It is with heavy hearts that we announce the passing of Karl Lagerfeld – the legendary designer behind Chanel and Fendi, as well as his eponymous line – at the age of 85 today. Lagerfeld served the fashion industry for over 60 years, and was viewed as the only heir appropriate to Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel’s throne. Yet, it is not just his legacy at Chanel or his work designing for Fendi that we remember, but also his myriad contributions to fashion, film, photography, and pop culture at large.
Although Lagerfeld tended to obscure his true origin story and birth date, it is known that he was born on September 10, 1933 in Hamburg, Germany to businessman Otto Lagerfeld and wife Elisabeth Bahlmann. Recalling his precocious youth, Lagerfeld confessed to The New Yorker that he hated school and the children he attended with. “I hated the company of other children. I wanted to be a grown-up person, to be taken seriously. I hated the idea of childhood,” he admitted.
The designer was mostly tight-lipped about his past, but was reputed to be an extremely intelligent child who excelled at school. After graduating, Lagerfeld won in the coats category of a design competition sponsored by the International Wool Secretariat in 1955, and sought out work at Pierre Balmain, where he was hired as an assistant. He spent three years at Balmain before he was hired at Jean Patou, where he designed his first haute couture collection. “I was tired of being an assistant; I wasn’t born to be an assistant,” shared Lagerfeld. “If you are an assistant endlessly, there is no hope.”
After a brief stint at Roman couture house Tiziani in 1963, Lagerfeld landed a coveted position at the French house of Chloé the following year. It is here that major press began to pay attention to his work, especially with his 1973 collection that featured a “surprise skirt” that was actually a pair of pants in disguise. Just a year prior, Lagerfeld also took on a job at Fendi, where he remained as co-Creative Director until the present day. A decade later, the designer made the most strategic move ever by accepting a position as the head of Chanel, just ten years after the death of the house founder, Coco Chanel. It is at the house of Chanel that Lagerfeld would cement his status as perhaps one of history’s best, most prolific designers.
Since Lagerfeld took over from his predecessor, he turned Chanel into one of the most profitable luxury brands in the world. By refining and modernizing the well-known Chanel aesthetic, making strategic licensing deals, opening new boutiques, releasing new perfumes and a makeup line, and driving the Chanel marketing engine forward with smart celebrity collaborations, he ensured that his mark on the brand will live forever. Additionally, one of the most important and beneficial aspects of the Chanel brand happened under Lagerfeld’s instruction: the acquisition of seven highly specialized ateliers that are integral in the creation of Chanel’s Couture and Métiers D’Art shows.
In addition to the exhausting work of crafting eight collections a year for Chanel and five for Fendi, Lagerfeld was also an accomplished photographer who shot and produced all of his own press kits and catalogues, as well as an enormous selection of fine-art photography that has been shown at galleries and museums worldwide. He has also personally directed several short films and many commercials. After joining Fendi in 1965, Lagerfeld soon established himself as the main creative head at the Italian luxury house alongside Silvia Venturini Fendi. With over 50 years at the brand, Lagerfeld brought a sense of magic, refinement, and whimsy to the house, most notably reviving its streetwear offerings in recent years.
For all the facts and figures that could possibly accompany a look back on Lagerfeld’s long career, it is the legend of the man that will be remembered. He was known for his polymathic tendencies, open disdain of things ranging from small talk to flip-flops, biting sense of humor, vast love of knowledge, insatiable appetite for anything ‘new’ or extraordinary, and keen eye for architecture and interiors. And let’s not forget his love of his cat Choupette, his godson Hudson Kroenig, and his muse Amanda Harlech. But most importantly? Lagerfeld personified a tireless work ethic and unbelievable contributions to the world of design.
His skill was such that he was, at once, keeping history alive and advancing fashion far into the future with technology-driven construction and avant-garde design implementations. His work captured the essence of modernity, and his legacy will live on for as long as fashion remains. It is almost impossible to imagine the world without Lagerfeld as his influence was so pronounced, but we forge on with tremendous regard for his unbelievable talent.