PARIS — Karl Lagerfeld, one of the most prolific, admired and multitalented fashion figures of the modern age, has died in Paris, the house of Chanel said on Tuesday.
Lagerfeld worked tirelessly until the end, giving instructions to his teams for the Fendi fall ready-to-wear collection, due to take place in Milan on Thursday. The only sign of his declining health was his failure to take a bow at Chanel’s recent couture show in January.
He was most closely associated with the French fashion house, where he was couturier since 1983, engineering one of the modern fashion industry’s first and most successful brand rejuvenations and propelling the fabled French name from near obscurity to the summit of international luxury.
Lagerfeld was also the creative force behind the furs and rtw at Fendi for more than half a century, as well as his signature fashion house, which — although it encompassed everything from designer rtw to jeans and fragrance over the years — rarely approached the heights of the other brands Lagerfeld touched, which included Chloé from the Sixties into the Nineties.
“A prolific creative mind with endless imagination, Karl Lagerfeld explored many artistic horizons, including photography and short films. The house of Chanel benefited from his talent for all the branding campaigns related to fashion since 1987. Finally, one cannot refer to Karl Lagerfeld without mentioning his innate sense of repartee and self-mockery,” it added.
The house said Virginie Viard, director of Chanel’s fashion creation studio and Lagerfeld’s closest collaborator for more than 30 years, has been entrusted by Chanel chief executive officer Alain Wertheimer with the creative work for the collections, “so that the legacy of Gabrielle Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld can live on.”
The development puts another designing woman at the helm of a prominent French couture house. Maria Grazia Chiuri has been the creative leader of Dior’s women’s collections since 2016 while Clare Waight Keller was named Givenchy’s artistic director in 2017.
“Thanks to his creative genius, generosity and exceptional intuition, Karl Lagerfeld was ahead of his time, which widely contributed to the house of Chanel’s success throughout the world. Today, not only have I lost a friend, but we have all lost an extraordinary creative mind to whom I gave carte blanche in the early Eighties to reinvent the brand,” Wertheimer said.
Bruno Pavlovsky, president of fashion at Chanel, said: “Fashion show after fashion show, collection after collection, Karl Lagerfeld left his mark on the legend of Gabrielle Chanel and the history of the house of Chanel. He steadfastly promoted the talent and expertise of Chanel’s ateliers and Métiers d’Art, allowing this exceptional know-how to shine throughout the world. The greatest tribute we can pay today is to continue to follow the path he traced by – to quote Karl – ‘continuing to embrace the present and invent the future.’”
A polyglot with a photographic memory and vast knowledge of history, philosophy, art and popular culture, Lagerfeld ran his own publishing imprint and library, 7L.
He was also an active and accomplished photographer, lensing ad campaigns for the Chanel, Fendi and Lagerfeld brands, plus outside clients, including Dom Perignon, Adidas, Coca-Cola and Pirelli. He did editorial shoots for scores of fashion magazines, including French, English and American Vogues, Harper’s Bazaar, Paris Match, V Magazine and Numero. Late in his career, he started making films to accompany certain fashion shows, and he directed commercials for clients, including ice-cream giant Magnum.
“I hate leisure,” the designer told WWD gleefully in 2008, “except reading. I’m really a person made to work, if sketching is considered work. I’m pretty lucky to be doing what I’m doing in beyond-perfect conditions.
“Fashion and the way it is now, it’s like the life of an athlete. It’s OK with me, I’m used to it. Appetite comes from eating,” he explained. “Collections, books and photos — that’s what I’m interested in most.”
More than a designer, Lagerfeld was a fashion mastermind, adroit at all aspects of image-making and communications — and especially staging events. Late in his career, he orchestrated some of the most astonishing fashion spectacles the industry has witnessed, from sending models in Fendi down the Great Wall of China at sunset in 2007 to creating an artificial beach in the Grand Palais in Paris for Chanel’s spring rtw show last October.
While Lagerfeld claimed not to be interested in business, he kept close tabs on Chanel’s fortunes, especially when sales were soaring, which was often.
And he was a business innovator, igniting the so-called “masstige” movement in 2004 by teaming with Swedish fast-fashion giant H&M for a one-off collection that sold out in a flash, perpetuating the annual designer tie-up at H&M and inspiring scores of other low-cost players to do the same. He also pushed luxury to new extremes, and helped popularize itinerant fashion shows by taking Chanel’s pre-fall and cruise lines as far afield as Shanghai, Los Angeles, Dubai and Edinburgh.
