Obituary: Karl Lagerfeld
A giant among fashion designers, who transformed the fortunes of Chanel in a career that spanned seven decades
Karl Lagerfeld, who has died aged 85, was a spectacularly successful fashion designer. He transformed the once-moribund house of Chanel into the world's most successful fashion label and constantly reinvented himself, rendering himself relevant to style aficionados decade after decade until his death.
Presciently sensing fashion's radical change of mood in the early 1960s, Lagerfeld, who moved from his native Germany to Paris as a precocious teenager, turned his back on haute couture and embraced ready-to-wear.
He helped pioneer the idea, little heard of then, of the freelance designer, simultaneously working for several fashion houses.
He flitted effortlessly between very different labels - the high-end ready-to-wear house of Chloe, say, or the Italian fur company Fendi - subjugating any desire to cultivate a signature style to satisfying the needs of each client.
Indeed, he made a virtue of anonymity, once stating: "I have no personality or I have three, depending on how you look at it. I love that there's no overlap".
He met and was a fan of the similarly deadpan Andy Warhol, starring in the artist's 1973 film L'Amour. "Karl learnt a lot from Andy," remarked Lagerfeld's close friend, the interior designer Andree Putman, and certainly the designer's flair for self-mythologising and his manipulation of his image were Warholian, including his inscrutable shades and sleekly coiffed, snow-white ponytail.
Unlike his biggest rival Yves Saint Laurent, Lagerfeld gave short shrift to the romantic notion of inspiration, attributing his success to discipline and professionalism.
A workhorse who also designed for Mario Valentino, the ballet shoe company Repetto and the supermarket chain Monoprix, he continually asserted, in his staccato, guttural voice, that he was a doer, not a thinker: "I sketch everything in my head first. When I do fashion collections, I don't fuss about. I make decisions. Then I do them."
At the same time, though, Lagerfeld liked to trumpet his passion for culture, having been smitten aged seven by a painting by the 19th century artist, Adolph Menzel, depicting Frederick the Great with Voltaire. He saw himself as an autodidact: as a child, he eschewed school but devoured books by Tolstoy and Thomas Mann. He claimed that, aged six, he spoke fluent German, English and French.
His cultural interests fed into his designs. His early 1970s work for Chloe was influenced by the 1920s and Art Deco revivals. And, inspired by an 18th century chateau in Brittany which he bought in 1975, as well as by the liking of his friend, the journalist Anna Piaggi, for antique clothing, he turned his attention to French 18th century fashions, subsequently creating several exquisitely romantic, shepherdess-inspired collections.
But he never grew too attached to any one style and went through phases of obsessively mining a particular era for inspiration (including collecting antiques from that period), then moving on to a radically different one.
Lagerfeld was one of fashion's great survivors. His chameleon-like ability to reinvent himself and the ease with which he diversified (he also owned 7L, an imprint of the publishing house Steidl, for example) guaranteed his enduring appeal and credibility - as did his engagement with popular and youth culture and the latest technology.
In 2004, he created a collection for the high-street store H&M. He designed stage costumes for Madonna and Kylie Minogue, and as a photographer and film-maker shot fashion stories for Vogue and ad campaigns for Chanel. He also snapped Mariah Carey and Lady Gaga - the latter on his gold iPhone. He regularly sketched on an iPad.
Karl-Otto Lagerfeld was born in Hamburg on September 10, 1933, though in later life he sometimes misrepresented his birth year, claiming to be younger than he really was. His father, Otto, was managing director of a condensed-milk company, his mother, Elisabeth, a lingerie saleswoman-turned-housewife, though Lagerfeld referred to her as a gifted violinist and a liberated pilot of light aircraft.
As Hitler rose to power, the family moved to the comparative safety of the countryside. Lagerfeld was given to embroidering his past with tales of sumptuous family luncheons and battalions of servants, while glossing over the grim reality: after the war, the British Army requisitioned the Lagerfelds' house, forcing them to live for a year in a cowshed.
As a schoolboy, Lagerfeld was besotted with fashion, cutting out pictures of beautifully dressed women from magazines and dressing immaculately himself. He could not get out of Germany quickly enough, arriving in Paris in his teens to study couture.
In 1954 he and Yves Saint Laurent were joint winners of the International Wool Secretariat fashion design competition, Lagerfeld in the coat category. In a photograph of the prize-winners, Yves Saint Laurent looks skinny and effete, Lagerfeld big-boned and swarthy. Although they later fell out, in the late 1950s and 1960s they were close friends cutting a dash driving round Paris in Lagerfeld's cream open-top Mercedes (a gift from his father).
