The life and times of Lagerfeld: our fashion editor remembers his legacy
Karl Lagerfeld was more than a designer. He was a multi-talented mastermind, a showman with endless imagination, whose shoot-from-the-hip quips frequently landed him in trouble. After decades in business, his contribution to fashion, photography and visual culture secures his legacy, writes our Fashion Editor
Tributes have been pouring in for Karl Lagerfeld who died last week at the age of 85. Characteristically, the industrious Karl Otto Lagerfeld, born in Hamburg in 1933, was working right up to the very end, honing Fendi's Fall ready-to-wear collection which was shown at Milan Fashion Week two days after his death.
"I hate the idea of being heavily remembered," he had told fashion legend Suzy Menkes, when she interviewed him. However, being a clever, high-achieving man, Karl would surely have known that tributes after his death would ensure his legacy and cover his myriad talents from cultured intellect and irrepressible wit, to photographer, publisher, polyglot and deviser of the most elaborate sets for Paris Fashion Week.
"What he did at Chanel is beyond words. He made it more Chanel than even Coco could have done. What a life, what a legacy," said fellow designer Marc Jacobs, who believes Karl's passing has "left a giant, unfillable hole in the disappearing world we call fashion".
Michael Kors remembered Karl and "the brain that never stopped clicking" and Giorgio Armani acknowledged "until the very last minute he lived immersed in his biggest pleasure: letting his imagination fly, dedicating himself to his work".
And to think it all started with a yellow belted, boat-neck coat, cut low across the collarbone, that a 21-year-old Karl designed and went on to win the coat category of the International Wool Secretariat Award in 1954. One of the judges, Pierre Balmain, offered him an assistant job. An 18-year-old Yves Saint Laurent won the dress category. The two designers would go on to become rivals in Paris where they would shape and re-define the world of haute couture and ready-to-wear over the next few decades.
This week Karl was hailed in international tributes for being one of the most prolific designers in the business, designing around 10 collections a year for Chanel where he was creative director for more than 30 years. Karl once told The New Yorker how when he was offered the job at Chanel, "Everybody said, 'Don't touch it, it's dead, it will never come back.'" But he warmed to the challenge. He had worked under designers Pierre Balmain, Jean Patou, and Chloé's Gaby Aghion before starting to work with Fendi from 1967. And at Chanel he was given carte blanche in the early '80s to reinvent the brand. After showing his first collection for the fashion house in 1983, Karl declared it was "only Parisian doctors' wives who still wore it. Nobody wanted it, it was hopeless."
In the decades that followed, he turned around the fortunes of the house founded by Coco Chanel. Since his death, it has been announced that Virginie Viard, fashion studio director and Lagerfeld's right-hand woman is to get the job at Rue Cambon while Silvia Venturini Fendi, granddaughter of the founder of Fendi, is tipped to take over there.
In an industry filled with lots of air-kissing and super-charged rivalry between couture houses, Karl was always his straight-talking self - which frequently got him into trouble, such as the time he made sizeist comments about Adele. He couldn't stop talking about his famous fluffy white cat, Choupette, who is a recipient in his will. He was a generous employer too, and in the run-up to his runway shows, when the pressure was on, he would bring food and music for the staff and get stuck in.
When the French president, Emmanuel Macron, was paying tribute to Karl on behalf of himself and his wife, Brigitte, he made sure to offer sincere condolences to those close to him and to all those who worked with him and in particular, to the 'petites mains' of his couture houses that meant so much to him. He preferred writing letters by hand and then faxing them to people rather than use emails but despite his advancing years, he certainly wasn't behind the times on modern technology or the impact of social media.
Karl kept it modern and relevant and used a slew of supermodels in the '90s like Cindy Crawford, Claudia Schiffer and Naomi Campbell. In recent years, he used popular models who are mega on social media. There were the Hadid sisters, Gigi and Bella, as well as Kaia Gerber (Cindy Crawford's daughter) walking at the Fendi show in Milan last Thursday where models wore collared shirts with low ponytails, just like the designer himself - a fitting ode after 54 years of work together.