While he often tore a page from founder Gabrielle Chanel’s personal and professional history and connected destinations to his collections, that wasn’t essential. For example, in December 2017 he paraded his Metiers d’Art collection in Hamburg at the new Elbphilharmonie simply because he loved the strikingly modern Herzog & Demeuron building — while winking to the harbor setting and seafaring culture in the city of his birth.
“When people ask me what I do, ‘designer’ seems inadequate; I tell them I’m in the fashion business,” Lagerfeld said back in 1975. “But that is what happens with ready-to-wear. You become an enterprise.”
In 1999, he explained the fragility of the designer fashion business. “If the company depends on one creative person, then it is not a good risk,” he said. “Look at what happened to Anne Klein — Donna Karan left, and the company has never been the same again. It’s different if it’s an established company like Chanel or Vuitton or Cartier. They are not fashion companies, they are brands.”
He quickly detected fashion’s sudden fascination with celebrities — and trumped everyone by having Australian actress Nicole Kidman attend a Chanel show in 2004 to mark her starring role in a blockbuster Chanel No. 5 ad. When she popped up on to the runway to embrace Lagerfeld, pandemonium ensued.
Lagerfeld was among the first fashion designers to pick up a camera in the mid-Eighties, and to segue into moving pictures in the late Aughts by creating short films for Chanel fashion shows and its web site. “When I do a film, I see the movie before I’ve made it,” the designer said in Saint-Tropez in 2010, when he unveiled a 17-minute film starring Pascal Greggory and Elisa Sednaoui in tandem with Chanel’s cruise show. “I don’t make scripts because it’s written in my head. I like short one-liners.”
While he was mad for print magazines and long preferred a fax machine rather than e-mail, Lagerfeld also exhibited a ravenous appetite for the new, from his bundles of iPods and high-tech digital cameras to his penchant for rap, electronica and dance music. He even appeared as a character in the violent video game “Grand Theft Auto IV,” as a DJ at the game’s K109 The Studio radio station. In recent years, he shelved the fax machine, embraced text messaging and checked his iPhone constantly for photos of his beloved pet cat Choupette, dispatched continuously by the pampered feline’s caretakers.
Unlike Yves Saint Laurent, against whom Lagerfeld was pitted as a key rival throughout his career after they both won Woolmark fashion prizes in 1954, Lagerfeld’s trajectory was slower, steadier and longer-lasting, building to a crescendo in what, for anyone else, would have been his twilight years. By contrast, Saint Laurent, who died in 2008 at 71, became a superstar while in his 20s and often struggled with depression and addiction, retiring from fashion in 2002, years after he had peaked creatively and commercially.
In a 2015 interview, Lagerfeld recalled a spooky premonition from his youth. “It’s unbelievable, I don’t know how it happened — it’s so strange, this fame thing. But as my fortune-teller told me when I was young, she said: ‘For you, it will really start when it’s finished for the others.’ It’s quite true.”
Lagerfeld’s drive — and piece-of-cake approach to his work — could be seen as a rebuke to Saint Laurent’s reputation as a tortured artist.
“I’m not a serious person,” he said in 2000. “If you suffer in doing things, you shouldn’t let people know. People won’t buy your clothes because you suffered. Clothes are there to make people happy and to improve things, if they need it.”
Lagerfeld attributed his seemingly endless stamina partly to the fact that he did not smoke, drink and party like many other designers. “It’s the payback of a healthy life,” he told WWD.
The designer also surrounded himself with a revolving group of young people, and stayed up to the minute on culture high and low. “I’m open to everything. When you start to criticize the times you live in, your time is over,” he said in 2008. “The most important thing in fashion is lucidity, if you want to last.”
In May 2010, he was elevated to the level of Commander in the French Legion of Honor merit system, the medal pinned on him by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who later invited the couturier back to the Elysée Palace for a private celebratory dinner with his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.
Lagerfeld has also been honored by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, Fashion Group International, the Gordon Parks Foundation and the Fashion Institute of Technology, to name but a few.
