By Eric Wilson of Business of Fashion
In a seven-decade career as fashion’s ultimate free agent, Lagerfeld created collections simultaneously for the celebrated houses of Chanel and Fendi, in addition to his signature label, at a pace without rival in the luxury industry.
For Lagerfeld, to design was to breathe, “so if I can’t breathe, I’m in trouble,” he often quipped to journalists who were astonished by his inexhaustible work ethic and his insistence that he would never retire.
In fact, his creative output seemed only to become more bountiful in his golden years, a period during which his extravagant runway productions at the Grand Palais in Paris achieved a staggering level of theatrical opulence. At a cost of millions of dollars per season, the events surpassed the mundane boundaries of a fashion show to become something more like large-scale performance art – media spectacles where Lagerfeld, as both gifted designer and visual provocateur, could best demonstrate his ability to interweave the superficialities of fashion with matters of great depth, while also parading seemingly endless ways to keep Chanel’s classic tweeds looking modern and fresh.
His fall 2017 collection featured a 115-foot-tall mechanical rocket ship that simulated blast off. For fall 2014, he built a Chanel shopping center, its superstore-like aisles bursting with more than 500 different products that included a Chanel-logo chainsaw, doormats, candy, and ketchup. For fall 2010, he imported enough snow and ice from Sweden to create a 265-ton indoor iceberg. Backdrops of a man-made beach with rippling waves (spring 2019), a scale rendering of the Eiffel Tower (fall 2017 couture), a French brasserie with
His incredible longevity and success as a designer, and, following his logic, the fortunes of the companies for which he worked, owed at least partly to Lagerfeld’s intentional detachment from the business side of fashion. He claimed never to discuss sales figures or budgets with management. “I am a hired gun, even in my own business,” he said in a BBC interview, noting that his contracts with Chanel and Fendi allowed him to do whatever he wanted on the side.
“I work my own marionette in a way, my own puppet,” he told The New York Times. “It’s something I control.” That extraordinarily rare freedom from the restraints of financial responsibility enabled him to continually make clothes that inspired consumers to dream.
“We created a product nobody needs, but people want,” he said. “If you need an ugly old car, it can wait, but if you want a new fashion item, it cannot wait.”
As designers half his age complained of burnout from fashion’s maddening pace, Lagerfeld made himself even busier by dabbling in a constant stream of publishing, photography, film and design projects, including a rule-breaking “fast fashion” collaboration with the mass retailer H&M in 2004 that predated the industry obsession with disruption by more than a decade. Ignoring the traditional expectations of a luxury player, he also designed hotel rooms, video games, motorcycle helmets, a BMW, and a cosmetics range inspired by his also-famous cat, Choupette, and directed an ad campaign for Magnum ice cream bars that featured a life size sculpture of model Baptiste Giabiconi rendered in chocolate. More than most of his sober-minded peers at fashion’s pinnacle, he relished his iconic status both within the industry and in popular culture. Despite all this extra-curricular output, though, he was driven by one thing in fashion, he said, which was to make his designs better than they were the season before.
As most profiles of Lagerfeld have noted, another thing that drove him was a desire to know everything. He filled his numerous homes, in Paris, Biarritz, and Saint-Tropez among others, with stacks of history books and biographies, iPods loaded with various types of music, and museum-worthy collections of artwork and furniture that he would, unceremoniously, dispose of every few years, once a new period or style captured his attention. With his vast memory and a rapid-fire way of working and speaking, he could summon details and themes on command, exploit them ruthlessly in a collection, and then immediately move on to the next thing. He once said he had a “Google mind.”
“Whatever it is, good or bad, it influences fashion,” Lagerfeld said. “You can see that in fashion quicker than in any other thing going on. Fashion is something that reflects our lives and times with the shortest release, because, cars, design and architecture take years to realize.”
Lagerfeld was, in many ways, a self-drawn caricature of what a powerful designer should look and sound like, a stylistic god who was worldly and intellectual, commanding and capricious. His bitchy quips (“sweatpants are a sign of defeat,” “trendy is the last stage before tacky,” “I think tattoos are horrible – it’s like living in a Pucci dress full-time,” and many, many nasty digs at celebrities he considered fat or unattractive) became as much a part of the Lagerfeld mystique as were his signature white powdered ponytail and dark sunglasses, or his habit of drinking only Coca-Cola (later, Diet Coke or Coke Zero).
But his penchant for flamboyance, combined with occasionally reckless comments in recent years, also resulted in backlash for Chanel. His critiques of Angela Merkel drew particular outrage, as when he evoked the Holocaust on a French talk show in 2017 while protesting Germany’s open-door policy toward Muslim refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war. In any event, there had never been any serious repercussions for the designer nor attempts to unseat him, likely as a result of his outsize stature in the industry and his long history of accomplishments.
