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Remembering Karl Lagerfeld

The fashion industry's most prolific designer died Tuesday February 19, in Paris. He was 85.
Reading time 6 minutes

Karl Lagerfeld, the man who defined the modern age of fashion, passed away today in Paris. He was 85 years old. While he juggled myriad jobs up until his death, he was best known for reinvigorating the house of Chanel in the 1980s. After its founder, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, passed away in 1971, the maison became a sleepy shadow of its former self, reserved for, as Lagerfeld put it, “Parisian doctors’ wives.” But after being appointed as its creative director in 1983, Lagerfeld remixed the brand’s codes—tweed suits, little black dresses, quilted bags—for a new generation, and steered Chanel into creative and financial prosperity throughout his 36 years at its helm—an unfathomable tenure in today’s climate of designer musical chairs.

“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,” said Alain Wertheimer, Chanel’s CEO. “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 1980s to reinvent the brand.”

In a statement, Chanel announced that Virginie Viard, Lagerfeld’s collaborator for more than 30 years and the director of Chanel’s Fashion Creation Studio, will now be in charge of the house’s collections. In recent years, there has been much speculation as to who would replace Lagerfeld—the names of Marc Jacobs, Hedi Slimane, and Phoebe Philo have all been whispered by editors and insiders at one point or another. As of now, it is unclear whether Viard will serve as the brand’s permanent creative director, or if the baton will be passed to another big name. Regardless, “replacing” Lagerfeld is an impossible feat—his presence and legacy will forever loom large.  

Lagerfeld’s career was extraordinary, beginning when he, alongside his friend-turned-rival Yves Saint Laurent, won the International Woolmark Prize in 1954. The German-born designer went on to assist couturier Pierre Balmain, lead the house of Jean Patou, and later, in 1964, head up Chloé, which is largely regarded to have been the first ready-to-wear brand. There, he proffered a vision of sheer femininity and, in 1983, designed that oft-referenced black-and-gold violin dress which, with its side cut-outs and midi-length, would look right at home on a runway today.  

Lagerfeld will always be synonymous with Chanel, but his longest creative partnership was with Fendi, the Italian fur house where he began working in the 1960s. It was Lagerfeld who came up with that double “F” logo you’ve no doubt seen in innumerable street style photos, and the brand’s 2007 show on the Great Wall of China was also his doing. Working with Silvia Fendi, Lagerfeld served as the creative director of fur and ready-to-wear until his death.

That body of work alone seems daunting, but Lagerfeld accomplished so much more throughout his more than six decades in fashion’s upper echelons. In 1984, he launched his namesake line; never a fan of sartorial snobbery, he pioneered the high-low collaboration—now a fashion mainstay—when he teamed up with H&M in 2004; he was a celebrated photographer, shooting Chanel’s campaigns, among others, and editorials for magazines including V and Harpers Bazaar; he designed interiors; launched a makeup collection with his now-famous cat, Choupette; published a diet book after losing more than 90 pounds in 2000 so that he could fit into the hyper-slim tailoring Hedi Slimane was proposing as the creative director of Dior Hommes; the list goes on.

It makes sense, then, that in 1975, Lagerfeld said, “When people ask me what I do, ‘designer’ seems inadequate; I tell them I’m in the fashion business. But that is what happens with ready-to-wear. You become an enterprise.”

Indeed, Lagerfeld—a polyglot, voracious reader, and culture connoisseur—was more than a designer. He was his own brand and a pop-culture icon, thanks to his distinctive aesthetic (powdered white ponytail, black skinny jeans, a black blazer, starched white shirt with an impossibly high collar, fingerless gloves, and sunglasses that were glued to his face day and night) and infamous quips. Often amusing (“sweatpants are a sign of defeat”) and sometimes cruel (when discussing the appearance of celebrities or design rivals like Azzedine Alaïa), Lagerfeld’s quotes contributed to his larger-than-life persona. “I am like a caricature of myself, and I like that,” he’s quoted as saying. He also conceded, “If I’ve become more visible than some of my colleagues maybe it’s because I have a big mouth. My celebrity has almost nothing to do with my profession.”

That’s not strictly true. Lagerfeld made Chanel a household name with his pioneering embrace of celebrities and tongue-in-cheek takes on luxury. Never mind his big-budget fashion shows, watched online by millions in recent years. He set the precedent for the destination show, staging pre-season runway spectacles in Salzburg, Havana, Edinburgh, and Dubai. And during the Paris ready-to-wear shows, he’d constantly shock and delight the jaded fashion set, transforming the Grand Palais into an artic wonderland, complete with a real iceberg; a deciduous forest; a sandy beach with lapping waves; and even a launch pad, from which a Chanel rocket blasted off during the finale.

But for all his showmanship, Lagerfeld was no show pony—he was the consummate workhorse. He thought the concept of designer as artist was absurd—ditto for designer burnout—and began sketching his next collection as soon as the previous one stepped off the runway.

One could wax poetic for pages about all of Lagerfeld’s triumphs, but he would hate that. He despised nostalgia more than flip-flops (to which he insisted he was “physically allergic”), refused to keep an archive, and never discussed his accomplishments. Perhaps that’s why he was such a grand success—he was always looking toward the future. “I am supposed to do. I’m not supposed to remember,” he once said. Maybe so. But Lagerfeld will never be forgotten.

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