In 2017, WWD handed Lagerfeld the John B. Fairchild Honor, named after WWD’s founder and granted for lifetime achievement. With his inimitable wit, he brushed off the recognition, and said he’s never at a creative loss. “This is something people like to talk about because it sounds very artistic. I’m sorry. I love what I’m doing,” he said. “You know, I don’t believe in achievement, not in the fashion world. The beat goes on.”
With his signature white ponytail and black sunglasses worn day and night, Lagerfeld was recognized around the world, particularly in his native Germany and in France, where he could hardly walk down the street without being mobbed by admirers. Even at a fashion party jammed with famous designers and celebrities, his arrival tended to upstage everyone else’s.
The one trademark accoutrement Lagerfeld relinquished was his fan, after shedding more than 90 pounds of excess weight in 2000, which he documented in a best-selling diet book called “The Karl Lagerfeld Diet” in 2002. The physical transformation was in order to wear the stick-to-the-ribs tailoring of Hedi Slimane, who ignited Dior Homme into the hottest men’s wear name and ushered in an era of skinny chic. Lagerfeld was said to be obsessed with him. “Hedi’s Slim Man: Karl,” read a headline in this newspaper, describing Lagerfeld’s penchant for his spare suits. In subsequent years, he was rumored to be Dior Homme’s single biggest client —and was hired as the photographer of the Dior Homme campaigns in the post-Hedi era under designer Kris Van Assche.
Slimane subsequently went on to design for YSL, shortening the house name to Saint Laurent, for a fruitful four-year stint. Lagerfeld shunned the label, given his prickly relations with the late founder’s business partner Pierre Bergé, but conscripted Slimane to make flashy jackets for him with his moniker sewn in.
In his later years, Lagerfeld often described himself as a “marionette,” a character of his own invention with perfectly powdered hair, impenetrably dark glasses and a high, stiff collar. In recent years, he wore stacks of heavy silver rings, or fingerless leather gloves, possibly to mask age spots or digits misshapen by age. His likeness inspired a Pixi lead figurine, a luxurious teddy bear by German-maker Steiff in 2008, a Tokidoki figure in 2009 and a Barbie Doll in 2014.
In his younger years, Lagerfeld experimented with many different images. He took up bodybuilding in his youth, sported a beard and monocle for a period in the Seventies and ballooned in weight in the Nineties, when he favored the enveloping black layers of Yohji Yamamoto, and used his fan to keep cool and hide a double chin.
Lagerfeld had a lifelong passion for paper and images, expressed in a vast collection of books, numbering in excess of 300,000 volumes, and his staggering correspondence: endless pages of handwritten bon mots faxed to friends and editors around the world.
In 1999, he opened a bookshop on the Rue de Lille in Paris called 7L, specialized in high-end and hard-to-find photo books. A year later, he launched a publishing company, Editions 7L, which put out books about fashion, photography and reedited rare and out-of-print books in a joint venture with the German art publisher Steidl. In 2012, he and Steidl published the complete writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, according to the original wishes of the 19th-century German, including his hand-corrected manuscripts.
Lagerfeld’s photo studio was tucked behind the bookstore, where he often snapped late into the night, ducking out for meetings and interviews. Occasionally his shoots spilled out onto nearby streets, as it did with Robert Pattinson for a Dior Homme campaign in 2016. “I love to take photos at night in the streets,” Lagerfeld said at the time. “That is my outdoor studio.”
Toward the end of the Aughts, he erected shelves from floor to ceiling at 7L to display part of his book collection, creating a colorful, textured and high-culture wall-covering emblematic of his passions.
Despite his stature and a crushing workload, Lagerfeld rarely delegated and was very much a hands-on designer. He personally proofread and corrected the French and English captions on the backs of photos inserted in the press kits he photographed for Chanel; addressed all his correspondence by hand, including the envelopes, and accessorized every outfit that hit the Chanel and Fendi runways. He always had a sketchbook nearby to dash out quick technical drawings for seamstresses, or painstaking illustrations he would color and tint by hand with Shu Uemura makeup. In whatever studio he was working — Chanel, Fendi or his own brand — his sketches pinned to the wall were a testament to his exacting vision, the seamstresses able to duplicate the silhouette and allure to his specifications.
Within the domains under his purview, Lagerfeld had a reputation for being all-knowing, opinionated and demanding, earning him the nickname the Kaiser — which he disliked.
