Will the late, great Karl Lagerfeld be studied in business schools?
He should be.
While he claimed a complete disinterest in economics and marketing, frequently scoffing at the latter as something inscrutable and repellent, the designer had unerring instincts for new creative approaches that often became influential business models. Lagerfeld forged the modern template for reinventing heritage brands; sped the rhythm of collections at the highest levels of fashion; brought storytelling and content to the fore; pushed ready-to-wear prices into five figures, and proved that bold spending can be a path to profits.
What’s more, his character — kindhearted, and polite to a fault — and his approach to his work — exacting and uncompromising — created an elegant, familial corporate culture that engendered incredible loyalty and devotion. His longevity at Chanel and Fendi — spanning 36 and 54 years, respectively — was echoed in a long list of colleagues that stayed by his side for decades, including Chanel studio director Virginie Viard, who was entrusted to carry on Lagerfeld’s legendary creative work. (She started as an intern and rose to become director of Chanel’s fashion creation studio.)
Few designers straddled as many employers and price zones as Lagerfeld, who finally found the sweet spot for his signature brand in 2012 by taking up permanent residence in the masstige zone. There are now more than 100 freestanding stores worldwide, plus online sales in 96 countries.
Yet Lagerfeld is mostly known for his work at Chanel, and for taking luxury to new heights.
No one could have foreseen the reverberations of a small, 30-look show in December 2002 that Lagerfeld dubbed “Satellite Love,” his term for this new concept: a between-season collection of ready-to-wear embellished by the specialty ateliers Chanel began to acquire in order to preserve the rare craft skills used by the handful of remaining couture houses.
It was a charming event, held at the historic Rue Cambon couture salons, with the 65 guests in attendance — including chief executive officers from luxury rivals Hermes and Louis Vuitton, which used Chanel’s ateliers — handed packs of CC-branded chocolate cigarettes. Hard to remember exactly the clothes; impossible not to recognize now how prescient this was.
Throughout his storied tenure at Chanel, Lagerfeld kept adding to his workload, perceiving a need to deliver newness to clients in its boutiques. No doubt he detected the rise of the fast-fashion giants Zara and H&M and felt that tony clients should get the same thrill.
Lagerfeld would end his career at Chanel with a self-imposed mandate to design 10 collections a year. In 2018, he added ski and swimwear capsule lines to the ready-to-wear offer: Coco Neige and Coco Beach. The designer got the idea while on summer vacation in Saint-Tropez, where he noticed the Chanel store lacked a strong assortment of beach gear.
(In addition to his biannual ready-to-wear show, the designer was responsible for two couture shows, a cruise collection and the annual Métiers d’Art line. He also oversaw the pre-collections that are shown internally to buyers from Chanel’s boutiques worldwide.)
“Fashion is a constant dialogue,” Lagerfeld liked to say. “It’s not what you did in the past in fashion that’s important, it’s what your contribution is to fashion of the moment. That’s what’s interesting in this job.”
This output — drops before drops became a thing — compelled many fashion houses big and small to increase their complement of annual collections. It was much to the consternation of many of Lagerfeld’s designing compatriots, who complained about the velocity of fashion, and the risk of burnout.
Pshaw, was Lagerfeld’s reflex reaction. He had a Darwinian view on many things, likening fashion to sport and himself to an elite athlete in these games.
“For example, a football player can’t say, ‘No, I cannot play today. It’s too much pressure,'” he said in 2015. “For what we are paid in those jobs, we could not say that it’s too much pressure. If it is, don’t accept the job.”
What would become his annual Metiers d’Art show pushed ready-to-wear into new price zones, and no doubt emboldened other French houses to do the same. Specialty ateliers owned by Chanel, grouped under the company name Paraffection, work for many other brands, which began trumpeting embroideries done by Lesage or Montex, or jewelry by Goossens.
Chanel keeps expanding its portfolio of specialty workshops, now numbering 26, tightening its grip on the essential ingredients of couture — from buttons and feathers to hats — and also giving it an edge in creating unique luxury ready-to-wear. No doubt this capacity gave Chanel the courage to reveal late last year that it would stop using exotic skins — including crocodile, lizard, snake and stingray — preferring to exalt the more unique surfaces its embroidery houses and other ateliers can achieve. (For some time, Chanel has been making its signature suits in tweeds that are not really tweeds at all, but complicated embroideries that are difficult to copy.)