Meanwhile, in 1955, Lagerfeld had been hired as Pierre Balmain's assistant, moving after three years to Jean Patou, where he designed two haute couture collections per year for five years, but earned generally negative reviews.
In 1963, however, he began designing for Tiziani, a newly established Roman couture house, which moved into ready-to-wear, winning customers including Elizabeth Taylor, Gina Lollobrigida and Princess Marcella Borghese.
By the mid-1960s Lagerfeld was working prolifically for a whole raft of ready-to-wear labels, his natural exhibitionism helping to keep him in the public eye.
In the early 1970s he turned up in swimsuits and heels at Paris's Piscine Deligny, and in floor-length furs, Art Deco jewellery and a monocle at Cafe de Flore or the Le Sept nightclub. In August, amid the topless hordes on the beach at St Tropez, he sipped cocktails in Jay Gatsby-retro Oxford bags, long-sleeved shirts and silk bow ties.
He also bankrolled some of the era's most notorious parties, including the S&M-themed "Moratoire Noir(e)" bash organised by his partner Jacques de Bascher and his friend Xavier de Castella.
But he was more voyeur than participant, avoiding alcohol and drugs and maintaining a rigorous work ethic. "I am a Calvinist toward myself, and totally indulgent toward others," Lagerfeld explained.
In 1975, Lagerfeld signed a lucrative deal to create the first Chloe fragrance, but he parted company with the label following his appointment, in 1983, as couturier and designer at Chanel.
The appointment of a German designer at the august French couture house was controversial, yet the collaboration, which saw him update its bourgeois image with witty reinterpretations of Chanel classics, was phenomenally successful. By the time of his death after a record-breaking 36 years at the house, he was Chanel's artistic director.
Although shrugging off any claims to a personal style, he had been an early pioneer in the 1970s of "deconstruction", leaving hems unfinished on garments for Chloe, an approach extensively explored in the 1980s by designers such as Rei Kawakubo and Ann Demeulemeester. His irreverent reworkings of Chanel fashions included tweed hot pants and underpants emblazoned with the label's double-C logo.
By the time Lagerfeld opened an eponymous ready-to-wear fashion label in 1984, he was immensely wealthy. He had amassed a collection of Art Deco furniture, which he sold off in its entirety in 1975. In the 1980s, he collected pieces by the Italian design collective Memphis, selling that collection, too, in 1991.
His taste later shifted to embrace contemporary furniture by the likes of Marc Newson, which graced his homes in Paris, Monaco and Vermont.
Lagerfeld had something of a complex about his body, supposedly sparked by his mother's observation that he had "farmer's hands". After spending his youth bodybuilding, he later put on weight, before, in 2001-02, shedding a massive 92 lb in 13 months in order to fit into the super-tight suits of Hedi Slimane, then creative director at Christian Dior. His stringent diet, created specially for him by Dr Jean-Claude Houdret, led to the publication of The Karl Lagerfeld Diet, which became a bestseller. Subsequently, Lagerfeld cultivated the look of a 19th-Century dandy crossed with a rock star, in high-collared shirts, black leather fingerless gloves and knuckle-duster rings.
Lagerfeld's autocratic manner earned him the nickname Kaiser Karl - and he enjoyed a good feud. The model Ines de La Fressange was his muse until 1989, when he fell out with her over her decision to pose for a bust of Marianne, the symbol of the French Republic, an icon Lagerfeld denounced as "boring, bourgeois and provincial".
His loathing for Saint Laurent dated from about 1974, when his rival embarked on an affair with the gorgeously good-looking Jacques de Bascher.
Until he died from an Aids-related illness in 1989, de Bascher was Lagerfeld's partner, though Lagerfeld told de Bascher's biographer Marie Ottavi that while he "infinitely loved that boy" they had never had sex.
When Saint Laurent's lover at the time, Pierre Berge, found out about his affair with de Bascher, however, he accused Lagerfeld of engineering the liaison to destabilise the house of Saint Laurent at a time when the couturier's addictions were spiralling out of control. Subsequently, the two designers presided over their own cliques; anyone who hung out with one was barred from mingling with the other.
In 2012, Lagerfeld caused outrage among British fans of the singer Adele by describing her as "a little too fat", compounding his offence by remarking of the Duchess of Cambridge's sister, Pippa Middleton, that she "should only show her back" because he disliked her face.
Lagerfeld, who died on February 19, owned a cat named Choupette, which in 2013, he said he would marry if it were legal. Choupette is understood to survive him.