“I am indifferent to my name: I am not indifferent to my work,” the designer told WWD, when asked about the fact that the Lagerfeld brand trailed Fendi and Chanel by a considerable margin. “I have no obsession with an identity, but I don’t have to worry about that, because I cannot even cross the street. What I like is a job, and pleasant conditions to do the job. Give me conditions that are unpleasant? The victim is not me.”
While it is in vogue for designers today to behave in a Garbo-like manner, letting their products do the talking, Lagerfeld was never afraid of media exposure, or even overexposure. Given his wit and ease in front of the camera, journalists swarmed around him at every public outing. He made countless appearances on French television, granted lengthy interviews to publications big and small, and lent his name and image to a staggering array of products and projects, from soda pop all the way up to grand pianos. In 2008, he appeared in ads for road safety in France, wearing a fluorescent vest with the tag line, “It’s yellow, it’s ugly, it doesn’t go with anything, but it might save your life.” And in 2010, he starred in a humorous television commercial for Volkswagen, fanning his fame among German youth.
For the royal wedding in 2011 of Prince William and Kate Middleton, Lagerfeld went live on France 2 television to offer incisive commentary, saying her classic Alexander McQueen gown went “very well in the Westminster decor. It almost reminds me of [Queen] Elizabeth’s wedding, the royal weddings in the Fifties.”
Lagerfeld was extremely loyal to his supporters, forever extending show invitations to editors from small German publications that had helped him early in his career. Yet he had his share of enemies, too, among them the late Azzedine Alaïa, and Bergé, who is said to have driven a wedge between Lagerfeld and Saint Laurent, who had once been close friends. There was also said to be serious friction between him and Chanel’s former global ceo Maureen Chiquet, and he froze her out of his inner circle.
But the designer was so nimble and clever that he could emerge from almost any crisis unscathed. In 1997, when Christian Dior poached jewelry designer Victoire de Castellane from Chanel, Lagerfeld sniffed to WWD, “All the people we don’t make an effort to keep seem to go to Dior. It’s our poubelle [trash can].”
That didn’t dent his star status at Fendi, of which LVMH acquired majority control in 2001, nor did it damage his close friendship with Dior and LVMH kingpin Bernard Arnault.
Lagerfeld did lure someone from the LVMH camp: Lady Amanda Harlech. Formerly the muse of John Galliano, she decamped to Chanel in 2006 and worked with Lagerfeld throughout his career.
Lagerfeld had a naughty streak, and he could be vicious. “You should never ask a mean question; you might get a mean answer,” he once teased.
Yet he was also capable of reconciliation. In 2010, he invited Inès de la Fressange to model in a Chanel fashion show. The two had been estranged since 1989, when de la Fressange — the face of Chanel in the Eighties — parted ways with the brand after a fracas over allowing her likeness to be used for Marianne, the symbol of the French republic.
Lagerfeld always claimed that he was “not a social person,” yet his intimates included the likes of Princess Caroline of Monaco, former French First Lady Bernadette Chirac and Kidman, and few were more skilled at negotiating a room full of VIPs than he.
Despite his stature as a fashion icon, Lagerfeld loathed pretentiousness, especially from other designers who claimed to be doing the work of artists. “We are all dressmakers, that’s all,” he said in a 2003 interview.
Lagerfeld liked to call himself “working class” and was critical of retrospectives and those who consider fashion an art for which they have to suffer.
“When I hear I’m called ‘an intellectual designer,’ I hate that,” he said back in 1978. “What is the worst is a fashion designer who talks all the time of his or her creativity, what they are, how they evolve. Just do it and shut up.”
Though he rarely drank alcohol, preferring the caffeine rush of espresso washed down with Coca-Cola Light, Lagerfeld always offered wine to his lunch guests and encouraged people to light up at his home or in the Chanel studio, frequently lamenting that a smoking ban, cell phones and political correctness had practically killed the art of conversation, which he cherished.
The designer had a wicked, even ribald, sense of humor, and his laughter was loud and infectious — especially when he slammed his fingers, laden with metal rings, on a table.
Paid handsomely by Chanel and his other clients, Lagerfeld lived lavishly and played house on a grand scale: A villa in Biarritz, apartments in Rome, Berlin, New York and Monaco, one in the last city famously decorated entirely in Memphis furniture. He was an early Memphis enthusiast and at the forefront of the Art Deco, Biedermeier and Vienna Secession revivals, among others.
