Karl Lagerfeld dies at 85
Karl Lagerfeld, fashion’s first global superstar designer and the creative director of Chanel for the past three decades, has died. The designer passed away at the American Hospital of Paris in Neuilly-sur-Seine, Paris, this morning, Tuesday Feb. 19.
His death marks the departure of the most famous living designer on the planet – an enormously energetic figure who created over a dozen collections per year for three fashion brands, Chanel, Fendi and his own eponymous house. Besides creating clothes, Lagerfeld was the wittiest ex-patriot talker in Paris since Oscar Wilde; fashion’s most distinguished living illustrator; a frequently brilliant photographer whose work featured in scores of exhibitions and hundreds of books. He will be most remembered as the creative director since 1983 of Chanel, leading a house known for its founder’s unique style and building it into a brand legendary for its superlative quality and sense of chic. He made Chanel the uncontested star brand in the fashion firmament, the luxury brand against which all others are measured.
Lagerfeld’s ability to vary aesthetic was phenomenal. Where his own brand was distinguished by a strict neo-expressionist silhouette and graphic style, at Fendi he rifled through fashion history creating layered and staggered shapes and highly imaginative collections, such as this Roma fur house’s innovative new techniques like knitted fur or shaved and cutout mink. At Chanel, he continually reinvented the DNA of the brand; dipping into Coco’s rich history to modernize her signature DNA: the signature four-pocket jacket; twin-sets; mannish tweeds; the little black dress and her classic accessories – the padded leather bag, two-tone shoes, or multiple strands of pearls.
Though he had his critics as a fashion photographer, some seeing his work as too posed and stiff, he was a highly skilled portrait photographer. His book The Little Black Jacket featured over 100 portraits in black and white of his extended Chanel entourage. It had an unheard of 16 exhibitions in different cities. Its coffee table hard copy eventually sold over 250,000 copies, the all-time best-selling fashion photo book. His images graced scores of international editions of Vogue, Elle, Madame Figaro and Harper’s Bazaar, often on their covers.
A virtual industry sprouted of books by and on Lagerfeld: Karl on cooking; Karl on his aphorisms; one of just cartoons, entitled “Where’s Karl?” covering his travels and inner circle; several on his closest friend when he reached his eighties, his cat Choupette. He was caricatured in everything from Les Guignols to Grand Theft Auto VI to the cartoon classic The Incredibles, where the personality Edna ‘E’ Mode is a composite of Lagerfeld and Diana Vreeland.
He was famed for his instantly recognizable look: powdered white hair; dark glasses, starched high-collars; slim redingotes, tight jeans and Cuban-held Massaro boots. Generally worn with jewelry, since Lagerfeld, the largest private collector of Belperron brooches, attached his jewels to Hilditch & Key ties. Curiously for a self-confessed book freak – his main library in the Marne boasted over 300,000 books - he never wrote his memoirs. “Writing about one’s past is the beginning of a lack of a future,” he would snarl.
Lagerfeld liked to shroud his origins and even date of birth in mystery. Nonetheless, it is generally agreed that Karl Otto Lagerfeld (he would later drop the Otto) was born on September 10, 1933 in Hamburg. His self-made father Christian Ludwig Otto Lagerfeld was a globetrotting entrepreneur who had witnessed the San Francisco earthquake and narrowly escaped the Russian Revolution before settling in Hamburg as managing director of Germanys leading condensed milk brand. His mother Elisabeth (née) Bahlmann was a lingerie saleswoman from Berlin. His father Otto’s first wife died leaving Lagerfeld one half sister Thea, and he had a full sister called Martha Christiane.
He claimed his family name was of Swedish origin – Lagerfelt. The couturier liked to boast that an ancestor, a member of the Swedish Riksdag, had been one of the dignitaries to greet Marshall Jean Bernadotte on the city docks when he arrived in 1810 to be elected Crown Prince. His first years were spent in the leafy suburb of Baurs Park in Blankenese in Hamburg; thereafter the family moved 40 kilometers north east to Bad Darmstadt, a small town of some 3,500 people, whose population ballooned during WW2 with an influx of eastern refugees, prisoners of war and homeless escaping the Allied bombing of Hamburg. In May 1945, the British Army requisitioned his family manor, and his family was forced to sleep in two-room cowshed for a year.
As a toddler Karl was precocious, spending hours sketching, reading or cutting out picture of pretty ladies in magazines, while sitting on the terrace of the family home. Lagerfeld moved to Paris in his mid-teens, finishing his secondary school in the Lycée Montaigne, beginning a long residency on the Left Bank. When success brought riches he resided in the Renaissance palace of the Pozzo di Borgo family. Latterly he lived in a Seine-bank hyper-modernist apartment overlooking the Louvre, decorated, he jested, “like an operating room for prematurely born children.”
Studying at the Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne on the rue St Roch, he became friends with fellow pupil Yves Saint Laurent, three years his junior. The pair exploded into fame in 1954, when they won first prizes – Yves for a dress and Karl for a coat – in the International Wool Secretariat design competition. That ignited a rivalry that was to last 44 years, initially friendly but subsequently deeply bitter as Karl’s’ partner, the dashing petit aristocrat Jacques de Bascher, became Saint Laurent’s paramour.
Opinion will forever be divided on what became the most legendary conflict in fashion. Many in France came to regard Lagerfeld as the talented but jealous Salieri to Saint Laurent’s Mozart. However, where Mozart’s life of joie de vivre ended in a pauper’s grave; Saint Laurent gained enormous riches yet died a miserable recluse in 2008, aged 71. His departure helped free Lagerfeld into a remarkable burst of creativity; a period of magnificent shows and collections for Chanel and Fendi; where he took the concept of the runway spectacle to unheard of levels of sophistication – travelling to the Great Wall of China; the Venice Lido and opening up Havana to fashion. His Chanel sets were more elaborate than Cecil B. DeMille or a Broadway show; recreating Versailles; a lunar landscape or the Artic wastes in the Grand Palais. One show featured a 50-meter high faux concrete version of the Chanel jacket; another a towering golden Venetian lion, Coco’s animal.
