Femi Bamigbetan

February 20, 2019


The fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, who brought a flagging brand called Chanel back to life in the early 1980s and turned it into one of the most powerful luxury brands in the world, has died at age 85.

Famous for his dark sunglasses, snowy ponytail, and black suits, Lagerfeld was prolific, seemingly indefatigable. At the end of his career, he was simultaneously the creative head of Chanel, the Italian fashion house Fendi, and his own eponymous brand. In addition to producing multiple collections per year for each label, Lagerfeld was a photographer, shooting many of Chanel’s advertising campaigns himself, and a book publisher.

Lagerfeld and Chanel

Chanel was legendary long before Lagerfeld came along. Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel founded her namesake fashion house in 1913, and today she’s widely credited with liberating women from their corsets by introducing jersey fabrics into her dresses, giving them an easier, more comfortable way of moving through the world. Certain Chanel pieces have reached icon status: the little black dress, the quilted handbag, and Chanel No. 5, a perfume with a history veiled in layers of marketing and mythology. The same can be said of Chanel herself, whose enduring status as the matriarch of French fashion can obscure less savory aspects of her life, like her ties to the Nazi Party.

Lagerfeld’s career was kick-started when he was 21, after he won a prestigious fashion award for this coat design.
 Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

Born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1935 — a biographical detail that has been the subject of some debate — Lagerfeld moved to Paris as a teenager. At 21, he won a fashion competition with a design for a women’s coat, kicking off his career in the business. (That same year, an 18-year-old Yves Saint Laurent won in the dress category; the two influential designers would later become rivals.)

Lagerfeld worked at Balmain and Jean Patou before becoming head designer of the French fashion house Chloé in 1964 and in the following year, he took on the same role at Fendi, the Italian fur brand, working both jobs at once.

When Lagerfeld took on the artistic directorship of Chanel in 1983, leaving his post at Chloé but keeping the job at Fendi, his challenge was to modernize the brand without alienating longtime fans.

Putting a young boy in a logo T-shirt on the Chanel runway was just one way Lagerfeld shook things up in 1983.
 Pierre Guillaud/AFP/Getty Images
The designers also stayed true to the brand’s roots, putting in models in looks that evoked Coco Chanel herself.
 Pierre Guillaud/AFP/Getty Images

By 1985, however, the newspaper wrote that Lagerfeld “succeeded in bringing the Chanel image into the modern age. He has reshaped the suits, recolored the clothes and introduced knitted styles that are both pertinent and contemporary. Best of all, he has silenced the nay-sayers who perpetually complained that this is not the way Chanel would have done it.”

Throughout his time at the brand, Lagerfeld reworked the classics, often in irreverent fashion.

Lagerfeld’s Chanel runway shows were over-the-top. Ever the showman, he commissioned enormous, elaborate sets for the brand’s Paris Fashion Week presentations, turning the Grand Palais into a beach, an airport, a brasserie, and a casino. In 2002, he launched a “Métiers d’Art” collection to highlight the work of the artisans with which the brand collaborates; for these shows, Chanel took its guests around the world, to Dallas, Shanghai, Salzburg, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

To Lagerfeld, a cruise ship was an obvious runway show set piece.
 Stephane Cardinale/Corbis/Getty Images
In 1990, Lagerfeld reimagined a classic Chanel tweed jacket in sequins, accessorized with a surfboard.
 Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
In 2014, the tweed jacket was lengthened and paired with sneakers.
 Catwalking/Getty Images

During Lagerfeld’s tenure, Chanel sales skyrocketed from a reported $4 billion in 2007 — “reported” because the notoriously private company doesn’t typically release earnings — to nearly $10 billion in 2017, when Chanel pulled back the curtain on its finances for the first time.