Yet he never remained attached to possessions for long. “I find the joy of collecting, the fun of hunting for objects, the exciting thing,” he said in 1975. “But once I [win] it, I lose interest. I don’t want to be a curator living in a museum.”
He jettisoned his collection of 18th-century French furniture and artworks at Christie’s in 2000, netting $28.5 million, to pursue a more contemporary decor — forests of white orchids and sleek Christian Liaigre sofas — at his longtime residence on the Rue de l’Universite. And when that lavish town house went up for sale, Lagerfeld packed up and in 2006 moved to an expansive, loft-like apartment on Quai Voltaire he likened to a high-tech incubator, furnished with objects from the 21st century by industrial designers such as Martin Szkely, Marc Newson and the Bouroullec brothers.
He downsized his portfolio of residences in recent years, saying he preferred to stay in hotels when traveling, such as the Mercer in New York.
But Lagerfeld’s accomplishments — and unmatched productivity — in fashion will be his primary legacy.
Born in Hamburg in 1933, or 1938 depending on the sources, Lagerfeld was always cagey about his precise age. “You will have to wait for my memoirs to be published before you find out,” he once teased.
The designer was the only child of Elizabeth and Christian Lagerfeld, an executive at a condensed milk company. (Lagerfeld also has an older half sister via his father.) Ambitious from the get-go, and smitten with the world of fashion, Lagerfeld taught himself early to speak French, and put on airs.
“When I was four, I asked my mother for a valet for my birthday,” he recalled in a 1978 interview with WWD. “I wanted my clothes prepared so I could wear anything I wanted at any time of the day. I was a clothes freak. And I was mad for dressing differently at least four times a day. At 10, I was always in hats, high collars and neckties. I never played with other children. I read books and did drawings night and day.”
Lagerfeld moved to Paris in 1952 and attended the Lycée Montaigne and later, a drawing school. After he won the Wool Bureau prize, he apprenticed at Pierre Balmain, where he remained until 1958, when he became the chief designer at Jean Patou. In the early Sixties, bored by working for just one label, he launched a freelance career, with Fendi and Chloé among his most important early clients. Others included Mario Valentino, Max Mara, Tiziano, Repetto and Monoprix. He left Chloé when he joined Chanel, but returned for a five-year stint that wound up in 1997, when he was replaced by the then-unknown Stella McCartney.
His role at Fendi expanded from furs to rtw, and this put him in the rare position of staging multiple fashion shows in multiple capitals. In 2006, he showed his signature label in New York, Fendi in Milan and Chanel in Paris.
When Chanel hired Lagerfeld in 1982, initially for couture only, it was more than a decade since the death of the founder, and the label had grown dusty. “When I started at Chanel, what people said to me was, ‘Don’t do it. It will not work; it’s an old name, it’s done,’” he recalled in a 2003 interview. “Nobody believed in it except me and [Chanel owner] Mr. [Alain] Wertheimer.”
Lagerfeld’s arrival at Chanel was hardly a roaring success, and his first couture collection garnered mixed, and even harsh, reviews. WWD’s review, titled “Lagerfeld Sputters,” was blunt: “No one can replace Coco Chanel — not even Kaiser Karl — nor should anyone — not even KK — make the attempt.”
But he would go on to reinvent Chanel and make it one of the most revered — and successful — fashion names worldwide. The privately held company released numbers for the first time last year, revealing that its business, including fashion and beauty, generated revenues of $9.6 billion euros in 2017.
Including couture, Lagerfeld designed 10 collections a year for Chanel, arguing that he needed to surprise and delight its regular customers with a constant supply of new merch. “That doesn’t bother me at all because fashion is a nonstop dialogue,” he said in his rapid-fire manner in 2003. “Very often, I do my study for the next show the day after the show. I think that’s a very healthy attitude — perhaps just for me, I don’t know.”
Lagerfeld boasted that his contract with Chanel was one page long, emblematic of his close ties to the owners. Lagerfeld claimed to never schedule meetings with the Wertheimers, or even talk that much about business, although the brothers Alain and Gerard were often at his elbow in his studio at the Rue Cambon, or chatting with him backstage before a fashion show.
He also forged close ties with Paris-based managers Francoise Montenay, who retired from an operational role in 2007, and Bruno Pavlovsky, president of Chanel fashion. Lagerfeld said four people ran Chanel’s giant fashion franchise: himself, Pavlovsky, Viard and image director Eric Pfrunder.
