AMSTERDAM — Karl Lagerfeld is everywhere at the brand’s new headquarters here: as cute figurines nestled in wall niches; in wry, large-scale photos depicting the imperious-looking designer in quotidian scenes, and in a variety of artworks, including large-scale watercolor portraits by street artists.
“Embrace the present and invent the future,” one of his famous quotes, is writ large in the atrium, a mantra for the 150-plus employees here who are nimbly propelling his namesake house into one of the fastest-growing brands in fashion.
Retail sales of all Karl Lagerfeld products reached 700 million euros last year, and the brand should cross the 1 billion euro threshold within the next two years, according to Pier Paolo Righi, the executive who partnered with Lagerfeld nine years ago to establish his name in the “masstige” zone with a digital-first thrust.
Almost one year after the death of the legendary designer, the company is brimming with youthful energy — the average age of employees is 30 — and a slate of new projects, from an underwear range to a collection of fragrances inspired by some of Lagerfeld’s favorite destinations.
In an exclusive interview, Righi was rueful only about the fact that he wished he had started working with the designer a decade earlier, so fruitful was their collaboration and so inspiring Lagerfeld’s open-mindedness and generous spirit.
“He always advised to think things through before saying no to any idea,” Righi said. “And also what I very much admired was how much he cared about people, how he valued people and how he treated them all with respect, dignity and genuine interest.”
Righi seems cut from a similar cloth. He surveyed employees on their wishes before establishing the headquarters in a grand stone edifice in Amsterdam’s scenic canal district constructed by a banking family in the 16th century. Among their chief requests was opportunities to mingle with coworkers.
Cue Karl’s, the sleek canteen that caps the five-story building and offers panoramic views of the city. This coworking space and lunchroom morphs into a social club with live DJs every Friday afternoon that has many employees lingering beyond 8 p.m. instead of scuttling off at four.
“It’s a generation that has different expectations for their work life. It’s really a home away from home,” Righi explained.
Meditation and yoga classes are among other amenities in the spacious and luxurious building, whose marble-lined stairwell and ornate ballroom are among landmarked features that have been meticulously restored.
Lagerfeld had a hand in selecting the locale, and signed off on its blend of period architecture and cutting-edge furniture and lighting. But he died five months before the move-in date.
To be sure, he was proud of how the fashion house was flourishing, and became very attached to his young contributors. He never missed the company Christmas party, even in December 2018, when he was seriously ailing from a cancer he had hidden from the world.
Righi recounted how Lagerfeld had arrived in Amsterdam the day of the dinner from New York, where he had staged Chanel’s Egyptian-themed Métiers d’art collection at The Met’s Temple of Dendur, and explained that he had to next jet off to Rome for Fendi.
“Let’s face it, it was a big effort for him. He said, ‘I feel very tired, but I’m super happy to see the team, but forgive me if I fly out tonight.’ I almost had tears in my eyes,” Righi recalled. “But he enjoyed the evening. He even drank wine.”
According to Righi and Caroline Lebar, head of image and communications, Lagerfeld relished the chance to mingle with his Amsterdam collaborators and study their outfits, for they always dressed to the nines for the legendary designer.
At each party, the Lagerfeld company would present their founder a special present.
The designer was particularly enamored with a paper sculpture that morphed the Eiffel Tower with a Dutch windmill — the Lagerfeld brand has a Paris headquarters on Rue Saint Guillaume — and with a diamond and sapphire Lydia Courteille brooch depicting his precious cat Choupette.
In a wide-ranging interview, Righi stressed that investors in the Lagerfeld company were long ago prepared for the namesake designer’s eventual disappearance, given his advanced age. Key shareholders include Amlon Capital, Apax Partners, the Chou family, PVH Corp. and G-III. They had already realized that the brand fundamentals were strong and multifaceted, tied to Lagerfeld’s values, iconic personality and cultural interests that would outlive him.
There is, of course, also an archive of more than 60,000 sketches and photographs, testimony to Lagerfeld’s staggering creative output. He never believed in looking back so didn’t horde his prototypes, but Lebar and several of her colleagues did.
During a tour of the building, Righi introduced Hun Kim, the company’s design director, whom Lagerfeld hand-picked for the job, smitten with his ravishing sketches, design chops and ability to define the here and now.
Kim, who has been in the role for five years, said the late designer had vast and varied interests, and movies, architecture or a specific locale could be the starting point for a collection.
“We always look into what was Karl’s favorite,” Kim said, showing off a mood board for pre-fall 2020 full of images of Biarritz, the seaside town in France where Lagerfeld frolicked and occasionally vacationed in his younger years.
Kim, dressed in an army green thermal T-shirt and jeans, also opened the digital archive on a computer screen and flicked through some original sketches, many pinned with fabric swatches and technical notations, along with photos of actual garments pictured on white mannequins. He called the archive a “treasure.”
“Not many companies have that one designer point of view,” he marveled, showing off the intricate seaming details that enlivened many of Lagerfeld’s designs. “You could see how he built the collections.”
Righi merrily guided a tour of all departments, from product development and retail to the e-commerce department, where a monitor usually broadcasts real-time sales, in view of the social media team.
Settling back in his bright, ground-floor office, filled with photos, sketches and artworks depicting Lagerfeld, Righi reviewed the company’s impressive business momentum. He was honest that the worldwide publicity around the designer’s death in February created a flurry of interest around the brand and further goosed sales — and that heightened interest has not fallen off.
