Karl Lagerfeld: king of fashion theatre who shaped Chanel legacy

The designer, who has died aged 85, transformed high fashion into blockbuster entertainment

Karl Lagerfeld, who has died aged 85, was a giant not just of fashion but of popular culture. He transformed high fashion from a niche interest into blockbuster entertainment.

That fashion is now widely acknowledged as one of the lenses through which we look at and process the world around us – a channel to which the world tunes in, alongside music and film – is due in no small part to Lagerfeld, who installed icebergs, waterfalls, space rockets and supermarket checkouts on his catwalks, and in doing so changed fashion’s place in the universe.

Lagerfeld breathed fresh life into the tweed suit for generations of women who were born after Coco Chanel died, dressed movie stars for the Oscars and princesses for their weddings, but his most iconic look was that which he created for himself. He once said that, before he knew that the job of fashion designer existed, he wanted to be a cartoonist. In a way, he became both.

(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.

Cartoons, as every newspaper reader knows, have an illustrious history as a sharp and humorous way to comment on the world. Lagerfeld, with his white pompadour, sunglasses, and fingerless gloves, all fused into an exaggerated image as recognisable as Homer Simpson, did just that. In Choupette, his beloved white cat, he even gave himself a chic animal sidekick in the vein of Tintin and his dog Snowy.

But Lagerfeld was never a joke. He was the cleverest man in the fashion industry, with a deep love of culture and respect for learning. His apartment close to the Boulevard Saint-Germain houses a library of 300,000 volumes. A voracious reader in four languages, he would drop poetry into conversation – Emily Dickinson in English, Giacomo Leopardi in Italian, Rainer Maria Rilke in German and Catherine Pozzi in French – but wore his learning lightly.

His love of history was matched by his magpie appetite for the new. In 2011 he was joint publisher, with Gerhard Steidl, of the complete works of Nietzsche; the same year, he designed bottles in his role as an ambassador for his beloved Diet Coke. A gifted draughtsman, he could sketch like an angel either on paper or on an iPad.

“Fashion,” said Lagerfeld, “is a game that has to be played seriously.” His greatest skills as a fashion designer were his unerring eye for an elegant line – a genius shared with Coco Chanel, the founder of the house he benevolently cuckooed – and a passion for the meticulous detail and sublime craftsmanship that elevates the most beautiful dresses in the world into an art form.

The house of Chanel, under his watch, became the patron and protector of the artistry of haute couture. Chanel has bought 11 specialist workshops since 1985, ensuring the survival of the ateliers of Lesage embroidery, Massaro shoemakers, creators of fabric flowers Guillet and goldsmiths Goossens.

The last time I saw Lagerfeld was in December, when he was well enough to travel to New York for a catwalk show staged in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “A pyramid is the greatest work of minimalist art,” he said that day, of a collection that referenced ancient Egypt and the French graffiti artist Cyril Kongo.

Chanel’s autumn/winter 2014 catwalk
Lagerfeld recreated a supermarket for Chanel’s autumn/winter 2014 catwalk. Photograph: Stephane Mahe/Reuters

Looking frail, he took a catwalk bow flanked by Virginie Viard, his longstanding head of studio, and his young godson Hudson Kroenig. By last month, however, he was too unwell to attend the Chanel haute couture show at the Grand Palais in Paris, only a short distance from his home. A Chanel spokesperson played down his non-appearance that day, citing the cold and snowy weather.

Lagerfeld became a designer at Fendi in 1965 and founded his own brand in 1984, but it was his success at the house of Chanel, where he became designer in 1983, that is his unparalleled achievement. Other brands have followed Chanel’s formula for rejuvenation since, but none has equalled Lagerfeld’s sustained success in keeping Chanel at the pinnacle of fashion, suspended above the laws of fashion gravity, for over half a century.

Actors Kristen Stewart and Julianne Moore join the high rollers at a 2015 show
Actors Kristen Stewart and Julianne Moore join the high rollers at a 2015 show. Photograph: Stephane Mahe/Reuters

Lagerfeld supersized the fashion show. He reimagined the catwalk as a theatre that could take many forms: the interior of a private jet, for which the audience were issued boarding passes and strapped into airline seats; a casino, in which the Oscar-winning actor Julianne Moore and a supporting cast of supermodels played out a vignette of late-night high rollers, dressed in Chanel’s finest.

Lagerfeld could be crass when commenting on the world outside fashion – he famously called Adele “a little too fat” and in November 2017 provoked outrage when he evoked the Holocaust in reference to Angela Merkel’s immigration policy – but the commentary he made through his catwalks was subtle. In March 2015, shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, he recreated an iconic Paris bistro on the catwalk, a celebration of cafe culture staged as a statement in support of the French way of life.

Lagerfeld at Chanel’s spring/summer 2019 show in Paris
Lagerfeld at Chanel’s spring/summer 2019 show in Paris last October. Photograph: Christophe Ena/AP

The hypermarché-sized Chanel store which he installed in the Grand Palais, with models walking between aisles filled with double-C branded household goods, was a mischievous commentary on the power of branding, and a brilliant piece of the fashion theatre at which Lagerfeld excelled.


Jess Cartner-Morley

The GuardianTramp

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