“We don’t talk to marketing people,” he said in 2009. “We do what our inner voices tell us. We’re kind of the Joan-of-Arcs of the fashion business.”
To be sure, Lagerfeld relished that Chanel was a private company. “At a public company, are you going to call the shareholders? Who are the shareholders? For me, shareholders are a little too abstract,” Lagerfeld said in 1999. “Fashion is not abstract.”
Lagerfeld’s strong suit was his ability to continually reinterpret the Chanel style, while keeping the brand’s image at the highest level. “Chanel is a style and a standard,” he would say. Lagerfeld was able to bend the look to the style of Goths, surfers, hippies, robots — you name it — and to continue to attract young women to a label that once had a bourgeois, slightly older, image.
After the current millennium began, Lagerfeld became famous for his extravagant set designs at Chanel, especially at the Grand Palais venue with its 11-story glass cupola, leaving him room to build a gigantic Chanel jacket, merry-go-round, barn, a Richard Serra-esque metal bow or — for his winter 2010 couture — a 40-foot-tall golden lion, its paw perched on a pearl from which models emerged. Occasionally, he added live music, from a full symphony orchestra to pop stars du jour, like Cat Power, Florence Welch or Lily Allen.
The designer said many of his ideas for sets and collections came to him in his sleep.
In recent years, rumors would regularly surface that Lagerfeld would soon be replaced at Chanel, with the names Alber Elbaz and Slimane coming up repeatedly. Chanel deflected the rumors, saying it wasn’t of the order of the day — and then Lagerfeld would keep churning out hit collections.
Fortifying Chanel’s couture heritage, Lagerfeld innovated in 2002 by designing a luxury pre-fall rtw collection embellished by the specialty ateliers Chanel owns: the embroidery house Lesage, shoemaker Massaro, hatmaker A. Michel, feather and flower house Lemarie, button-maker Desrues and gold- and silversmith Robert Gossens. Lagerfeld had been instrumental in Chanel’s purchase of these ateliers, which had been separate businesses, when he realized that they might close and disappear. Always shown in December, his Métiers d’Art collection became a mobile spectacle and a chance for Chanel to show off its savoir-faire in various cities.
Lagerfeld possessed a near-encyclopedic memory about fashion, and regularly quoted Chanel founder Coco Chanel, and even impersonated her in clever and cheeky imaginary Q&As in magazines like Harper’s Bazaar.
Lagerfeld’s reach at Chanel was broad: He photographed rtw, accessories, fine jewelry and eyewear campaigns for Chanel, casting celebrities for the latter spots such as Kristen Stewart, Jerry Hall, Lily Allen, Vanessa Paradis and Lily-Rose Depp, daughter of Paradis and actor Johnny Depp. Although Lageferfeld had no purview over beauty — and had a prickly relationship with the late Jacques Helleu, creative director over that domain — Lagerfeld designed a dress for Kidman’s Chanel No. 5 commercial, directed by Baz Luhrmann, and once used giant Chanel No. 5 bottles as the backdrop to a fashion show.
As for the fashions, while tweed suits, frothy blouses and little black dresses were mainstays of almost every Chanel collection, Lagerfeld took pains to inject newness, particularly during couture, where he recently unveiled collections without any black and not a single gold button. He did flowing A-line dresses, and no suits, for spring 1998 couture; tweed jackets over leggings and catsuits for fall 1993 rtw, and taffeta ballgowns with motorcycle boots in 1994. For rtw in 2001, he had surfboards, kites and scubawear. Yet he insisted it was all in harmony with the legacy of Gabrielle Chanel herself.
“Chanel is not a fantasy,” he said in 2003. “Chanel was about modernity and daily life. She started with sportswear. Of course it was the sportswear of her youth, but times have changed. If Chanel makes sportswear today, it has to be in the mood, the materials and for the sports people today. Fashion is for what people do now and not what they did in the past. I never use flea market Chanels.”
Still, the enduring, unmistakable codes of Chanel — quilting, camellias, chains, braiding — gave Lagerfeld a rich vocabulary of codes to play with.
Detractors called Lagerfeld “color blind” for his unending fascination with black and white, and a number of collections — for Chanel, Fendi and his signature line — missed the mark. Indeed, it was the rare season where all three labels he touched garnered good reviews.
