A Tribute to Karl Lagerfeld: One of The Most Prolific Designers of the 20th & 21st Centuries
Even if you are far from a fashion connoisseur, there is a good chance you have heard the name Karl Lagerfeld before, and if you haven’t – you need to! One of the most influential and recognizable fashion designers of the 20th and 21st centuries. Exquisitely unique, outspoken, witty and often outrageous, Karl Lagerfeld is an icon whose career defined the modern luxury fashion industry.
“I don’t want to be real in other people’s lives. I want to be an apparition,” said Mr. Lagerfeld in the 2008 documentary “Lagerfeld Confidential”. Known for denying his own mortality and statements like “I’m very much down to earth, just not this earth,” when Mr. Lagerfeld left this world on February 18, 2019 at the age of 85, he left behind him an inimitable fashion legacy. And his spirit most certainly will live on for centuries to come.
Notorious for his work as creative director of the French luxury fashion house Chanel. At the same time, Mr. Lagerfeld helmed Italian lifestyle brand Fendi and headed up his eponymous label, Karl Lagerfeld. An amazing creative force who masterfully spoke the language of many different fashion brands simultaneously, Mr. Lagerfeld’s creativity and drive truly redefined fashion.
A New Kind of Designer
Vanessa Friedman, The New York Times’ fashion director, described Karl Lagerfeld as a “shape-shifter” designer. Noting that while a Karl Lagerfeld brand does exist, Mr. Lagerfeld’s most substantial contribution to fashion was not in creating a new profile like Christian Dior and Coco Chanel. His genius lay in his ability to be a “creative force who lands at the top of a heritage brand and reinvents it by identifying its sartorial semiology and then wresting it into the present with a healthy dose of disrespect and a dollop of pop culture.”
She went on to write, “Not that he put it that way exactly. What he said was: ‘Chanel is an institution, and you have to treat an institution like a whore — and then you get something out of her.’ A statement clearly true to Mr. Lagerfeld’s often outrageous character. In true artist style, of course.
Today it is common to see designers at the helm of past design legends, think Tom Ford at Gucci, John Galliano at Dior and Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy and Burberry. But when Lagerfeld first began at Chanel in 1983 the concept was novel and surprising. By daring to take on the legend of Chanel and continually finding success for decades, Mr. Lagerfeld grew Chanel into the world’s largest and most powerful luxury fashion brand while imprinting fashion lovers around the globe with his own profile. A path that paved the way for this new type of designer.
A Creator Through and Through
Designing an average of 14 new collections a year ranging from couture to the high street and orchestrating countless collaborations and special project right up until the end of his life, Karl Lagerfeld relished a 24/7 lifestyle of work and never stopped creating. “Ideas come to you when you work,” said Karl Lagerfeld backstage before a Fendi show at age 83.
Why should I stop working? If I do, I’ll die and it’ll all be finished.– Karl Lagerfeld on Retirement
Paris was Karl Lagerfeld’s home and final resting place. A city he helped turn into the fashion capital of the world. He was responsible for so many shows, stores,
Hard work was second nature to Mr. Lagerfeld. Perhaps owed to his German heritage, but either way deeply ingrained in him. And in true Karl Lagerfeld style he did not want people to look at him as working hard. “Please don’t say I work hard. Nobody is forced to do this job, and if they don’t like it they should do another one,” he told Susannah Frankel of The Independent. “People buy dresses to be happy, not to hear about somebody who suffered over a piece of taffeta.”
Karl Lagerfeld’s Self-Identified “Caricature”
One’s success is often so much more than just raw talent. And in the case of Karl Lagerfeld this fact reigned true. “I would like to be a one-man multinational fashion phenomenon,” he once said. To do so of course his image must be nothing less than unforgettable.
Mr. Lagerfeld had an instinct about his own image and was a celebrity for so long we often forget he changed this image more than once. Changing with the times, both personally and professional, was one of the many keys to Mr. Lagerfeld’s success.
Seldom seen in the last decade without his signature dark glasses, snowy white ponytail, white Hilditch & Key shirt with perfectly starched collar, fingerless biker gloves and multiple silver rings, Mr. Lagerfeld created his own caricature.