Karl recognised the merit of working with the influencer Olivia Palermo who has a fashion collaboration planned for the Karl Lagerfeld label in June. An astute businessman, Karl has a legacy, too, for breaking the mould. He was the first high-end designer to do a collaboration with the Swedish giant H&M back in 2004. That collection of his eminently collectible white shirts caught many high street shoppers on the hop. I vividly remember being on London's Oxford Street when a teenage cockney beside me enquired about the poster, "Who's the geezer with the ponytail?" Savvy Karl knew the wisdom of being very democratic in his fashion reach. He was, by his own admission, "a gun for hire" and while Chanel and Fendi, where he worked as creative director until his death, did the numbers for him, he also introduced his own namesake label to attract a mid-market shopper with whimsical versions of his own look, from depictions of his famous ponytail to giant logos of his Christian name.
Nowadays, young girls and women the world over are vividly aware of his Chanel credentials and his luxurious iconic quilted handbags (pictured below left) - which he finely tuned with a modern touch of tinsel tweed - are the source of endless homages. The issue of counterfeit products, especially the handbags, keep legal eagles in the designer house busy, proof yet again of how influential the 'Karl at Chanel' years have been and how engrained he is in people's affections after years at Coco's HQ on Rue Cambon.
When it came to his own appearance, Karl was famous for his signature ponytail, powdered white hair, black glasses, uniform of black jeans and high water collar shirts. For years he favoured using a fan, which some people made out was there to hide a double chin. Fashion was the motivation for him losing weight in order to wear super slimline jackets from Hedi Slimane at Saint Laurent. He took that experience and wrote a book about his diet.
Designer Tom Ford, who got to know Karl in Paris during his time at Gucci and at Yves Saint Laurent, recalled how "He always said out the thing that you might be thinking but were afraid to say and he would say it in such a sharp and clever way that it left you in a kind of shocked state of hysterics", WWD reported in a special Milan Fashion Week edition chronicling Karl's passing.
In tributes this week, many made reference to his "lensing" and one of the fashion people he photographed was Irish couturier Peter O'Brien. The Dubliner tells me how their "paths crossed in Paris and we would meet at fashion dinners and the Paris fashion season. Karl took my photograph twice for French Vogue when he was guest editor and we all had to troop up to his studio. Karl had a wicked sense of humour; he was very funny which is what I liked about him. He was taking my picture and I always had white-ish hair and he said: 'Too white, too white, maquillage darling.' Then someone ran away and got some foundation and I said: 'Jesus Karl, I will look like Dirk Bogarde in Death in Venice' and he laughed. Karl would laugh at you like a kind of machine gun," Peter recalls.
Laughter aside, Peter says: "Karl was really smart and for him, the biggest crime in the world was to be boring, which he never was. He loved changing. Take his homes for example. He had an 18th-century one and then he had his huge Art Deco apartment. He also lived in the Hôtel Particulier on rue de l'Université and after that, he had an ultra-modern home on Quai Voltaire.
"Karl was smart enough to realise that Chanel had two or three constants like the camelias, tweed and quilting. He took them and was utterly irreverent about it and made them work. More than any other designer house, it was instantly recognisable as Chanel."
Shelly Corkery, Fashion Director of Brown Thomas which has Ireland's only Chanel Boutique selling clothing, shoes, jewellery and the all-important new handbags every season, has attended all the Chanel runway shows in Paris for the last 10 years.
"Karl Lagerfeld was a legend in fashion and I think he changed the face of fashion. The Chanel show with Karl was always the one show in Paris that everyone wanted to be at. His collections were always relevant. He captured an audience of every age across the spectrum and I think that's really important for Chanel," says Shelly, whose favourite Chanel runway show extravaganza was the Carousel (pictured top left) for Spring/Summer 2012.
Karl's last collection show for Chanel takes place in Paris in three days' time. Expect tears to flow and watch out for Choupette on the frow.