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Obituary: Karl Lagerfeld – RIP King Karl

Marcus Jaye
19 February 2019

The Kaiser is dead, long live the Kaiser! Karl Lagerfeld, one of the most prolific designers of the 20th century, has passed away at 85. Known for his long-held tenure of Chanel, he designed for many other distinguished brands and labels over his seven-decade career, and was one of fashion’s last physical links to the great era of post-war couture.

Controversial and known for his outspoken views, Lagerfeld was one of the rare fashion characters to cross over into public consciousness. The dark sunglasses, starched white collar shirt and swept back silver ponytailed caricature entered into fashion’s visual vocabulary and became bigger than the man himself.

One of fashion’s hardest working and consistent designers, he was born Karl-Otto Lagerfeldt near Hamburg, Germany in 1933. Lagerfeld first entered fashion as Pierre Balmain’s assistant after winning the coats category in a design competition sponsored by the International Wool Secretariat in 1955 alongside his fashion nemesis, Yves Saint Laurent, who won for best dress.

In 1958, after three years at Balmain, he moved to Jean Patou where he designed two collections per year for five years. A pioneer of ready-to-wear, in 1963, he began designing for Tiziani, a Roman couture house founded that year by American, Evan Richards. It began as couture and then branched out into ready-to-wear, bearing the label "Tiziani-Roma—Made in England”. Lagerfeld designed for the company until 1969.

Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld

Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld in 1982

During this period, 1964, Lagerfeld began to freelance for French fashion house Chloé. He was soon designing the entire collection and, bar a brief stint by Martine Sitbon, was creative head of Chloé up until 1997 when he was replaced by Stella McCartney. He famously sniped: "I think they should have taken a big name. They did - but in music, not fashion. Let's hope she's as gifted as her father."

In 1965, he started to work at the Roman fur house, Fendi, which continued up right up until his death. But, it was his appointment at Chanel, in 1983, that catapulted Lagerfeld into the pantheon of fashion greats. As artistic director at Chanel, he reintroduced and altered the house’s many tropes and made gold logo-ed chain belts and pink bouclé tweeds desirable to a entirely new generation of women.

Under his caretakership, Chanel became, arguably, one of the world’s strongest and most desirable fashion brands. His position there was without question, but the company has, recently, been making changes knowing that Lagerfeld wouldn’t be there forever. For the first time they released their annual results – $9.6bn (2017) and moved their headquarters to London. Privately held by brothers Alain and Gérard Wertheimer, Chanel’s huge, themed shows became one of the highlights of the Parisian fashion calendar.

"What I've done, Coco Chanel would never have done. She would have hated it.”

Lagerfeld once said: "What I've done, Coco Chanel would never have done. She would have hated it.” She would, of course, have liked all the money the perfume, beauty and bags brought in.


Chanel SS19 Couture by Karl Lagerfeld

As for his own, eponymous label, at different times called Lagerfeld Gallery and, today, Karl, Karl Lagerfeld Paris and Lagerfeld, success wasn’t as easy. Various licensing partners came and went, and it never really felt like it received his full attention. It is more a licensing brand than anything else. His famous sidekick, his cat, Choupette, will, now doubt, become the richest cat in the world.

Lagerfeld’s self-promotion and Marmite character made him a perennial within the fashion industry and his famous slimming down into skinny Dior Homme gave him a new and reinvigorated later chapter in his career. He worked every day right up until his death with a Diet Coke in his hand.

An unchallenged king of Parisian fashion, despite Lagerfeld’s huge output, he never quite managed to design a fashion icon or style linked directly to his hand. 

“There is no secret to life,” Lagerfeld said. “The only secret is work. Get your act together, and also, perhaps, have a decent life. Don’t drink. Don’t smoke. Don’t take drugs. All that helps.”

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