Obituary | Regardless of what we at SOTD think of Karl Lagerfeld, he really was the last of his kind
Karl Lagerfeld standing on the set of Chanel’s spring/summer 2019 collection last October. Photo: Getty Images
Karl Lagerfeld has left the world and that of fashion. Born in 1933* in pre-war Hamburg, Germany, he died today in post-Web Paris, France—reportedly from the same disease that took the life of Steve Jobs: pancreatic cancer. He has said that he did not really need to be employed but, by most account, he worked at Chanel till his last breath. He was also proud of his perennial contracts with not only Chanel, but Fendi too. As he reiterated to Kendall Jenner in a Harper’s Bazaar joint interview in 2016, “Everybody… hopes I retire so they can get the jobs. But my contracts with Fendi and Chanel are lifelong.”
And he really worked all his life, and most times, at two jobs, or more. He once said, “I am kind of a fashion nymphomaniac who never gets an orgasm. I am never satisfied.” Despite the evident wealth and the numerous homes around the world (he collects them as he did books and furniture, and, some say, friends), Mr Lagerfeld is, by definition, a salary man. Although he most likely would shoot back at such a description, he did say, rather imperturbably, in a 2018 Netflix special on him, “I’m just working-class—working with class.”
Some reports estimated his net worth to be USD250 million (up till last year). The accumulation of wealth and tony residences must have begun, even if unconsciously, when he arrived in Paris in 1950, aged 17 (according to him, but some accounts claim 14 and earlier arrival). But he wasn’t a struggling pre-employment drifter. He told Bazaar, “I got very nice pocket money, and it was perfect.” In 1954, he won the first prize in the coat category at the International Wool Secretariat fashion design competition (presently known as the International Woolmark Prize). That opened doors for him, but the ensuing years were not exactly what he had envisioned.
Winners of the International Wool Secretariat fashion design competition in 1954. From left: Karl Lagerfeld, Yves Saint Laurent, and (far right) Colette Bracchi. Photo: Keystone Eyedea Headpress
(Interestingly, there were two other winners that year: one Colette Bracchi that no one then remembered, nor now, and one Yves Saint Laurent that is so unforgettable the name is still a cash cow for current owner, the Kering Group. Mr Saint Laurent, in fact, won two prizes, a first and a third for dresses, then deemed more prestigious than honours for coats. Mr Saint Laurent’s double win and his subsequent employment at Christian Dior were rumoured to be the source of rivalry and some discord between the two male winners who were, at that time, believed to be friends.)
The prize money, reportedly generous, probably meant nothing to the 21-year-old Lagerfeld. When he entered the world of haute couture, no one knew who he was and where he came from exactly. But they knew he was rich and work was optional because, as was said, that’s what he told them. The budding designer did come from a well-to-do family. His father was said to be an “industrialist” whose business was condensed milk. Or, as was the chatter of the day, chocolate and even ball-bearings, shifting as the tale hawking got more vivid! But truth revealed that Lagerfeld senior worked for one American Milk Products Corporation that sold condensed milk, marketed in Germany as Glücksklee. Family wealth, however, did not make Mr Lagerfeld a professional sloth. In fact, he was, even then, known to be “prolific”—as he still was, up to his death. He was not only quick in sketching, he was also speedy in the execution of design. Traits that served him well in both haute couture and prêt-à-porter at Chanel.
A year after his win, Mr Lagerfeld joined one of the judges of the competition, Pierre Balmain (the others were Hubert de Givenchy and Jacques Fath), to assist him. He would, years later, say “I was not born to be an assistant.” In 1959, he left for Jean Patou, where he designed as Roland Karl ten couture collections during his time there. According to friendly accounts, he was not particularly pleased with his employment at both houses. There were no raves in the same manner as that, many years later, he received continuously at Chanel. It seemed he became rather disillusioned with haute couture. By the early ’60s, he decamped haute couture for ready-to-wear, initially not only a poor cousin to the highest form of fashion, but an impoverished one. Women of taste and means did not buy off-the-rack.