Beyond the manufacturing innovations, the Metiers d’Art collections allowed Lagerfeld to flex his creative muscles, mine his deep cultural knowledge and deliver what every fashion brand, retailer and beauty company values today: content.
Knowing Gabrielle Chanel’s rags-to-riches story by heart, Lagerfeld began using the Metiers d’Art shows to recount a relevant chapter in the founder’s colorful life, and celebrate the local dress customs of the far-flung destinations he took the show almost every December, among them Salzburg, Shanghai, Rome and Edinburgh. Time allowing, he would even direct short movies and screen it ahead of the shows.
His Highland fling in 2012 was a textbook example of brilliant storytelling. Thanks to her love affair with the Duke of Westminster, whom Chanel met in 1923, the designer took up such outdoor pursuits as fishing, hunting and long walks across the Scottish moors, adopting the heavy woolens and tweeds men wore and absorbing them into her singular fashion universe.
Chanel magnified the legacy by taking editors on a snaking 90-minute drive south of Edinburgh — across the River Tweed and through valleys dotted with sheep — to cashmere expert Barrie Knitwear, a Chanel-owed “metier d’art” and maker of its famous two-tone cardigans and other sweaters.
Using Chanel’s and Barrie’s might, Lagerfeld orchestrated a fashion moment as rich in its sweep of history as in its bounty of modern luxury merch, staging his show at the roofless Linlithgow Palace, the partially destroyed stone edifice that was the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots almost six centuries ago. “It’s the idea of Scotland, the mix of Coco Chanel and Mary Stuart — two queens of fashion,” Lagerfeld said at the time.
All of this had the effect of making Metiers d’Art collections highly desirable, compelling and collectible — a wearable souvenir for the elite clients invited to attend, and a product with an exceptional backstory to discover in boutiques. The same could be said of his ready-to-wear shows in Paris with spectacular sets: sandy beach, iceberg, rocket ship, art gallery, supermarket. (At the latter show, guests rushed to raid the shelves of Chanel-branded products, from jars of pickles to camellia-festooned rubber gloves and a chainsaw.)
Lagerfeld knew his patch within the brands he worked for, and guarded it ferociously. He exercised complete control over the collections he designed, the shows he mounted — up to and including the hair and makeup, which often came to him in dreams — and the campaigns that followed. He was proud to say he was a one-option person when it came to his design propositions.
And while he called himself a control freak, Lagerfeld never sought to exert himself in domains some other designers insist upon: store design, and licensed products including perfume. He delivered concepts that offered rich inspiration to merchandising and marketing teams, but didn’t feel he had to take credit for every brooch and pair of sunglasses.
He saw his job as getting people to push on the door of the Chanel boutique, and he did that brilliantly, leaving other experts in the company to focus on retail excellence, customer relations management and the like.
Lagerfeld talked about his lack of expertise in wry, winking terms. “Nobody talks to me about the bottom line. It’s not my subject. My subject is body line. It’s more fun,” he said in 2003.
In fact, one of Lagerfeld’s chief economic convictions was this: “Throw money out the window and it will come back in the front door.”
It’s not counterintuitive in luxury goods, for sufficient and sustained investment constructs a strong image, and enables brands to command premium prices that include fat margins.
The designer always insisted budgets were not something he had to deal with. “I never thought of something that was too expensive. I think luxury is that, no? It’s not only what’s in the shop, it’s also how it got there…And the good thing is, the effect is that it comes back. So stingy people should learn from that. People think they can get this kind of effect for free? Big mistake.”
Sounds like a case study Harvard Business School students could sink their teeth into.
Indeed Lagerfeld, for all his protestations about marketing and profits, was always in the loop on the positive effects he had on Chanel, given his close rapport with the owners, Alain and Gerard Wertheimer.
“Nobody forgets that we are in business, and business is business, huh,” he said in a 2009 interview. “And you can’t really say I’m ruining the business.”