion and his sketches would attract thousands of dollars at auctions. In the 1990s, he picked up a camera and began practising photography, subsequently shooting ads and campaigns for numerous fashion publications as well as delving into filmography, creating short films that emulated the same elegance as the Chanel marque. In the fashion shows themselves, the public were able to admire his flaming imagination in the sets alone, with most recent examples including a mock rocket launch in 2017 or a Chanel supermarket in 2014.
Outside of his creations, Lagerfeld was not immune to controversy. His dips into the political realm were oft-times a betrayal of his age and his comments about weight and women were sadly conformist to the shallow fashion stereotype. It is his imagination, however, that he will be most remembered for and that will continue to influence clothing long after his personal views are forgotten.
Over his nine non-stop decades, he assembled an immense artistic repertoire that few others can lay claim to. His innovation never faded with age and even in his final years, he was averaging fourteen collections a year alongside any projects or collaborations that presented themselves along the way. When asked, Lagerfeld would say that if he stopped he might as well stop breathing. The so-called ‘Kaiser’ of fashion passionately dedicated his life to crafting beauty and elegance, and his legacy as a prolific creative is unparalleled.
Image: Siebbi via Wikimedia Commons