Designer Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel's global icon, dies at 85
The German-born designer may have spent much of his life in the public eye but he remained a largely elusive figure
- Published 20.02.19, 4:07 AM
- Updated 20.02.19, 9:05 AM
- 5 mins read
Karl Lagerfeld, the iconic couturier whose designs at Chanel and Fendi had an unprecedented impact on the entire fashion industry, died on Tuesday in Paris, prompting an outpouring of love and admiration for the man whose career spanned six decades.
Although he spent virtually his entire career at luxury labels catering to the very wealthy — including 20 years at Chloe — Lagerfeld's designs quickly trickled down to low-end retailers, giving him global influence.
Former supermodel Claudia Schiffer, who credits Lagerfeld as her mentor, called him her "magic dust."
"What (Andy) Warhol was to art, he was to fashion; he is irreplaceable," she said.
The German-born designer may have spent much of his life in the public eye — his trademark white ponytail, high starched collar and dark glasses are instantly recognizable — but he remained a largely elusive figure.
Such was the enigma surrounding the octogenarian Lagerfeld that even his age was a point of mystery for decades, with reports he had two birth certificates, one dated 1933 and the other 1938.
In 2013, Lagerfeld told the French magazine Paris Match he was born in September of 1935 — which would make him 83 today — but in 2019 his assistant still didn't know the truth — telling The Associated Press he liked "to scramble the tracks on his year of birth — that's part of the character."
Chanel confirmed that Lagerfeld, who had looked increasingly frail in recent seasons, died early on Tuesday in Paris. Last month, he did not come out to take a bow at the house's couture show in Paris — a rare absence that the company attributed to him being "tired."
"An extraordinary creative individual, Lagerfeld reinvented the brand's codes created by Gabrielle Chanel: the Chanel jacket and suit, the little black dress, the precious tweeds, the two-tone shoes, the quilted handbags, the pearls and costume jewelry," Chanel said.
The brand's CEO Alain Wertheimer praised Lagerfeld for an "exceptional intuition" that was ahead of his time and contributed to Chanel's global success.
"Today, not only have I lost a friend, but we have all lost an extraordinary creative mind to whom I gave carte blanche in the early 1980s to reinvent the brand," he said.
Chanel said Virginie Viard, his longtime head of studio, will create the house's upcoming collections, but did not say whether her appointment was permanent.
Tributes from fellow designers, Hollywood celebrities, models and politicians quickly poured in. Donatella Versace thanked Lagerfeld for the way he inspired her and her late brother Gianni Versace.
Lagerfeld was one of the most hardworking figures in the fashion world, joining luxury Italian fashion house Fendi in 1965 and later becoming its longtime womenswear design chief in 1977, as well as leading designs at Paris' family-owned power-house Chanel since 1983.
While at Fendi, Lagerfeld helped create the notion of fun fur, lending an ease to a formal wardrobe topper by adding stylized touches.
At Chanel, he served up youthful designs that were always of the moment and sent out almost infinite variations on the house's classic skirt suit, ratcheting up the hemlines or smothering it in golden chains, stings of pearls or pricey accessories.
Wit was never far behind any collection.
"Each season, they tell me (the Chanel designs) look younger. One day we'll all turn up like babies," he once told The Associated Press.
His outspoken and often stinging remarks on topics as diverse as French politics and celebrity waistlines won him the nickname "Kaiser Karl" in the fashion media. Among the most acid comments included calling former French President Francois Hollande an "imbecile" who would be "disastrous" for France in Marie-Claire, and telling The Sun British tabloid that he didn't like the face of Pippa Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge's sister.
"She should only show her back," he advised.
Lagerfeld was also heavily criticized for sending out a negative message to women when he told France's Metro newspaper that British singer Adele was "a little too fat."
Despite this, he was very kind to his staff at Chanel, generous with his time with journalists and shared his Parisian mansion with a Siamese cat called Choupette.
