During his epic fashion career, Karl Lagerfeld logged some 25 years at Chloé in two separate stints, helping define its soft, romantic spirit — and occasional Art Deco bent.
The multitasking designer started at Chloé in 1963, working alongside several other freelance talents engaged by founder Gaby Aghion, including Graziella Fontana, Tan Giudicelli and Michèle Rosier. Lagerfeld took over as the sole creative force in 1966, relishing his collaboration with a dynamic fashion pioneer.
“Gaby was fun, sparkling and witty — very cultured and very funny,” he recalled in an interview. “I like to discuss with women when I do dresses. She was very open, very cultivated.
Hand-painted dresses, layered looks and oversize coats were all part of Lagerfeld’s legacy at Chloé. In particular, his early Art Deco collections for Chloé made waves in fashion.
“I don’t like retrospectives,” he told WWD in 1969. “But the Twenties and Thirties were the last epoch near to us when things were still well made…when there was quality.”
While famous today for the elaborate sets he constructs for Chanel, Lagerfeld actually introduced the concept while at Chloé, for his celebrated “Fellini’s Casanova” show in 1977 at the Palais de Congrès, and another in 1978 at the Palais de Chaillot in which models clad in heavy jewelry were penned in a cage and released at the beginning of the show by vivacious model Pat Cleveland.
“We did quite wild things for them. Gaby was never afraid,” Lagerfeld said.
Prints were key to the collections, and Lagerfeld designed them all himself. Italian textile house Bini realized them.
In the Seventies, Lagerfeld took Chloé — built on the concept of luxury ready-to-wear as an unstuffy alternative to couture — to a new zenith. Evening dresses easily sold for more than $1,000 — among the most expensive at that time.
“It’s funny, but often the most expensive pieces — like my Casanova blouses — are the ones the buyers want the most,” he told WWD in a 1977 interview. “I do design for a special woman. She is not necessarily 17, and she is not necessarily 50. I cannot classify my clients as to type or age. But my customers range from people like Gaby van Zuylen to Veronique Peck to Margaux Hemingway.”
And he was eons ahead of the high-low fashion antics of Sharon Stone, who famously paired a $22 Gap turtleneck with a Valentino skirt at the 1996 Academy Awards, repeating the stunt in 1998, pairing a Gap button-down with a Vera Wang skirt.
“I like the idea of showing a soft cotton shirt or jacket with a silk evening dress — mixing the most expensive fabrics with the cheapest. There is humor in this sort of dressing,” Lagerfeld said in 1977.
Lagerfeld credited American department and specialty stores, including Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, Bloomingdale’s and I. Magnin,and merchants like Sonja Caproni, Phillip Miller and the late Marvin Traub, for building Chloé’s name and reputation overseas. “They did an incredible job,” he said.
The designer and house parted ways in 1983 at the end of his contract — the same year he signed on as the new couturier at Chanel. According to sources, the Chloé business was in robust health when Lagerfeld left, selling almost as much rtw as Yves Saint Laurent.
Still, Lagerfeld was openly critical of Chloé management, having long clashed with Aghion’s business partner Jacques Lenoir.
“They have been damaging my reputation for years,” he lamented to WWD in 1982, charging the company with selling a “horrible couture line” in the Middle East and for picturing garments in ad campaigns he never designed, in violation of his contract.
In 1985, Aghion and Lenoir sold the company to Compagnie Financière Richemont SA, formerly Dunhill Holdings. “They had to sell very quickly after I left,” the designer explained.
Lagerfeld was lured back to Chloé in 1992 for a final stint during which he turned out a series of dreamy ad campaigns featuring Linda Evangelista — and battled with then-chief executive officer Mounir Moufarrige. “Five years was more than enough,” Lagerfeld said.
In 1997, Lagerfeld was succeeded by Stella McCartney, whose work for the label he came to admire, along with the “more romantic” approach of McCartney’s eventual successor, Phoebe Philo.
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