Karl Lagerfeld with a model in one of his designs for the house of Patou. Photo: Regina Relang/source
Karl Lagerfeld’s tenure with brands on the other end of haute couture at first seemed the opposite of Yves Saint Laurent’s dramatic ascend at Christian Dior. For the work he did, which included those for the ballet shoe company Repetto and the supermarket chain Monoprix, Mr Lagerfeld was known as a styliste, not a couturier. This was during a time when being a styliste meant freelancing (mostly) for brands not one’s own and unshackled by the need to reinvent the wheel. But this did not deter him, and his friends at that time later recalled that he enjoyed his job, so much so that he would eventually take up more than one, at a time. Some people said that he knew, after leaving the big maisons, that the future of fashion is in ready-to-wear. Even though not quite a visionary (or a fortune teller, as he was inclined to say), he was not wrong.
In the early to mid-’60s, a small little brand was gaining popularity among women for its chic yet somewhat bohemian-looking clothes—anything added to chic was the antithesis of couture. Chloé was also unusual in that it was a label not named after a designer. In 1964, the year Andre Courrèges introduced the “space look” and, across the English Channel in London, Mary Quant scored big with the mini skirt, Karl Lagerfeld secured an appointment with Gaby Aghion, the charismatic and experienced Egyptian owner of Chloé. He was hoping she’d hire him. She did, but not full-time. The partnership turned out to be highly successful for both Ms Aghion and Mr Lagerfeld and a long one, although not lifelong.
Little known was his pre-Chloé work for Tiziani, a couture house based in Rome that was founded by a wealthy Texan, Evan Richards. It was reported that both men conceived the collection together and threw a lavish launch party in 1963, featuring Catherine the Great’s jewels borrowed from Harry Winston. Apparently, Elisabeth Taylor was a huge fan. Understandably so, and her patronage reflected the designer’s penchant for the glitzy. The early Tiziani sketches that Mr Lagerfeld did reportedly fetched up to USD3,500 a piece in an auction in 2014. He continued to design for Tiziani until 1969. This was only the beginning of his relationship with Italian brands.
The young Karl Lagerfeld, never known to be camera-shy, with his always-present sketch pad. Photo: Jean-Philippe Charbonnier/source
By 1965, Paris warmed to the idea of prêt-à-porter. Apart from the stylistes, a new clutch of designers, called créateurs, emerged—among them Dorothée Bis and Sonia Rykiel, the favourite of Mr Lagerfeld’s mother. His steadily successful turn with Chloé strengthened his resolve to stick with ready-to-wear. In fact, he made quite a success of his freelance work. He added to the growing roster designs for Charles Jourdan, Ballantyne, Mario Valentino, and Krizia. Mr Lagerfeld did not concerned himself with borders, geographical or professional (in 2004, he went even lower market by designing for H&M, which he later considered “embarrassing” as “H&M let so many people down” due to the low stock levels). A year after his collaboration with Chloé, he started on the first of his “lifelong” arrangements: with Fendi.
Karl Lagerfield has such an innate sense of the au courant that success followed almost every collaboration that he did. This was augmented in the ’70s after meeting two other Americans in Paris in 1969 that would very much awaken in him the flair for what would be needed to be cool. They were the illustrator Antonio Lopez (the subject of the James Crump documentary from last year, Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion and Disco) and his ex-boyfriend, the art director Juan Ramos. In Mr Lopez, the German designer found his soulmate, as he admired the former’s distinctive and striking drawings. The Puerto Rican-American duo showed Mr Lagerfeld what Paris fashion wasn’t: fun-filled, disco-soundtracked, and street-influenced.
To be sure, the Chloé designer had always been aware of what went on outside the confines of the design studios or his apartments. Gaby Aghion once said, “When he came back with me in the car, if he saw students, Karl would take the students’ ideas and transform them into something beautiful. He had an undeniable art of transposing their vision into fashion.” He wasn’t a designer in the mold of Andre Courrèges or Pierre Cardin (or Thierry Mugler in the ’80s, or John Galliano in the ’90s, or Raf Simons in the ’00s); he was always a commercial designer. And was known for it. Francine Crescent, editor-in-chief of the French edition of Vogue at that time, said, “Karl always made collections that sold well; his collections were always impeccable and extremely commercial. Not in a bad way.” In later years, another Vogue editor-in-chief, the just-as-commercial Anna Wintour, concurred by wearing mostly Chanel for her professional attire and on the red carpet.