"She is spoilt, much more than a child could be," he told the AP in 2013.
Lagerfeld had little use for nostalgia and kept his gaze firmly on the future. Well into his 70s, he was quick to embrace new technology: He famously had a collection of hundreds of iPods. A photographer who shot ad campaigns for Chanel and his own eponymous label, Lagerfeld also collected art books and had a massive library and a bookstore as well as his own publishing house.
He was also an impressive linguist, switching between perfect French, English, Italian and his native German during interviews at fashion shows.
Even as he courted the spotlight, he made a deliberate effort to hide what was going on behind his trademark dark shades.
"I am like a caricature of myself, and I like that," British Vogue quoted Lagerfeld as saying. "It is like a mask. And for me the Carnival of Venice lasts all year long."
After cutting his teeth at Paris-based label Chloe, Lagerfeld helped revive the flagging fortunes of the storied Paris haute couture label Chanel in the '80s. There, he helped launch the careers of supermodels including Schiffer, Ines de la Fressange and Stella Tennant.
In a move that helped make him a household name, Lagerfeld designed a capsule collection for Swedish fast-fashion company H&M in 2004 and released a CD of his favorite music shortly after.
A weight-loss book he published in 2005 — "The Karl Lagerfeld Diet" — consolidated his status as a pop culture icon. In the book, Lagerfeld said it was his desire to fit into slim-cut Dior suits that had motivated his dramatic transformation.
The son of an industrialist who made a fortune in condensed milk and his violinist wife, Lagerfeld was born into an affluent family in Hamburg, Germany. He had artistic ambitions early on. In interviews, he variously said he wanted to become a cartoonist, a portraitist, an illustrator or a musician.
"My mother tried to instruct me on the piano. One day, she slammed the piano cover closed on my fingers and said, 'draw, it makes less noise," he was quoted as saying in the book "The World According to Karl."
At 14, Lagerfeld came to Paris with his parents and went to school in the City of Light. His fashion career got off to a precocious start when, in 1954, a coat he designed won a contest by the International Wool Secretariat. His rival, Yves Saint Laurent, won that year's contest in the dress category.
Lagerfeld apprenticed at Balmain and in 1959 was hired at another Paris-based house, Patou, where he spent four years as artistic director. After a series of jobs with labels including Rome-based Fendi, Lagerfeld took over the reins at Chloe, known for its romantic Parisian style.
Lagerfeld also started his own label, Karl Lagerfeld, which though less commercially successful than his other ventures, was widely seen as a sketchpad where the designer worked through his ideas.
In 1983, he took over at Chanel, which had been dormant since the death of its founder, Coco Chanel, more than a decade earlier.
"When I took on Chanel, it was a sleeping beauty — not even a beautiful one," he said in the 2007 documentary "Lagerfeld Confidential." ''She snored."
For his debut collection for the house, Lagerfeld injected a dose of raciness, sending out a translucent navy chiffon number that prompted scandalized headlines.
He never ceased to shake up the storied house, sending out a logo-emblazoned bikini so small the top looked like pasties on a string and another collection that dispensed entirely with bottoms, with the models wearing little jackets over opaque tights instead.
Lagerfeld was open about his homosexuality — he once said he announced it to his parents at 13 — but kept his private life under wraps. Following his relationship with a French aristocrat who died of AIDS in 1989, Lagerfeld insisted he prized his solitude above all.
"I hate when people say I'm 'solitaire' (or solitary.) Yes, I'm solitaire in the sense of a stone from Cartier, a big solitaire," Lagerfeld told The New York Times. "I have to be alone to do what I do. I like to be alone. I'm happy to be with people, but I'm sorry to say I like to be alone, because there's so much to do, to read, to think."
As much as he loved the spotlight, Lagerfeld was careful to obscure his real self.
"It's not that I lie, it's that I don't owe the truth to anyone," he told French Vogue.