THE KAISER OF FASHION: KARL LAGERFELD

This month, Cicilia Brognoli presents some curious facts and oddities from her favorite designer, Karl Lagerfeld. Get ready to immerse yourself in a mix of fashion and weirdness. 

KARL, WHO?

Although the legendary German designer is known for his innate creativity and revamped fashion house, not everyone knows how extra he was. He kept his birth year a secret for a long time, even declaring himself a few years younger during an interview on German TV. His real surname was Lagerfelt, but that ‘T’ didn’t sound very commercial to him. With a lot of ambition and bold determination, he left his hometown, a nearby village Hamburg. He never mentioned much about his family and childhood. He was deeply fascinated by French, and at the age of 14, he moved to Paris, attending the prestigious Lyceé Montaigne and majoring in drawing and history.

At 21, he participated in the International Wool Secretariat Design Awards, designing a coat that earned him first place. He took the win by a hair’s breadth from Yves Saint Laurent. In this way, Lagerfeld secured a job as an assistant for Pierre Balmain. This first experience paved Lagerfeld’s way into the fashion industry; in 1958, he became the artistic director for Jean Patou. Although freelancing seems a modern form of working, it dates back to the 1800s, and Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe masterpiece first mentioned it. I’m sure Lagerfeld would appreciate this little historical parenthesis. In the mid- 1960s, young Lagerfeld moved to Rome to study art history but soon ended freelancing for designers like Valentino, Krizia, and Chloé. 

FENDI – ROME, THE ETERNAL CITY 

The white-ponytailed designer boasts the rebirth of two of the most prestigious brands, Fendi and Chanel. The Italian fashion house, Fendi, was born as a leather and fur shop, and after four decades of smooth sailing, it started a slow decline. In 1967 Lagerfeld was hired to revamp the fur line. At the time, there was no moral concern about fur usage, or rather, having fur coats was a must-have for many upper-class women.

Hence, Lagerfeld‘s introduction of particular furs like mole, rabbit, and squirrel met with a groundbreaking success. Lagerfeld was an incredibly talented sketcher, and despite not being very humble, he tended to minimise his genius ideas. He is the mind behind the emblazoned double ‘F’ Fendi monogram. He worked for Fendi for 54 years and Rome because his second home, after Paris, of course. And one of the most memorable Fendi moments, branded Lagerfeld, is the 2008 1,500 miles-long catwalk show running on the Great Wall of China. 

CHANEL – FASHION & MOVIES

Lagerfeld is mainly associated with Chanel, the fashion house he brought back to life in 1983. Coco Chanel died a decade before Lagerfeld’s arrival at the Maison. Chanel was the first woman wearing trousers, challenging every social convention hindering her artistic vision. Lagerfeld immediately started reinvigorating the brand’s reputation by taking inspiration from Coco’s designs and inventions like jersey and tweed fabrics. The revamp of the ready-to-wear line was a success, and it was coronated with the creation of the all-time famous interlocked “CC” monograph.

Although we all associate Lagerfeld with fashion, he had a fair marketing and branding talent. Do you remember the stunning pre-pandemic Chanel shows at the Grand Palais in Paris? Well, Lagerfeld introduced this highly experiential design in 2010. For him, the celebration of the collection and the brand itself couldn’t be the same in an anonymous environment. Hence, he played hard with set design.

Lagerfeld has always been passionate about photography and film direction. Do not miss the four short films by Karl, all available on YouTube, showing excerpts from Coco’s life. 

THE SECRET LOVER

Back in the 1970s, Paris one of the trendiest cities to be for all the nightlife lovers. Lagerfeld was jet-setting between Paris and Rome, and it’s in the French capital he found his soulmate. The German designer never revealed much about his private life, but there’s only one certainty. In 1971, Lagerfeld met Jaques de Bascher, a dandy French aristocrat, in a nightclub. He became Karl’s lover for eighteen years. The designer stayed at de Bascher’s bedside, while he was dying of AIDS in 1989, until the end. Now the two rest together, as asked by Karl himself.

KARL LAGERFELD BY KARL LAGERFELD

Have you ever seen products with a ‘Karl’ logo in a handwritten kind of font? Well, that’s the iconic element of Lagerfeld’s eponymous brand – together with Choupette, the designer’s famous Burmese. Lagerfeld said he would have married her if possible. The white-haired couple even posed together in different photoshoots.

This label was launched in 1984, but it has never achieved comparable success to Fendi and Chanel, as Lagerfeld created it almost as a personal whim. He wanted to mix his own style, a combination of intellectual sexiness, Parisian style, and rock-chic. Among the most requested products, there are the inimitable fingerless gloves, a must of every Karl outfit. In 2004 he launched a unique collaboration with H&M before the Swedish brand started its annual collab with a prestigious designer. 

DIET COKE ONLY, PLEASE – KARL’S ODDITIES

Apart from his eccentric outfits, disruptive and edgy personality, Karl Lagerfeld had many passions and certainly some obsessions. In 2001 he was so obsessed with Heidi Slimane’s creations for Yves Saint Laurent that he forced himself to lose 42kg. Slimane’s super skinny silhouettes left no way out for extra pounds. In thirteen months, Karl achieved his goal and, together with his dietician, published the book – The Karl Lagerfeld Diet. He finally could wear the craved super skinny outfits, as always paired with black leather fingerless gloves. Just think that a journalist, one of the few who could visit the designer’s Parisian home, claimed to have seen something like two hundred pairs of gloves. 

This was not the only mania of Lagerfeld’s; he was also a news freak. He loved reading the news in the morning, well, many international newspapers. He often didn’t manage to read everything he wanted before kicking off the day, so many plastic bags filled with newspapers languished around the house. He liked to start the day with a good dose of news, two milk-free protein shakes and a serving of boiled fruit. He used to drink only Diet Coke and sometimes Pepsi Max, no hot drinks, and very little water throughout the day as it tasted boring to Lagerfeld’s taste buds.

We often limit ourselves to admiring the creations of the most loved designers, forgetting that there are talented and equally curious people behind them. Lagerfeld is perhaps one of the most extreme characters, and who will continue to be talked about by bewitching many and making others turn up their noses. For those wishing to find out more about the Kaiser of fashion, I recommend watching Lagerfeld Confidential (2007). 

You can read more of Cicilia’s articles on ciciliabrognoli.com 

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