In the shadow of his death, Judith Willis looks back at the career of the irreplaceable Karl Lagerfeld; creative director, designer, photographer, and pure genius.
Tuesday 19th February was like any other day in the office, except just after noon an email popped into my inbox with the subject: ‘Karl Lagerfeld reported dead’. My mouth went letterbox shaped. I turned to my colleagues and whimpered “Karl Lagerfeld has died”. They looked at me and in unison replied nonchalantly, “Yeah, we know.” I couldn’t understand their casual manner – Lagerfeld is one of the most prolific and celebrated figures in fashion who worked for Chanel and Fendi right up until his death aged eighty-five. There had been whispers that his health was ailing after not coming out as usual to take a bow after the Chanel couture collection shows back in January. In the end, he passed away from complications with pancreatic cancer on Monday February 18th at the American Hospital of Paris. Even a genius is a mortal.
Lagerfeld’s career in fashion began aged seventeen when his sketch of a coat won a contest held by the International Wool Association and was subsequently produced by Pierre Balmain, who was so impressed by Lagerfeld’s talent that he offered Karl a job as his assistant.
Three years later, Karl was appointed as the art director for designer Jean Patou, and by the early 1960s he was the first freelancer to work between France, England, Germany and Italy.
In 1985, Lagerfeld became the art director for Chanel – the fashion house he is perhaps most associated with. At the time Karl joined, it was considered a “near-dead brand” since the death of designer Coco a decade prior. Karl went by the mentality “my life and my job is to forget myself”, describing himself as “a computer plugged into the Chanel mode.” He breathed new life into the house of Chanel, revamping its ready-to-wear fashion line and famously integrating the interlocking CC logo into a style pattern for the fashion house. Lagerfeld stated, “We had to pull out all the stops because otherwise it would just have been a posh unassuming tweed suit with a little bow.” The label that had dwindled down to only being worn by middle aged doctors’ wives became the biggest design house of all time.
In 2012, the Little Black Jacket exhibition opened in London, showing over one hundred black and white photographs – shot by Lagerfeld himself – of the designer’s favourite muses wearing Chanel’s iconic tweed jacket. Other photography ventures of Karl’s included the 2011 Pirelli calendar and editorials for Harper’s Bazaar. Although it was not his best-known occupation, Karl was an incredibly skilled and talented photographer, effortlessly capturing each individual’s personality – a testament to the close relationships he had with some of the world’s biggest names.
Lagerfeld was easily recognisable by his signature style – dark suits, white pony-tail, and tinted sunglasses. He was also known for his tendency towards controversy, from stating that if it were legal, he would marry his cat, to employing strippers and an adult-film star to model his black-and-white collection for Fendi – a decision that caused Anna Wintour to walk out of the runway show at Milan Fashion Week in 1993. But the beauty of Karl’s shows was that there was always a kind of humour and playfulness behind each one. Remember the Chanel AW14 runway show when the Grand Palais was transformed into the Chanel Shopping Centre, where models browsed aisles filled with Chanelbranded goods? Or the SS16 show that saw the Grand Palais turned into an airport terminal, with check-in kiosks, branded luggage and ticket officers? Bruno Pavlovsky, President of Fashion at Chanel, said of the late creative director: “Fashion show after fashion show, collection after collection, Karl Lagerfeld left his mark on the legend of Gabrielle Chanel and the history of the House of Chanel.”
The biggest question now is what does the future hold for Chanel and Fendi without their influential creative director? Doubtless there will be many accomplished figures lined up to succeed the King of Fashion’s throne, but just who it will be remains a mystery for now. One thing is certain, however: they have some very large Chanel boots to fill.
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