Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel fashion designer, dies aged 85

Artistic director who reinvented Chanel had missed haute couture show in January

The fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld has died aged 85, his Chanel label has said.

As one of the most prolific and admired designers of modern times, Lagerfeld’s influence on the fashion industry is unparalleled. Known fondly in fashion circles as “the Kaiser” thanks to his German heritage, he was famously uncompromising in his design vision, once declaring: “Sweatpants are a sign of defeat. You lost control of your life so you bought some sweatpants.”

(September 10, 1933) Birth

Karl Otto Lagerfeld was born (it’s thought) on this day in Hamburg to Otto, a businessman who imported evaporated milk, and Elizabeth, a lingerie salesperson, although his true age remains a mystery to this day.

(January 1, 1940) Education

Expressing an interest in fashion and art from a young age, Lagerfeld went to a private school in Germany before attending Lycée Montaigne, a secondary school in Paris, where he majored in history and art. Thanks to his disputed birth date, these dates are estimated.

(January 1, 1955) Early years

Lagerfeld began his career as an assistant at Balmain, after winning a design competition. Three years later, he went to work for couturier Jean Patou.

(January 1, 1958) Early criticism

His first few collections were not well received. His dresses, inspired by the shape of the letter “K” for Karl, were met with boos from the press. His 1960 collection of skirts were deemed too short.

(January 1, 1960) Chloé

His breakthrough came when he started freelancing for Chloé in the 1960s and 1970s, where his velvet shorts and skirts inspired by Carmen Miranda were described as “high fashion” and “high camp”.

(January 1, 1965) Fendi

He began what would be a lifelong collaboration with Fendi, an Italian label known for its accessories and heavy use of fur.

(January 1, 1983) Chanel

Lagerfeld becomes chief designer for Chanel and swiftly becomes one of the industry’s most established and beloved designers. He swiftly introduces the interlocking CC logo, introduced updated versions of tweed and lots of gold, which have become Chanel’s most famous trademarks.

(February 19, 2004) High street

Lagerfeld collaborates with H&M on a capsule collection. It sells out in two days and marks the start of a burgeoning relationship between high end designers and the high street. In keeping with this new price point, Lagerfeld launches a semi-casual line, K Karl Lagerfeld.

(February 19, 2017) Industry leader

Chanel releases its financial figures for the first time, revealing it had made £1.35bn in 2016-2017, moving the brand from a specialist couturier into an “industry leader”. A year later, in a bid to remain relevant in a changing market, Chanel announced that it would ban fur and exotic skins from its collections.

(January 1, 2019)  Last days

Lagerfeld is absent from the Chanel haute couture show in Paris, fuelling speculation about his health. On 18th February, it is confirmed that he was admitted to an American hospital for “unknown reasons”. His death is announced by the fashion house on 19th December.

In January he missed the Chanel haute couture show in Paris, fuelling speculation about his health. According to reports, he was admitted to the American hospital in Paris on Monday night. The cause of death is not yet known.

The designer Donatella Versace posted a photograph of herself and Lagerfeld on Instagram, writing: “Karl your genius touched the lives of so many, especially Gianni and I. We will never forget your incredible talent and endless inspiration. We were always learning from you.”

Karl Lagerfeld’s autumn/winter 2018/2019 Paris Fashion Week show for Chanel.
Karl Lagerfeld’s autumn/winter show for Chanel at Paris fashion week in 2018. Photograph: Ian Langsdon/EPA

Born in Hamburg in 1933, Lagerfeld began his career as an assistant to Pierre Balmain in 1955 and joined Chanel in 1983, spending 36 years at the house. In the interim, he has also held long-term design positions at the Italian house Fendi, the French house Chloé, and established his eponymous brand.

He is credited with reinventing Chanel, taking it from a small house to an industry leader. In 2017 the house released financial figures for the first time, revealing it had made £1.35bn the previous year.

Bernard Arnault, the chairman and chief executive of LVMH, which owns Fendi, called Lagerfeld “a creative genius who helped to make Paris the fashion capital of the world and Fendi one of the most innovative Italian houses”.

“We owe him a great deal: his taste and talent were the most exceptional I have ever known,” said Arnault, adding: “I will always remember his immense imagination, his ability to conceive new trends for every season, his inexhaustible energy, the virtuosity of his drawings, his carefully guarded independence, his encyclopaedic culture and his unique wit and eloquence.”

The French interior minister, Christophe Castaner, told French radio Lagerfeld was “an immense and extraordinary personality” who represented “a kind of French artistry”

Chanel’s spring/summer 2019 show in Paris last month
Models at Chanel’s spring/summer 2019 show in Paris last month. Photograph: Victor Boyko/Getty Images

Vogue’s editor-in-chief Anna Wintour said: “Today the world lost a giant among men. Karl was so much more than our greatest and most prolific designer – his creative genius was breathtaking and to be his friend was an exceptional gift. Karl was brilliant, he was wicked, he was funny, he was generous beyond measure, and he was deeply kind. I will miss him so very much.”

Claudia Schiffer, the German model and confidante of Lagerfeld, said: “Karl was my magic dust, he transformed me from a shy German girl into a supermodel … what Warhol was to art, he was to fashion; he is irreplaceable.”

Over the years, Lagerfeld’s personal style became as famous as his designs, confirming his status as a cultural icon. His ice-white ponytail, dark sunglasses and black leather gloves became his style signatures, as did his black tailored suits. His favourite was the slimline style by the designer Hedi Slimane while he was at Dior. In another famous quote he once said: “I lost 200lb to wear suits by Hedi Slimane.”

While Lagerfeld had many friends, he kept his personal life private. His most famous companion was his cat, Choupette, who the designer made into a celebrity pet, complete with its own Instagram account.

Not one to shy away from expressing his opinion, Lagerfeld often found himself at the centre of controversy. In 2017, he sparked outrage by evoking the Holocaust as he attacked Chancellor Angela Merkel for opening Germany’s borders to migrants.

Despite his declining health, Lagerfeld kept tight control of his work. He was scheduled to be present for fittings this week for the Chanel womenswear show on 5 March – indicative of his lifelong work ethic.

“I hate leisure,” the designer told Women’s Wear Daily 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.”

At the couture show in January his long-term righthand woman, Virginie Viard, appeared hand-in-hand with the season’s couture bride to greet the audience, at Lagerfeld’s request to “represent him”. Chanel confirmed on Tuesday that Viard “has been entrusted by [Chanel chief executive] Alain Wertheimer with the creative work for the collections, so that the legacy of Gabrielle Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld can live on”.

The brand’s president of fashion, Bruno Pavlovsky, 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. 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’.”


Scarlett Conlon and Angelique Chrisafis in Paris

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