Experimental feature

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00
Experimental feature

When Karl Lagerfeld was appointed to Chanel in 1983, its founder Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel had been dead for 12 years, the house was moribund and its fashion had become a dusty shadow of its former glory. Under his stewardship, he revived the house codes and rehabilitated the business, making it one of the best-known brands in the world.

Creative head at Chanel for more than 30 years, Fendi since 1965 and his own labels since 1984, Lagerfeld helped propel Chanel to revenues of $9.6bn in 2017, while being ever mindful of its history. 

“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,” said Alain Wertheimer, the Chanel chief executive, in a statement after Lagerfeld’s death

Bernard Arnault, chairman and chief executive of Fendi owner LVMH, praised Lagerfeld as having the most exceptional taste and talent he has known: “I will always remember his immense imagination, his ability to conceive new trends for every season, his inexhaustible energy, the virtuosity of his drawings, his carefully guarded independence, his encyclopedic culture, his unique wit and eloquence.”

Paris, France, juillet 1976 --- Karl LAGERFELD, styliste de Chloé, la griffe la plus chère du prêt-à-porter français, présente les modèles d'hiver. Le styliste posant dans la boutique avec deux mannequins portant ses créations. (Photo by SAUER Jean-Claude/Paris Match via Getty Images)
Karl Lagerfeld in Paris with models wearing his designs from the Chloé autumn/winter collection in 1976 © Getty

Born in Hamburg in 1933, the son of Otto, a German businessman, and Elisabeth Bahlmann, a former lingerie saleswoman, Lagerfeld’s birth date of September 10 has never been confirmed. It contributed in no small part to the mythology around him, and one he loved to cultivate. Throughout his life, he abhorred nostalgia. 

“I have no notion of home,” said the designer who lived in Paris for more than 50 years. His move to the French capital was encouraged by his mother who told the young Karl to get far away from his home city. “My father was a businessman, but I was not ever going to be in that profession,” he told the Financial Times in 2017. “My mother told me that Hamburg was not for me. She said: ‘It’s just a door — now get out of here.’ And so I did.”

In 1955, Lagerfeld was hired as Pierre Balmain’s assistant after winning the coats category in a design competition now known as the Woolmark Prize the previous year. He claimed his award alongside the 18-year-old Yves Saint Laurent, who won the more prestigious prize in the dress category that same year. The competition established a fierce rivalry — and close friendship — that existed between the two designers throughout their careers, and was arguably only exorcised by Lagerfeld on Saint Laurent’s death in 2008. 

Although the designer established a namesake line, Roland Karl, in 1958, and worked for Tiziani, a Roman couture house, it was for his work with Chloé that he became first known. Lagerfeld started freelancing for the French house’s charismatic retailer Gaby Aghion in 1964, and was later charged with overseeing the entire Chloé line, a metropolitan collection of women’s clothes that embraced the bohemian spirit of the times. His decades-long association with the grand Italian furrier Fendi — he worked with all five Fendi sisters — started in 1965. 

Lagerfeld was not a stand-and-drape designer, as he would often make clear: at the start of the season, he would present the atelier with sketches who would interpret his ideas. He had a fascination with silhouettes and innovative fabrications. In meetings, he would go to great lengths to emphasise the importance of a cut. He was also an accomplished caricaturist: his drawings of passers-by, from his studio window in Paris, offer a rare testimony to the changing texture of the times.

Canadian model Linda Evangelista presents a new creation by French fashion house Chanel on October 17, 1994 as part of the Spring-Summer ready-to-wear collections. / AFP / Gérard JULIEN (Photo credit should read GERARD JULIEN/AFP/Getty Images)
Canadian Linda Evangelista models Lagerfeld designs for Chanel’s spring/summer ready-to-wear collections in October 1994 © Getty

When Lagerfeld joined Chanel, he transformed the house classics into icons: the 2.55 bag, the ballet pump and the fabled tweed blazer, all existed previously, but with each season, Lagerfeld would tweak and change them, enriching the Coco legacy and nurturing its growth. 

Blessed with a genius for marketing, he directed and, frequently, photographed, the advertising campaigns. He also had a showman’s sense of one-upmanship and humour. His vast, ambitious sets, such as a space launch (with rocket), a street demonstration, Mediterranean garden and a casino, ensured his show was the only ticket in town. Even in his 80s, his role in amassing the house’s latter-day fortunes was remarkable.

Lagerfeld, who had no longtime partner, and made a point of being too busy for relationships, filled his life with fashion. An autodidact, his cultural insights, reading matter and interests were voracious. 

An obsessive follower of fluctuation in the zeitgeist, he once professed to owning four iPhones and 20 to 30 iPads. But he was stubborn about other technologies: email was anathema, and requests to his studio were still made by fax. In interviews he had a conspiratorial nature, and a sense of devilry, often dispensing with press aides and brand representatives in order to speak more candidly one-to-one. Of the dozens of collaborators who worked for him, all remarked on his brilliant sense of fun. 

He also indulged extraordinary obsessions: for the past decade he was synonymous with his high-necked white collar and slimline suits; for a year he drank little other than Diet Coke (for which he designed a bottle). But few things were so dear to him as his cat Choupette, on whom he doted to an almost Marie Antoinette-ish degree, employing several nannies to tend it, and casting its likeness in numerous jewels.

Life & Arts Karl Lagerfeld Fendi feature - Pix from PR Do Not Use Without Permission 2000 and intarsia mink fur for AW with 1960s inspired geometric patterns
Karl Lagerfeld sketch for Fendi of an intarsia mink fur with 1960s-inspired geometric patterns © Fendi

Lagerfeld’s influence cannot be overestimated. At Chanel and Fendi, he enjoyed an extraordinary vantage point, floating seamlessly between the different groups. In addition to designing, he launched careers — Lily Allen, Vanessa Paradis, Ines de la Fressange, Kate Moss, among them — shaped designers, inspired editors, remoulded the style of the red carpet and published dozens of books. His absence at the Chanel couture show in January, at which he asked his creative studio director Virginie Viard, to take the final bow, was notable in being the only finale he had ever missed. 

Lagerfeld’s closest collaborator for more than 30 years, Viard has been entrusted by Alain Wertheimer with the creative work for the collections, so that the legacy of Gabrielle Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld can live on. His shoes, however, will be impossible to fill.

This article has been amended to correct details about Yves Saint Laurent when he won what is now known as the Woolmark Prize

Letter in response to this obituary:

Wit and wisdom from an impresario of fashion / From Mark Solon, London, UK

Get alerts on Karl Lagerfeld when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Commenting on this article is temporarily unavailable while we migrate to our new comments system.

Note that this only affects articles published before 28th October 2019.

Follow the topics in this article