Yet given Lagerfeld’s long career, and astonishing output, missteps never marred his towering reputation in the industry, and the admiration heaped on him from other designers over the years, from young talents like Jeremy Scott, Olivier Theyskens and Slimane to industry giants like Valentino Garavani and Ralph Lauren. In accepting his Legion of Honor award from President Sarkozy in 2010, Lauren looked at Lagerfeld and thanked him. “Karl, I’ve done many of your things in different ways,” he joked.
Lagerfeld always made it clear Chanel was his primary job, and it eclipsed the other brands he designed by a large margin.
Fendi, though, grew to become a significant business when it passed from family ownership to those of Europe’s luxury groups. It was briefly, and tumultuously, jointly owned by Prada Group and LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, which swept in and bought a majority stake from the founding family in 1999. LVMH ultimately bought out Prada, and set out to bolster Fendi’s positioning by solidifying management, and building a palazzo in Rome that echoed Chanel’s Rue Cambon flagship, with a large and modern rtw and fur studio for Lagerfeld.
Lagerfeld’s main contribution at Fendi was in revolutionizing fur design from the get-go: taking a bold, anything-goes approach to an industry traditionally tied to using full pelts and creating heavy status coats. Lagerfeld treated fur as just another fabric to create rtw: shredding it, knitting it, cross-breeding it with other fabrics, and rendering it light, less precious and easy to wear. Among his innovations: fur fused with clear plastic, and embedded with 24-karat gold.
The designer, who showed Fendi on the runways of Milan and always took his bow with accessories designer Silvia Fendi, had his creative ups and downs at the Roman firm, creating collections based on a variety of periods and moods, from “Mad Max” tribal to “Mad Men” prim. Still, there were blockbuster Fendi moments, typically for the fall season, when he often went wild with colorful, intarsia furs.
In 2015, he once again added to his staggering workload by staging his first “haute fourrure” show for Fendi, making him the only couturier to design two collections during the high fashion week. That first show coincided with his 50th anniversary at the house. In 2016, he marked Fendi’s 90th anniversary by staging a show over the restored Trevi Fountain, thanks to Fendi’s philanthropic largesse. The city of Rome showed its appreciation by sanctioning the show that involved some serious street closures and the installation of a Plexiglass runway over the shallow, coin-speckled pool, allowing Lagerfeld’s romantic princesses to appear as if they were gliding over the water.
Despite his successes at Chanel and Fendi, Lagerfeld had, until recently, often struggled to build or sustain a sizeable fashion business under his own name. In 1978, Lagerfeld became the first designer to create a signature scent without having his own designer label: the woody oriental Lagerfeld men’s scent. The designer had strained relations with his longtime fragrance partner, Unilever Cosmetics International, which was acquired by Coty Inc. in 2005. His first collaboration with Coty came in 2008 with Kapsule, a trio of scents for men and women that could be mixed and matched, like clothing. Lagerfeld launched his signature fashion house in 1984, having signed a contract with Bidermann Industries USA the year prior.
He parted ways with the American firm five years later and launched the KL by Karl Lagerfeld line with Germany’s Steilmann, as well as a higher-priced European line with Italy’s Corneliani.
Dunhill plc, part of the giant Vendôme luxury goods group, acquired the Karl Lagerfeld business in 1992 as part of the agreement for Lagerfeld to resume designing for Chloé. The acquisition price was estimated at south of $30 million.
His track record at Chloé was not always stellar, prompting then-ceo Mounir Moufarrige in 1997 to tap McCartney, then 25, to succeed Lagerfeld, saying he needed someone devoted to the brand full time. “I think they should have taken a big name. They did — but in music, not fashion,” Lagerfeld sniped at the time. “Let’s hope she is as gifted as her father. I think Paul McCartney is one of the geniuses of the music world of the last 40 years. I wish her luck.”
The designer completed his divorce from Vendôme by buying back the company, his name and licensing rights for a symbolic franc. “There were too many things done without my control,” he told WWD at the time, blaming a rocky relationship with his collection licensee Selene SpA. “Now, it’s exciting, since I don’t have to do this for money, I can do this for fun.”