Fun fact: Mr. Lagerfeld told Susannah Frankel of The Independent that he had more than a thousand of his signature white Hilditch & Key shirts!
But before his legendary and, some might say exaggerated, black and white look, let’s not forget the iconic 1970s portrait by Helmut Newton of Mr. Lagerfeld with jet-black hair, a thick beard,
“I am like a caricature of myself, and I like that. It is like a mask. And for– Karl Lagerfeld, 2007
methe Carnival of Venice lasts all year long.”
A Love of Knowledge, Books, Words, and a Bit of Political Incorrectness
Karl Lagerfeld was voracious for knowledge throughout his life. He was known for having a dread of being passé and thus was constantly reading and researching. Always ensuring that he remained current. “Change is the healthiest way to survive,” said Mr. Lagerfeld.
To feed his love of knowledge Mr. Lagerfeld often collected objects such as furniture, books, magazines and even apartments as part of his deep dive into past decades and their aesthetic movements. He would amass carefully curated collections and then once he was ready to move on to the next era, he would auction them away without nostalgia.
But he often kept the books! An avid reader, Mr. Lagerfeld estimated his personal collection of books to be 300,000 in an onstage interview at Lincoln Center in 2013.
Full of facts, information and observations, Mr. Lagerfeld had a reputation for long monologues in his quick German accent. He was witty and sharp, and often made notable quips. So often that his quotes even filled a whole book in 2013 — “The World According to Karl.”
Mr. Lagerfeld took delight in being a bit politically incorrect!
“Be politically correct, but please don’t bother other people with conversation about being politically correct, because that’s the end of everything. You want to create boredom? Be politically correct in your conversation.”
“In a meat-eating world, wearing leather for shoes and clothes and even handbags, the discussion of fur is childish.”
A Young Karl Lagerfeld
Karl Lagerfeld was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1933. Although there was some dispute about his actual year of birth as he was often coy about his birth year. Wikipedia gives a great account of the dispute, a clear representation of his character.
The Birth Year Dispute According to Wikipedia
Lagerfeld was known to misrepresent his birth year, claiming to be younger than his actual age, and to misrepresent his parents’ background. For example, he claimed that he was born in 1938 to “Elisabeth of Germany” and Otto Ludwig Lagerfeld from Sweden, although these claims have been conclusively proven to be entirely wrong, as his father was from Hamburg and spent his entire life in Germany, with no Swedish connection whatsoever. There is also no evidence that his mother Elisabeth Bahlmann, the daughter of a middle-class local politician, called herself “Elisabeth of Germany.” He was known to insist that no one knows his real birth date. In an interview on French television in February 2009, Lagerfeld said that he was “born neither in 1933 nor 1938.”
In April 2013, he finally declared that he was born in 1935. A birth announcement was, however, published by his parents in 1933, and the baptismal register in Hamburg also lists him as born in that year, conclusively proving that he was born on 10 September 1933. Bild am Sonntag published his baptismal records in 2008 and interviewed his teacher and a classmate, who both confirmed that he was born in 1933. Despite that, Karl Lagerfeld announced publicly that he was celebrating his “70th birthday” on 10 September 2008, despite actually turning 75.
The Lagerfeld Family
Karl Lagerfeld’s father was Otto Lagerfeld, a well-off managing director of the German brand of the American Milk Products Company and his mother (Otto’s 2nd wife) was Elisabeth Bahlmann. He had one older half-sister, Thea, and an older sister Martha Christiane.
Mr. Lagerfeld often stated he disliked his childhood. During World War II his father moved the family to a small town in northern Germany where Mr. Lagerfeld, who was used to wearing a formal suit to school, did not really fit in.
By all accounts, Mr. Lagerfeld’s mother was the single most influential person on his life. He said she was responsible for his quick and voluminous speaking style. A trait he embraced, but not one he could have been particularly thankful of his mother for based on a story he told to actress Jessica Chastain at his Lincoln Center interview. The story went that when his mother asked a question, he “had to answer quickly, and it had to be funny. If I thought of something to say 10 minutes later, she would slap me.”
