Fashion superstar defined luxury for generations
Karl Lagerfeld, the most prolific designer of the 20th and 21st centuries and a man whose career formed the prototype of the modern luxury fashion industry, died Tuesday in Paris. He was 85.
His death was announced Tuesday by Chanel.
“More than anyone I know, he represents the soul of fashion: restless, forward-looking and voraciously attentive to our changing culture,” Anna Wintour, editor of American Vogue, said of Lagerfeld when presenting him with the Outstanding Achievement Award at the British Fashion Awards in 2015.
Creative director of Chanel since 1983 and Fendi since 1965, and founder of his own line, Lagerfeld was the definition of a fashion polyglot, able to speak the language of many different brands at the same time (not to mention many languages themselves: He read in English, French, German and Italian).
In his 80s, when most of his peers were retiring to their yachts or country estates, he was designing an average of 14 new collections a year ranging from couture to the high street, and not counting collaborations and special projects.
His signature combinations of “high fashion and high camp” attracted musician Rihanna; Princess Caroline of Monaco; Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund; and actress Julianne Moore.
“Ideas come to you when you work,” he said backstage before a Fendi show at age 83. As a result, Lagerfeld never stopped creating.
He was also a photographer, whose work was exhibited at the Pinacothèque de Paris; a publisher, having founded his own imprint for Steidl, Edition 7L; and the author of a popular 2002 diet book, “The Karl Lagerfeld Diet,” about how he had lost 92 pounds.
His greatest calling, however, was as the orchestrator of his own myth.
A self-identified “caricature,” with his dark glasses, powdered ponytail, black jeans, fingerless gloves, Chrome Hearts jewelry and obsessive Diet Coke consumption, he achieved such a level of global fame — and controversy — that a $200 Karl Barbie doll, created in collaboration with the toymaker Mattel, sold out in less than an hour in 2014.
He was variously referred to as a “genius,” the “kaiser” and “overrated.” His contribution to fashion was not in creating a new silhouette, as designers like Cristobal Balenciaga, Christian Dior and Coco Chanel herself did.
Rather, he created a new kind of designer: the shape-shifter.
That is to say, the creative force who lands at the top of a heritage brand and reinvents it by identifying its sartorial semiology and then wresting it into the present with a healthy dose of disrespect and a dollop of pop culture.
This approach has become almost quotidian in the industry, but before Lagerfeld was hired at Chanel, when the brand was fading into staid irrelevance kept aloft on a raft of perfume and cosmetics, it was a new and startling idea.
That he dared act on it, and then kept doing so with varying degrees of success for decades, transformed not only the fortunes of Chanel (now said to have revenues of over $4 billion a year) but also his personal profile.
Those who wanted to dismiss Lagerfeld referred to him as a “styliste”: a designer who creates his looks by repurposing what already exists, as opposed to inventing anything new.
But he rejected the idea of fashion-as-art, and the designeras-tortured genius.
His goal was more opportunistic. “I would like to be a one-man multinational fashion phenomenon,” he once said.