This week the world lost one of its greats. Karl Lagerfeld (85) passed away unexpectedly in a Paris Hospital just days before Paris Fashion Week. A designer under his own brand and creative director for Chanel, his collections are one of the most highly anticipated and so it is with great sadness that we received this news. It was announced a couple of days before that he wasn’t well however I don’t think anyone was really prepared for this. It is now known that he was suffering from pancreatic cancer and from the complications of it. Just how long he had been suffering from it (and how long he kept it under wraps) is still speculation. In loving memory of the great talent and unique character that was Karl Lagerfeld, we’re looking back on how he rose to fame and the highlights throughout his career. Karl, you were an inspiration to many and you may never know how just many people your talent spoke to.
Karl Otto Lagerfeld was born 10thSeptember 1933 in Hamburg Germany. As a child he showed a love for the creative arts, constantly sketching and visiting museums in his hometown. But it was his love for the French artists that truly inspired him and he claimed he only continued his education so he could learn French and move to France one day. It didn’t take long, as Lagerfeld actually completed his secondary schooling in Paris at Lycée Montaigne where he studied drawing and history.
After two years spent in Paris, Lagerfeld entered a design competition by the International Wool Secretariat and his coat design won him first prize. It was after this that he became friends with Yves Saint Laurent and was hired by Pierre Balmain as his assistant and apprentice. By 1958 it was time for Lagerfeld to take on the reins for himself, becoming the artistic director for Jean Patou. He went on to study art history is Rome six years later and ended up freelancing for some of the biggest brands in industry including Valentino and Chloé.
By the 1980’s Lagerfeld was hired by Chanel and ready to make his mark on the industry in a way that had never been seen before. Gabrielle Chanel had died almost a decade before Lagerfeld was hired and since then the iconic brand had truly lost its foothold. Everyone considered Chanel to be history, a dead brand, after all how could there be Chanel with Coco? But Lagerfeld surprised the world by re-working the ready-to-wear line and creating a pattern from the signature interlocking CC monograph. His work at Chanel was so highly commended that he was able to start his own self named label “Karl Lagerfeld” just a year after committing to Chanel.
Lagerfeld truly reworked Chanel and even through out some of the core ideas that were behind the brand’s success in the first place. For example, Gabrielle hated mini skirts with a passion and yet by todays standards the first image that comes to mind when we think Chanel is a sweet tweed mini skirt suit – realistically, that is Karl and we can only imagine what Gabrielle would have to say about how Chanel looks today, she certainly wasn’t one for keeping her opinions to herself!
Part of what made Karl Lagerfeld so intriguing was his unique sense of personal style that he not only embraced at every public appearance but that he also included into his collections. Black, leather, fingerless gloves, high starched collars, oversized sunglasses and even his cat “Choupette” all became synonymous with his brand’s style. Although born in Germany, he spent most of his life in Paris and so became an honorary French designer, his name becoming synonymous with French design and couture. Of course, it wasn’t all rosey in the garden for Lagerfeld, some of his career highlights include the controversy around his designs and the shock value they created. For example, in 1994 for Chanel’s couture collection, Lagerfeld made use of a verse from the Qur’an. Despite apologizing profusely and explaining he was under the impression the words came from a love poem, the Indonesian Muslim Scholars Council encouraged everyone to boycott Chanel and threatened to file a formal protest with the German government.
Another example of the controversy his work caused is through his supported use of fur. He himself did not wear fur however he worked extensively with Fendi until his death, helping to curate their fur collections and it was his creative brain that swept the Fendi fur collections up to the next level by introducing squirrel, rabbit and mole pelts. He described the controversy and general discussion of whether fur was ethical as “childish” considering we live in a world of meat eaters and leather shoe wearers. This obviously did not go down well with animal rights activists PETA who called Lagerfeld a “dinosaur who is as out of step as his furs are out of fashion.” This lead to individual animal rights activists organizing a pie throwing outside a fashion premiere at Lincoln Centre NYC in 2001. The pies were supposed to hit Lagerfeld but instead missed him and hit Calvin Klein instead! Klein, who never uses fur!
In 2007, Lagerfeld did express that his controversial persona was all just an act, so perhaps we never really knew the real Lagerfeld at all…
It appears that Lagerfeld did not appoint anyone before his death to take over his brands and so it was left to Alain Wertheimer to make an executive decision. It has been announced that Virginie Viard, director of Chanel’s fashion creation studio will take on the creative work for both Chanel and the Karl Lagerfeld brand. Viard was one of Lagerfeld’s closest collaborators and so she seems to be the perfect fit for the brands, at least for now. It’s hard to imagine a world in which Lagerfeld’s vision doesn’t exist, Viard had huge boots to fill and we can only hope she is up to the task.
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Article Commissioned by Mod'Art University of Shanghai