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Karl Lagerfeld was known above all for his tireless creativity and the range of luxury brands with which he was associated — Chanel, Chloé and others, including his own — across a career of more than 60 years. But the designer also personified an era of extraordinary change in Europe, from the ruins of the second world war to the era when the continent could support the multibillion-dollar industry of luxury, in which it remains the world leader.
Lagerfeld, who died this week, was an early pan-European when it was difficult to be one. At a time of rigid borders, visas and passport controls, he had a mind to wander. He was born and brought up in Hamburg. Having been told by his mother, a lingerie saleswoman, that the devastated German city was no place for him to get on in life, he declared himself to have no home and moved to Paris. He went on to embody the rare post war spirit of Franco-German co-operation that would be the foundation for decades of peace and Europe’s economic recovery.
The house of Pierre Balmain hired him in 1955, between two big moments of European unity: the foundation of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952 and the European Economic Community in 1957. Paris was struggling to recover its confidence and wealth after its wartime deprivations. The omens were hardly good for setting up a thriving industry in luxury goods.
Lagerfeld was part of something specific for that time. With the Marshall Plan, there came a gradual recovery of spending in western Europe. The Bicycle Thieves years, as portrayed in Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 film, were evolving into something more akin to Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita of 1960. Son of a businessman, Lagerfeld too was an entrepreneur. In the Sixties, he saw a wave of customers emerging who, while relatively wealthy, shunned costly couture. Lagerfeld gambled on ready-to-wear and mass-market fashion. His huge work rate — umpteen collections a year — mirrored Germany’s economic miracle of the 1960s and 70s.
Most of all, however, Lagerfeld led luxury’s globalisation. He epitomised the “modern designer”, working for multiple labels. He was not so much a designer of great clothes — he will not be remembered for a signature style — as a genius marketeer. Hired to revive Chanel in 1983, he used the logo of the interlocking “Cs” to establish the brand across the world. As he watched behind his trademark dark glasses, the cash rolled in. By 2017, Chanel’s worldwide revenue reached $10bn. Lagerfeld understood the possibilities associated with being a global business years before many others.
His success helped to give fashion the important place that it has in Europe’s economy. With 5m people employed in fashion, more than 1m work in high-end industries. Even after the 2008 financial crisis, luxury grew faster than the rest of the European economy — by double digits in some years. Today it accounts for a tenth of EU exports.
The European idea is now a little out of vogue and Lagerfeld’s global business acumen did not leave him immune to views which — from Brexit Britain to Budapest — have marked the austerity years. He vocally attacked Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel for allowing entry to 1m asylum seekers during the migrant crisis. But the pan-European ideal still lives among millions of young people, not least in the UK.
Lagerfeld might be remembered for being a European from a distant age. His talents helped to style Europe’s revival, and they resonate today. For he will also be celebrated for his most enduring skill — he knew how to design, and sell, good clothes.
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