He was best known for his work, since 1983, as artistic director at Chanel, which became one of the most profitable and admired luxury brands in the world under his tenure. While the company remains privately held by brothers Alain and Gérard Wertheimer, Chanel took the unusual step of releasing its annual results for the first time last year, stating its sales of $9.6 billion were larger than those of Gucci and approaching those of Louis Vuitton. Chanel’s sales for 2017 were up 11 percent, driving operating profit of $2.69 billion. Chanel said it had decided to reveal its financial strength in response to speculation that the company could be a takeover target, and to demonstrate it was determined to remain independent.
When Lagerfeld was first approached by the Wertheimer family, which had created the Chanel fragrance business and its blockbuster No. 5 scent in the 1920s, and took control the fashion house after World War II, it had been more than a decade since the death of its founder, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. Chanel’s hallmark tweed bouclé jackets and dresses, once viewed as liberating, by then seemed old-fashioned and bourgeois, and the company was in need of new direction. Lagerfeld was already well-known for the soft and poetic party dresses he had been making at Chloé in the 1970s, which was during the dynamic growth of European ready-to-wear movement for easy-to-wear and less precious clothes. At the same time, Lagerfeld, since he first arrived in Paris, had harbored a burning desire to work in high fashion as a couturier, and Chanel’s established atelier offered that chance.
“People tend to forget that once upon a time, Chanel was old hat,” Lagerfeld said. “It was only Parisian doctors’ wives who still wore it.” But it was Lagerfeld’s belief that the image could be changed with a sense of humor and a lack of nostalgia, in order to make customers forget everything that had come before.
“Because fashion is about today,” Lagerfeld said in a 2007 New Yorker profile. “You can take an idea from the past, but, if you do it the way it was, no one wants it.”
Lagerfeld described his first collections for Chanel as reflecting a modern and “chic-sexy” approach, with longer and thinner proportions, unlike Coco’s boxy-proportioned precedent. For his spring 1984 ready-to-wear show, he re-imagined classic suits and dresses with matching hats – all in denim, and for fall that year he added a hockey uniform worn with pearls and a skiing outfit in gaudy, glittering silver and red. His transformation of the brand would combine elements of the alluring (softly tailored pantsuits and charming white camellias affixed to tweed suits) with the shocking (oversize logos, micro-miniskirts, sequined running shoes, heels molded to look like pistols). The phenomenal transformation of Chanel became an industry model for how to turn an aging fashion house into a status symbol as its sales continued to soar. Lagerfeld’s role was so secure there he was contractually considered its “designer for life.”
“Why should I stop working?” he mused to anyone who dared broach the subject of retirement. “If I do, I’ll die and it’ll be all finished.”
Karl Lagerfeld was born Karl-Otto Lagerfeldt in Germany, and raised in the countryside near Hamburg, on Sept. 10, 1933, according to most recent biographies and some of his relatives, although Lagerfeld had for many years claimed he had been born in 1938 or 1935. In her 2006 book, “The Beautiful Fall,” which chronicled the heady decadence of fashion in the 1970s, the writer Alicia Drake argued that Lagerfeld had inflated many details of his childhood as part of a self-invention as a German aristocrat upon his arrival in the Paris demimonde. Lagerfeld sued the writer for invasion of privacy, but his case was thrown out of court.
Lagerfeld, who changed the spelling of his name for commercial reasons, himself frequently joked about the discrepancy of his age, saying his mother, Elisabeth, a trim, stylish violinist who was highly critical of her son in his childhood, had chosen the date because it was easier to write. (As recently as 2013, Lagerfeld told Paris Match that he was born in 1935.) Further confusing matters, his father, Christian Ludwig Otto Lagerfeldt, was the wealthy managing director of a company that distributed condensed milk from the United States, and had moved the family to the countryside to shelter them from the hardships of the war years under Hitler, leaving little reliable evidence from the early years of Karl, an older sister, Martha Christiane, and a half-sister, Thea, from Lagerfeldt’s previous marriage.
In the end, Lagerfeld described his childhood as a misery. He was a gifted scholar and loved to sketch, thinking he would pursue a career in illustration, but he had few friends and his mother often complained about his looks, telling him he should not smoke because his hands were unattractive, and that his nose was so large he should order curtains for his nostrils. Nevertheless, his parents supported his artistic ambition and sent him to Paris, where Lagerfeld found immediate success in fashion. In 1954, he won a design contest, called the International Woolmark Prize, based on the sketch of a coat he submitted that was produced for the competition by the designer Pierre Balmain. Of particular note, a young Yves Saint Laurent also won that year in the dress category, foreshadowing what would become a lifelong rivalry between the two designers.