The fun started in 1998, when he introduced his Lagerfeld Gallery line and concept, complete with a Left Bank boutique selling clothes along with art, photos and other objects. A Monte Carlo location followed in 2001. The designer took a freewheeling approach to his brand, setting a variety of collaborations: with Diesel for jeans in 2002; with Alpine specialist Napapijri for parkas and ski pants in 2004, and with pearl specialist Robert Wan for fine jewelry the same year. In 2011, he teamed up with Swedish crystal maker and lighter and pen specialist S.T. Dupont.
Asked how he chose his extra-curricular activities, Lagerfeld said in 2011: “What I can relate to and what I haven’t done before. I like to do things quickly, because I’m easily bored. I can make a list of what I’ve done, but I cannot make a list of what I’ve yet to do.”
In 2004, he surprised legions when he announced plans to design a one-off collection for H&M for holiday delivery. Lagerfeld called the Swedish chain “a fashion phenomenon,” adding, “I like to be part of those things. It’s part of my job. It’s the modern thing to do. Also, I like the idea of my name being used on a broad scale. My name is a kind of household name. I am supposed to be on jeans and T-shirts.” Lagerfeld brought his colossal energy and design prowess to the task, starring in a funny television commercial and proposing to H&M to also add a fragrance.
While Lagerfeld’s signature business never reached critical mass, its global cachet compelled the Tommy Hilfiger Co. to buy it for around $30 million. “I can make an Empire dress, but I can’t make an empire,” Lagerfeld joked to WWD in a joint interview with Hilfiger. “I’m not a businessman.”
And how did he describe his signature brand? “Lagerfeld Gallery, it’s a reflection of my good — or bad — personal taste,” he once explained. “If I were a woman, which I never wanted to be, I’m afraid I would dress that way.”
In 2006, a new organization under the Tommy umbrella devised a new, less expensive contemporary women’s and men’s lifestyle collection, called Karl Lagerfeld and priced 50 percent below Lagerfeld Gallery, his designer collection. It was discontinued after its fall debut following a runway blowout during New York Fashion Week, and the Lagerfeld Gallery boutiques were also shuttered.
Also in 2006, the private equity firm Apax Partners acquired Hilfiger for $1.6 billion, and it became a private company. But the Lagerfeld company was not part of the package in March 2010 when Phillips-Van Heusen acquired Hilfiger’s company for $3 billion in 2010. It was retained by Apax Partners, and subsequently attracted investment from G-III Apparel Group Ltd., his joint-venture partner in North America; PVH Corp.; Fred Gehring, vice chairman of PVH; and the family of Silas Chou.
In 2010, Lagerfeld stopped showing his signature collection on the Paris runway and announced plans to permanently reposition his brand in the masstige zone, with an emphasis on online sales. Leveraging his likeness and his pet Choupette as brand mascots, the Karl brand found traction in the burgeoning affordable luxury segment, particularly with handbags and small leather goods. The brand now operates a network of stores concentrated in Europe and China, and sells online to almost 100 countries. It expanded into men’s wear, kids’ wear and watches.
As much as he was exposed in the media, Lagerfeld remained intensely private about his personal life and, to the outside world at least, he was a lifelong bachelor. He did, though, have a love affair in the Seventies with dashing man-about-town Jacques de Bascher, who was also linked romantically to Saint Laurent. He later bought an Art Deco house in Hamburg and called it Villa Jako after de Bascher’s nickname; his 1997 fragrance, Jako, was also a tribute to the late de Bascher, who died in 1989.
In recent years, Lagerfeld surrounded himself with male models, peppering his women’s campaigns with their brooding faces and sculpted torsos, and dressing them in Dior Homme, Tom Ford and the men’s Chanel looks with which he dabbled. Brad Koenig, Jake Davies and Baptiste Giabiconi — along with his longtime bodyguard and personal assistant Sébastien Jondeau — were among those in Lagerfeld’s entourage.
Jondeau, whose first assignment for the designer was moving some furniture when he was a teenager, would propel him from the rough-and-tumble Paris suburbs to the front lines of international fashion. Following several outings on the Chanel runway, in 2014, Jondeau became the face of Lagerfeld men’s wear.
“The good thing with him is you have to have a style, you know? Not to look like everyone,” Jondeau told WWD at the time. “He’s very demanding, but cool at the same time.”
Asked what it’s like to shoot campaigns with Jondeau, the designer’s affection was plain: “It’s like you’re photographing your son.”
Launch Gallery: Karl Lagerfeld: Life of an Icon in Pictures