Lagerfeld’s legacy

Lagerfeld’s success at Chanel didn’t merely benefit the brand; it also gave luxury conglomerates a blueprint for how to revamp historic fashion houses that had grown dusty. “Lagerfeld’s success at revitalizing the Chanel brand inspired similar makeovers at other fashion houses, including Gucci (which hired Tom Ford), Dior (John Galliano), Louis Vuitton (Marc Jacobs), Lanvin (Alber Elbaz), Balenciaga (Nicolas Ghesquière), and Burberry (Christopher Bailey),” reported the New Yorker.

Though all these brands now have different designers (Alessandro Michele at Gucci, Riccardo Tisci at Burberry) or have traded players (Ghesquière now works for Louis Vuitton), they are still the industry’s biggest brands. The shot of adrenaline that Lagerfeld delivered to the fashion business continues to work its magic today.

Edward Berthelot/Getty Images
Christian Vierig/Getty Images
Christian Vierig/Getty Images

While quilted chain bags were always available at Chanel, Lagerfeld found ways to reinterpret the design season after season.

Yet Lagerfeld’s approach to revamping a famous fashion house differed from that of many of the designers who followed in his footsteps. Others radically expanded their brands’ playbooks — Michele took Gucci’s sleek sexiness, which had by that time grown lackluster, and reinvented the brand as a kooky, maximalist romp through the ruffles; Tisci’s early collections at Burberry are already far edgier than his predecessor Bailey’s take on upscale Britishness. Lagerfeld, conversely, kept Chanel’s look extremely contained.

He knew how to constantly refresh Chanel’s classics in such a way as to hold shoppers’ interest for decades, a nearly impossible task in the fickle fashion world. Because he returned to the same concepts season after season (the two-tone shoes, the tweed suit), his aesthetic at Chanel was singular; the clothing he created often seemed to exist in a bubble, largely impermeable to trends that worked their way into other brands’ collections. “Cool” or any other description evoking of-the-moment-ness didn’t seem to apply to Chanel.

Knockoffs of Chanel’s quilted bags and two-tone slingbacks can be found in stores the world over.
 Edward Berthelot/Getty Images

Lagerfeld’s look became iconic, and he himself became a brand. For proof, look no further than the launch of his limited-edition Diet Coke bottles, which employed Karl look-alikes to serve guests. Bertrand Langlois/AFP/Getty Images

In interviews, he spoke at a fast clip, expressing an unsentimental zeal for what was new and next. “The most important piece of furniture in a house is the garbage can! I keep no archives of my own, no sketches, no photos, no clothes — nothing! I am supposed to do, I’m not supposed to remember!” Lagerfeld told the New Yorker in 2007. He was known for giving outrageous, sometimes offensive interviews.

While Chanel trickled down to the mass market in the form of knockoffs, Lagerfeld also designed for the mainstream, collaborating on limited-edition Diet Coke bottles — his beverage of choice — and, in 2004, a clothing collection for H&M that sold out in hours. He even wrote a book titled The Karl Lagerfeld Diet, available on Amazon for $15.34, based on his weight loss experience in the early 2000s.

After the H&M collection came out, the New Yorker reported, “Lagerfeld achieved a level of fame usually reserved for pop stars and movie idols. ‘I can no longer walk in the street,’ he says. ‘That’s over.’”

Lagerfeld takes a bow on the Chanel runway. Dominique Charriau/WireImage

This is the crux of Lagerfeld’s legacy. Not only will he go down in history as one of the most influential designers of the 20th century — he’ll be remembered for being himself, larger than life.

Lagerfeld had a keen sense for the spectacle of fashion: His Paris Fashion Week shows for Chanel involved set pieces like icebergs and towering cruise ships, which were just as much a testament to the brand’s financial muscle as they were to its designer’s inventiveness. Celebrities like Rihanna, Marion Cotillard, and Keira Knightley packed the front row. Chanel’s most intricate, handmade couture dresses invariably wound up on the red carpets of the Oscars and Golden Globes, worn by A-listers like Nicole Kidman and Emma Stone.
channel fashion FAshion moguls ICONIC KARL lagerfeld
next story