You didn’t have to know anything about fashion to know about Karl Lagerfeld, the most instantly recognizable dandy of our time.
Chanel, the luxury fashion house Lagerfeld helmed for more than three decades, announced the designer’s death Tuesday.
As with his designs, his own image was carefully crafted by blending past and present: Snowy white mane and ponytail like a powdered 18th-century periwig; aviator sunglasses; a high, starched white collar; black, fingerless biker gloves worn with multiple silver rings.
Karl Lagerfeld and Lily Rose Depp at the Chanel Spring-Summer 2017 Haute Couture show. Credit: PATRICK KOVARIK/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Lagerfeld was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1933. In later life, he would be coy about his date of birth, usually trimming at least five years off his age.
In the early 1950s, he saw his first fashion shows in Hamburg, including one by Christian Dior. With his mother’s encouragement, he decided to leave Hamburg for fashionable Paris.
In 1954, he won a womenswear design competition and joined the haute couture house of Pierre Balmain. Three years later, he moved to the House of Patou. After that, he began freelancing for Chloé, and by 1967 counted Fendi among his clients.
His decision to accept an offer to be artistic director at Chanel in 1983 elevated him to an infinitely higher fashion sphere, and transformed both their fortunes.
“When I took on Chanel, it was a sleeping beauty. Not even a beautiful one. She snored,” he said in “Lagerfeld Confidential,” a 2007 documentary. “So I was to revive a dead woman.”
Chanel Haute Couture Autumn-Winter 2016 Credit: PATRICK KOVARIK/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Lagerfeld acknowledged the brand’s history but treated it irreverently. He became King Karl with a court of assistants; ruthless, unsentimental and constantly inventive. To survive “you have to cut the roots to make new roots,” he told the New Yorker.
“Because fashion is about today. You can take an idea from the past, but, if you do it the way it was, no one wants it.”
Lagerfeld was a celebrity for so long that we forget that he changed his image more than once. In a striking Helmut Newton portrait from the early 1970s, his hair is jet black, he has a thick, piratical beard and sports a rimless monocle. For almost 20 years, he was seldom seen without a Japanese fan, swiftly spread and fluttered for photographers. Like Warhol, Lagerfeld had an instinct about his own image.
Karl Lagerfeld: The man behind Chanel
His intellectual frame of reference was wide — Emily Dickinson, Sarah Bernhardt, Alfred Stieglitz, Isak Dinesen. If relaxed, his interviews could turn into monologues. He spoke quickly, words rolling off the tongue in a clipped German accent.
There was a dread of being passé. As Lagerfeld knew, you always had to be absolutely au courant in fashion, even into your 80s, even when your competitors were half your age.
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