After attending a private primary school in Germany, Mr. Lagerfeld finished his secondary school at the Lycée Montaigne in Paris, where he majored in drawing and history.
With no formal training in fashion, in 1954, at age 18, Mr. Lagerfeld entered a fashion competition. The International Wool Secretariat, now reborn as the International Woolmark Prize. He won the womenswear coat category.
Fun Fact: Yves Saint Laurent won the dress category that same year.
Early Career: Balmain, Patou, Chloé & Fendi
Karl Lagerfeld began his career at Pierre Balmain as an assistant and then apprentice soon after winning the International Wool Secretariat.
After 3 years he moved to House of Patou where he stayed on for 5 years.
With the world of ready-to-wear emerging, Mr. Lagerfeld decided to leave House of Patou for a freelance career. Even this early on his career it was clear being tied to one label was not for Karl.
The most influential work of his freelancing years was with the brand Chloé. Founder Gaby Aghion hired Mr. Lagerfeld in 1965 as freelancer and the pair worked on and off together until 1992. Mr. Lagerfeld served as creative head twice for Chloé. First in 1974. Mr. Lagerfeld’s tongue-in-cheek designs and spectacular entertaining shows during this period helped cement Chloé’s bohemian romance style. His designs became go-to for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Brigitte Bardot. Secondly in 1992 when he returned to Chloé while still at Chanel. This was a less successful collaboration and officially ended his ongoing partnership with the brand.
In 1967 Mr. Lagerfeld began as a consultant director at Fendi. He was hired by the Fendi family to modernize the house’s fur lines. Mr. Lagerfeld refused to treat luxury pelts too preciously, instead he saved them, dyed them and in turn created “Fun Fur.” A name which led to the brand’s infamous FF logo.
Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel
In 1983 Mr. Lagerfeld joined Chanel in order to help revive the brand who had been waning since Coco Chanel’s death a decade earlier. First, he went to haute couture and the next year to ready-to-wear.
“[Chanel was] a sleeping beauty. Not even a beautiful one. She snored,” said Mr. Lagerfeld of Chanel in “Lagerfeld Confidential,” a 2007 documentary. “So, I was to revive a dead woman.”
Alain Wertheimer, co-owner of the House of Chanel, hailed Mr. Lagerfeld after his death stating he was “an extraordinary creative mind to whom I gave carte blanche in the early 1980s to reinvent the brand.”
While Mr. Lagerfeld acknowledged Chanel’s history, he treated it irreverently. He took the brand’s rich iconography, its ropes of pearls, camellias, bouclé, Cs, and twisted them into forms.
“My job is not to do what she did, but what she would have done,” he said of the house’s founder, Coco Chanel. “The good thing about Chanel is it is an idea you can adapt to many things.”
During the 1980s women were refusing to play by old rules and Mr. Lagerfeld’s iconoclasm was the perfect solution, so he transformed Chanel into the armor they could wear to their battle.
Celebrities took notice of the new Chanel and its alluring director and flocked to the brand. Mr. Lagerfeld and the House grasped the marketing opportunity creating promotional films with Nicole Kidman and mini-features with Kristen Stewart and Pharrell Williams.
Mr. Lagerfeld’s designs turned Chanel into a global powerhouse and one of the world’s most valuable couture houses with estimated revenues of over $4 billion per year. Before luxury collaborations were common place, Mr. Lagerfeld’s business savvy landed him as the first designer to design a collection for H&M. A trend that was later followed by Stella McCartney, Versace and Maison Margiela, among others.
His understanding of social media and its power in the fashion industry, especially surrounding runway shows, coupled with his radical innovation and creativity led him to create some of fashion history’s most spectacular shows. Set in his venue of choice, Paris’ Grand Palais, a 265-ton iceberg from Sweden, a vibrant casino, a blooming garden oasis and a sandy beach with real lapping waves are just a few of the legendary sets Mr. Lagerfeld created.