“The good thing is that we, together with Karl, built the brand and the business in a way that it was able to stand and live on its own feet,” the executive said. “It connects the attributes of Karl’s world and his persona.…[Karl] was not that self-centered that he ran the ship on his own. He created a very strong creative and artistic team that created stories together with him. That was the case when he was alive and that’s the case also since he passed.
“His legacy predominantly is the way he operated with his creative curiosity, and his ability to create inspiring stories that relate back to Karl’s world, which is of course more than fashion: it could be architecture, music, places to go. It’s such a broad world,” he continued. “We feel we are the embassy of this creative mind-set and we invite people to participate.”
While Lagerfeld often confessed his most important and demanding job was Chanel, and he clocked something like 900 trips to Rome working for Fendi over 54 years, he was “proud and happy” the latest iteration of his signature brand — affordably priced and echoing his personal style and rock-star persona — was so successful. “He was more and more vested in what we were doing and more passionate about it,” Righi said.
Previously, Lagerfeld paraded collections on the Paris runway and competed in the designer segment — with modest success compared to his towering reputation.
Righi described today’s company, despite its scale, as feeling “almost like a family business where the patriarch has handed over the baton to his family.” Its members include editor Carine Roitfeld, named a style adviser last year; Sébastien Jondeau, the designer’s longtime personal assistant, bodyguard and a Lagerfeld men’s brand ambassador, along with Righi, Lebar and Kim.
As willful and commanding as he was in some domains, Lagerfeld also gave his trusted deputies freedom to do their jobs.
“Karl was also very collaborative. I think he was the pope, the inventor of collaborations before collaborations were engraved in fashion. That’s also something that drives us. All fields that Karl would have touched we continue to touch,” Righi said, hinting that the brand would soon embark on a collaboration in the music field.
While Lagerfeld is probably best known for being the first big-name designer to team with a fast-fashion chain when he did a one-off collaboration with H&M in 2004, his first collaboration was in 1989 with Polaroid, creating a dress crafted from photos that appeared on the Paris runway for spring 1990.
Righi allowed that Lagerfeld set the bar high with collaborations — always striving to be the first to enter a new design realm, whether it was stemware, fountain pens or helicopter interiors — and that the company would continue to explore such opportunities.
Reviewing the company’s recent performance, Righi said the last five years have seen compound annual growth of around 30 percent, putting it in the league of Gucci, one of the fastest-growing designer brands during that period.
For the fiscal year ended March 31, 2019, growth at Karl Lagerfeld reached 54 percent (eclipsing Gucci’s gains of 45 and 37 percent in 2017 and 2018, respectively). And for the fiscal year about to close on March 31, 2020, representing a full year since Lagerfeld’s death, revenue tallies should come in around 30 percent up.
Righi acknowledged that growth for the balance of the year will be tempered due to the impact of the coronavirus, and the company is drastically scaling back its plan to add 25 locations in China this year.
But he pointed to signs of robust health. “We see that the forward-order book is developing very, very well,” he said. “And our like-for-like growth is substantial.” He pinpointed it at 15 percent in its directly operated stores, and that’s above a double-digit like-for-like gain in the prior year.
Karl Lagerfeld counts around 250 monobrand stores worldwide, roughly half of them company-owned and the balance franchises.
The digital channel is also racing ahead, with Karl.com logging a gain of about 80 percent last year as the brand recruits and engages more consumers in their 20s. All told, about 30 percent of brand sales take place online.
In terms of product categories, Righi highlighted “substantial growth” in shoes, driven by the sneaker trend, and gains in ready-to-wear. “In the last couple of years, our ready-to-wear business has gotten a lot of traction and has surpassed the accessories growth recently,” he said, noting the business is now split between rtw and accessories.
He credited Kim for nimbly interpreting the brand’s rock-chic sensibility into products with a modern spirit.
The Lagerfeld company is profitable, and has been for some time. While Righi would not provide figures, he noted that the greater reliance on rtw should not crimp margins, as the company is able to source goods more cost-effectively as its scale grows.
The “vast majority” of the business is done in Europe and the Middle East, followed by North America, where G-III is Lagerfeld’s licensing partner. The third market is Asia, with China looming as the biggest market for future growth.
The brand has accrued almost two million followers on Instagram in the last two years to reach six million, and credits the social media platform for helping power its online sales and brand engagement.
Lagerfeld recently kicked off a monthlong online scavenger hunt with Woolmark that will award 777 knitting kits. Lebar noted that 10,000 people registered for the contest in the first two days, and multiple Facebook groups have popped up to share tips on finding hidden codes that unlock chances to win.
A range of interior design collaborations initiated by Lagerfeld should be completed this year, including a hotel in Macau, condominium projects in Toronto, Miami and Taiwan, plus the fragrances coming this spring from licensing partner Inter Parfums SA.
Righi noted pop-up activations are becoming a more important platform for brand communication that dovetails with its digital-first strategy.
A commanding yet warm executive, Righi confessed that he dreaded for years the eventual day of Lagerfeld’s passing, nervous about how he could shoulder the weight of his legacy and lead the brand without him. Yet it all evaporated shortly after that fateful day, Feb. 19, 2019, “because the team stood so strongly together, shoulder-to-shoulder. They felt so proud of being the sole custodians of Karl’s legacy, and felt this honor and also responsibility. To this day, I can still feel this total pride and this sense of responsibility.”