No known designer in his old age shares the same pop fervor Karl Lagerfeld enjoys. His cartoon self even appeared on smartphone covers. Photos: source
It was the keen sense for the saleable, tempered by his love for haute couture—that he turned away from, but not rejected—and the attendant crafts that endeared him well to brands. The Wertheimer family must have had watched Mr Lagerfeld in the wings as he made money for others before hiring him in 1983 to remake Chanel. He was, according to Alain Wertheimer, the brand’s CEO, given carte blanch from day one to design as he pleased for Chanel. Unlike Hedi Slimane at Dior Homme, Saint Laurent, and now Celine, Mr Lagerfeld did not impose his own aesthetical obsessions on Chanel. But just like Mr Slimane, he was immensely commercial, as much as he had always been. As Tyler McCall, deputy editor of Fashionista noted to the Daily Beast, “Those shows were sort of sneakily commercial. If you broke them down, there were still all these basics that a Chanel customer would really want.”
There is, as we know, usually two sides to a dress. Much as Karl Lagerfeld was a proponent of beauty and the enhancement of Chanel’s house codes, he, too, was susceptible to the banal and the excesses that appeal to the nouveau. “For every classic Chanel handbag or fanciful riff on the little black dress inciting lust in the hearts of style-savvy women,” wrote Robin Givhan for Newsweek in 2012, “there have been equally mortifying examples of pandering and buffoonery: a tweed jacket transformed into a circus costume, menswear that would make a drag queen flinch, handbags that reek of self-conscious status climbing.”
Status is the operative word. In the 1980s, Mr Lagerfeld’s re-imagined 2.55 bag, dubbed Chanel Classic (or 11.12), included a double C logo on the twist-lock clasp that was never there when Coco Chanel herself designed it. He later admitted that “what I do Coco would have hated.” Vulgar came to the minds of the purists at that time, but in line with the logomania of that era, the bag took off and spawned many others, flashier than the Classic. Those handbags found legions of queue-willing fans, in men too—Pharrell Williams and G Dragon, just to name two (they’d never, of course, need to get in line). In 2017, vintage bag website Baghunter claimed in their research that in the six years prior, the value of Chanel handbags have jumped a staggering 70 percent, making Chanel a better investment than condos. Status, clearly and quickly, allowed Chanel to make a reported USD4 billion a year.
Designing for others (an average of 14 collections annually in the past years) seemed to suit Mr Lagerfeld—and his bank account—so well that, unlike Yves Saint Laurent, he deferred starting his own label until 1984. Launched with fanfare, but met with lukewarm reception, Karl Lagerfeld the label was, according to the designer, meant to play up “intellectual sexiness”. For sure, Mr Lagerfeld was an intellectual (served by a voracious appetite for books and reading), but it is arguable if his designs were intellectual, the way Martin Margiela’s was. His own line hitherto defied a strong DNA or codes similar to Chanel’s that future designers continuing his eponymous label could bank on. It was, at best, anything goes, a monochromatic expression of ego, more so in latter years when his flat profile became a recurrent logo, as did his cartoon caricature and, subsequently, his pet cat Choupette (both have come this far south-east as Thailand). Simultaneously, he was irreverent. Remember “Karl Who”?
That Karl Lagerfeld understood branding and iconography and used both well and extensively is stating the obvious. No designer, especially in his old age, has been able to market himself as successfully and completely as Mr Lagerfeld, with the cartoon of self infinitely useful on T-shirts and as figurines to be sold as dolls (e.g., the Martell-produced Karl Barbie doll, which was priced at USD200, sold out within an hour at launch in 2014). Which other octogenarian was thus worshipped? Or seemingly adored, even by shallow post-teens such as Kendall Jenner and Kaia Gerber?
In modern fashion, Karl Lagerfeld’s work, being, and lore have culturally far-reaching effects. Even after his death, it is likely that brand Lagerfeld will go on. “I don’t want to be real in other people’s lives,” he once said, “I want to be an apparition.” Some entities do linger. Open not the closet door.
*A note on dates: Like Diana Vreeland, Karl Lagerfeld was fluid with his personal history. He himself often gave conflicting dates on his birth and such. On his website, it is stated that his year of birth was 1938. What is provided here is based on information available in the public domain
Update (19 February 2019, 10pm): According to WWD, Chanel’s studio director Virginie Viard, who has taken the catwalk bow alongside Mr Lagerfeld before and his place, will take over as the Creative Director