With his left hand, he wrote and directed an eccentric mini-series of fictional short films on the life of Coco Chanel, mingling fact, fiction and myth. They starred his hand-picked roster of stars: the likes of Keira Knightley, Diane Kruger, Vanessa Paradis, Kristen Stewart, Anna Mouglalis, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, Rooney Mara, Julianne Moore and Cara Delevingne – each name more glittering than the next. Under his command, Chanel’s atelier became fashion’s most path-breaking laboratory. Seen brilliantly when dressing Moore as she picked up the 2015 Best Actress Oscars for Still Alive in a white couture dress made of 80,000 hand-painted sequins, as 27 workers worked a total of 987 hours; or attiring Nicole Kidman in a legendarily beautiful layered pink chiffon gown at the same ceremony.
In his first job as an assistant at Pierre Balmain in 1950s he worked slavishly but learnt the techniques and know-how he would use to drive Chanel’s atelier. Although paid a pittance, a generous allowance from his father allowed Lagerfeld to drive around Paris in a gulf-wing Mercedes. As an octogenarian he was chauffeured around in a Bentley Continental or Hummer.
By 1964, he landed his first major career job entering Chloé. Initially hired by founder Gaby Aghion to design just two looks a season, but by the end of the decade he had made it into a leading créatur brand. Going on to create legendary “nude” Chloé dresses; taking inspiration from student attire in the Latin Quarter; and shooting iconic Chloé ads with Helmut Newton.
Ironically, though he spent his life developing a unique Karl Lagerfeld persona, he devoted far less attention to creating his own brand. “I am a gun for hire,” he frequently stated. Ultimately, his Achilles Heel was his own label; which was bought and sold five times in as many decades, posting losses in the majority of years. However, such was his global fame in the digital era, his house – latterly dubbed K Karl Lagerfeld - finally became consistently profitable in the 21st century. Albeit with shelves filled with items that horrified most fashionistas – such as a series of Karl dolls. Recognizing that, he remarked: “When I was younger I wanted to be a caricaturist. In the end I became a caricature.”
He embraced the digital era early; but ultimately there was something of the 18th century gentilhomme about Lagerfeld, whose preferred material was not silk or chiffon but paper. In an era when many major designers cannot literally sketch, he was a prodigious illustrator. The curator of his first true retrospective in Bonn in 2014, his intellectual muse Amanda Harlech noted that she had 40,000 sketches from which to choose.
“I design by having electronic flashes. I see that and nothing else. My sketches look like the final thing, I am not draping and listening to Verdi! I am a designer,” he once told Le Figaro.
His range extended from costume design for film, notably the Oscar winning Babette’s Feast, to opera, outfitting productions in La Scala, Milan, the Burgtheater in Vienna and the Salzburg Festival. And even for rock divas from Madonna in her Re-Invention Tour to Kylie Minogue’s Showgirl Tour.
In November 2004, he effectively invented a whole new fashion category Masstige, a meeting of mass market priced clothing with prestige labels, when he designed the first designer collaboration with H&M. Within two days his limited range of clothes for men and women sold out in several hundred H&M boutiques as desperate fashion freaks fought in mini-riots for the clothes.
He was Stakhanovite in his work habits, even on vacation. August was always passed in St Tropez; a first trip down in 1970 on the Train Bleu; latterly on private jets to La Ramatuelle, sketching by the sea for weeks. Editors never ceased to be impressed by his encyclopedic knowledge of French culture, design and furniture; his appreciation of arts and his ability to pun in four different languages – always in a machine-gun like stream of consciousness, almost spitting out everything he knew. His judgment on his chosen profession: “Fashion is neither moral nor amoral – but it can boost your morale.” Viewed as an elitist, yet courtly, speaking to the ladies who swept the floor in Chanel in the same tone of voice as he addressed a princess or billionaire.
In his later days, his closest friend was his beloved cat Choupette. Miss Choupette even inspired a capsule collection by the German designer - knit caps with cat ears and leather whiskers; iPad and iPhone, or fingerless leather gloves, just like Karl always wore. Though many later collections were often sketched on iPads, his happiest times were probably spent working with his preferred materials – pen and paper. Though, ever the iconoclast, instead of pens he used Shu Uemura eyeliners.
Although the best paid “hired gun” in fashion history, with an estimated annual salary in excess of 30 million euros, Lagerfeld – unlike most designers – collected little besides books, early 20th century German posters and a good deal of property. Few designers will ever be as generous with objects and ideas: continually sending gifts and thanks you notes to a vast circle of friends and influential editors.
In the Internet age, he became fashion’s most recognizable designer, permanently besieged by selfie hunting fans. “At Colette, they give me a special bodyguard. People almost attack. It’s really strange, as I am not a singer or actor or sex symbol.”
As someone who never really drank, smoked or took drugs, longevity was always likely. All of Lagerfeld’s immediate relatives passed many years ago. His full sister died in 2014, but a far larger “family” did survive him of devoted fashion cohorts at his three fashion houses. At his end, he was left with a handsome group of “sons.” Dashing young men, who modeled in Chanel shows and doubled as security guards guarding him jealously, like model Brad Kroenig. His clearest favorite was his “grandson,” Brad’s eldest boy, Hudson Kroenig. He contains not a drop of Lagerfeld blood, but many expect Hudson to be the main recipient in the designer’s will. Said Lagerfeld, always mixing irony with truth: “I love children, just as long as they are not my own.”
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