Thus, he became King Karl, reining over Chanel until his death shortly after his last haute couture show in 2019.
The Karl Lagerfeld Brand
In 1984, just one year after starting at Chanel, Mr. Lagerfeld started his own eponymous brand. The Karl Lagerfeld brand was established to channel “intellectual sexiness”, however the line struggled to find the same success or popularity as Chanel and Fendi. Some suggest this is because Karl worked best within the context of someone else’s vision, while others say he simply did not have enough time. Either way his legacy lives on through this namesake brand just as strongly.
Karl Lagerfeld was also a photographer; his work was exhibited at the Pinacothèque de Paris. He was a publisher of his own imprint Steidl, Edition 7L. An author of a popular diet book published in 2002 about how he lost 92 pounds, “The Karl Lagerfeld Diet.”
Karl Lagerfeld Furniture
In October 2018, Karl Lagerfeld entered the world of home décor, a common practice for luxury fashion houses at this time. Partnering with Carpenters Workshop Gallery, he launched a collection of functional sculptures. Each piece is made of Arabescato Fantastico, a rare vibrant white marble with dark gray veins, and black Nero Marquina, a marble with milky veins. The collection consists of tables, lamps, fountains
Forays in Interior Design
In 2013 Karl Lagerfeld took on his first interior design project. A four-year renovation of Paris’ Hôtel de Crillon. The hotel reopened in 2017 unveiling a magnificent transformation making the hotel one of the most venerable in Paris. And while there are many things to admire about the beautiful interior, the two Karl Lagerfeld-designed Les Grands Appartements are breathtakingly lavish!
The Acqualina describes Mr. Lagerfeld’s lavish and elegant interior design as “Drawing on influences from the diverse worlds of contemporary art, historic architecture and Art Deco patterns. Karl Lagerfeld’s design juxtaposes these elements with centerpieces incorporating flowers and fountains to create an atmosphere at once lush and elegant. A classic South Florida color palette of blues, white, silver, gray and pale pink reinforces a sense of place while introducing
Although Mr. Lagerfeld’s foray into interiors was minuscule in comparison to his work in fashion, the brilliant designer most definitely left his mark on the world of interior design.
A Mysterious Personal Life
Although Mr. Lagerfeld proclaimed to reject the concepts of fashion-as-art and designer-as-tortured genius, his innovative creations and personal life in many ways said otherwise.
From Paris and Monte Carlo, to Hamburg, Manhattan and Vermont, Karl Lagerfeld lived in numerous homes over the years.
In 2007 Mr. Lagerfeld moved into an apartment in the Left Bank’s Quai Voltaire. The small space was crowded with his massive book collection and an excess of clothing. Mr. Lagerfeld lived there alone with his Birman cat, Choupette.
The snowy white Choupette became almost as famous as his owner. With his own coffee table book, Instagram account, maids and diamond necklaces, Choupette reportedly generated $4 million in modeling fees in 2014. Mr. Lagerfeld was also known for saying the cat was the heir to his fortune and that he would have married him if it was legal.
“She is like a kept woman,” he said. “She has a strong personality. She has lunch and dinner with me on the table, with her own food. She doesn’t touch my food. She doesn’t want to eat on the floor. She sleeps under a pillow and she even knows how to use an iPad.”
A ‘catman’ by choice, Mr. Lagerfeld’s human entourage was ever-shifting with no real strong presence of seemingly significant others. However, his godson Hudson Kroenig did become something of a constant the last few years of Mr. Lagerfeld’s life. The son of one of Karl’s favorite male models Brad Kroenig, Hudson would often appear on the runway with Mr. Lagerfeld to take a bow.
The Karl Lagerfeld Legacy Lives On
“A sense of humor and a little lack of respect: that’s what you need to make a legend survive,” said Mr. Lagerfeld of the legacy he created.
A legacy that will live on through the Karl Lagerfeld brand, Fendi’s FF logo, his fashion quips, decades of Chanel past and years to come with Virginie Viard, his closest collaborator for more than 30 years and his successor at Chanel. And so much more!
Words by Anna Beck Bimba