In their younger years, Lagerfeld and Saint Laurent were close friends. Whereas Saint Laurent was the tortured, fragile artiste who ascended to the coveted role of couturier at Christian Dior following Dior’s sudden death in 1957, Lagerfeld was a pragmatic mercenary. After working for three years for Balmain, who had hired him as an assistant, Lagerfeld designed collections for Patou, Chloé, Krizia, Charles Jourdan, Mario Valentino, and, beginning in 1965, Fendi, the Italian fur company where he contributed designs for an astounding 50 years. Fendi’s sales were estimated by analysts at $1.3 billion in 2017, while the company, acquired by LVMH in 2001, has experienced a major street style moment over the last year with its logo-driven FF Reloaded collection. (In January, Silvia Venturini Fendi, creative director of accessories and menswear, paid tribute to Lagerfeld’s contributions to the house with a fall men’s collection inspired by him, including styles he designed.)
By the 1980s, Lagerfeld was widely known to the public, even as he was just beginning to design under his own name (Saint Laurent had started a signature company that popularized the French concept of ready-to-wear in the 1960s). Lagerfeld’s own label, called at different times Lagerfeld Gallery or Karl Lagerfeld Paris, has existed on and off as a licensing venture through various partnerships, including a high-profile venture with Tommy Hilfiger in 2004 and most recently with G-III Apparel Group in the United States since 2016, though it has always been perceived as a side project for the designer.
Still, Lagerfeld was the more disciplined of the two when it came to image and self-control; he was cast as an aristocratic German designer in one of Andy Warhol’s more obscure films, the 1973 “L’Amour,” playing up his persona as the ringleader in the absurdist circus of fashion. His personal iconography included tightly fitted blazers over starched white shirts with startlingly tall collars, and skinny jeans – a complete look he perfected in the 1990s, only after undertaking a dramatic diet. He said he lost 92 pounds in order to fit into the prevailing silhouette of the day, a modern rock-and-roll style orchestrated by Hedi Slimane, who was then at Dior Homme. Lagerfeld became so recognizable for this look that he started using his own likeness as a logo on T-shirts, handbags and furry key chains for Fendi.
While his competition with Saint Laurent intensified throughout their lives, until Saint Laurent’s death in 2008, Lagerfeld’s ultimate success with Chanel gave him immense confidence and enabled him to pursue opportunities that no other designer would dare touch. His 2004 collection for the Swedish retailer H&M was especially risky, given the fate of other luxury brands like Halston that had lost their credibility after making a mass play. Lagerfeld described the one-off collaboration, which included slim blazers and T-shirts emblazoned with a cartoon logo of his face, as “mass elitism, which has long been my dream… It’s the future of modernity.”
The collection was an enormous hit, selling out in many markets, unleashing all manner of unorthodox designer crossovers to follow, and further fueling Lagerfeld’s fame. He was also the subject of at least three documentaries, “Lagerfeld Confidential” (2007), “Un Roi seul” (2007), and “Karl Lagerfeld se dessine” (2013), and several books, including a compilation of his quotations, “The World According to Karl,” from Flammarion (2013), and “The Karl Lagerfeld Diet,” a weight-loss book he published with his physician, Jean-Claude Houdret (2002). For many years, Lagerfeld ran his own publishing imprint, 7L, photographed his own advertising campaigns, and directed short films that imagined the life of Coco Chanel and highlighted connections from Chanel’s history to his own work.
At Chanel, Lagerfeld was given the artistic license and financial resources to acquire the best talent, including his longtime collaborators Virginie Viard, the creative studio director and tipped as a likely internal candidate to succeed him as Chanel’s designer, and Eric Pfrunder, Chanel’s director of image. At Lagerfeld’s urging, the company also embarked on a campaign to acquire many specialized French craft ateliers, like Lesage for embroidery, Lemarié for feathers and artificial flowers, Maison Michel for millinery, and Causse for glove making. Those resources were celebrated with lavish Métiers d’Art fashion shows held in far-flung destinations, including in Edinburgh, Shanghai, Hamburg, and most recently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in December, while Chanel’s cruise collections have been staged from Dubai to Havana, Cuba, reflecting Lagerfeld’s approach to making Chanel’s interlocking “CC” mark recognizable around the world.
“Logos are the Esperanto of marketing, luxury, and business today,” he said.
Lagerfeld often said that his only love in life was his work. But he showed his softer side near the end of his life by casting his godson, Hudson Kroenig, the older son of the model Brad Kroenig, in his runway shows. He also gleefully promoted his lavishly spoiled cat, a gift from Kroenig, in interviews and on social media. He once said he wished he could marry Choupette, in what was presumably a humorous jab at his own cartoonlike image.
“There is no secret to life,” Lagerfeld said. “The only secret is work. Get your act together, and also, perhaps, have a decent life. Don’t drink. Don’t smoke. Don’t take drugs. All that helps.”