karl lagerfeld

“It would have been super easy for Karl to say ‘no.’ The surprise was that he said ‘yes,'” Caroline Lebar, the late Karl Lagerfeld’s longtime communications director, marveled this week, recalling that day in 2004 when the designer agreed to design a one-off collection for low-cost Swedish fashion chain H&M.

“Cheap” had a real sting then, and Lagerfeld silenced it, making the incredulity of a collaboration between one of the world’s most acclaimed couturiers and a mass-market chain a leitmotif of an unforgettable advertising video. “Is it true?” a plump, indignant man shouted to Lagerfeld across a crowded restaurant when he learns of the tie-up. “Of course it’s true,” Lagerfeld shoots back. “But it’s cheap,” the man implores. “What a depressing word. It’s all about taste,” Lagerfeld replies dryly. “If you’re cheap, nothing helps.”

The chance to buy $49 blouses and $129 sequined tuxedo jackets from one of the most famous designers on the planet not only unleashed retail pandemonium — it had a seismic effect on the entire fashion system: breaking down barriers between luxury and mass; democratizing design in a new way, and foreshadowing an era of rampant collaborations, drops and pop-up concepts.

It would also catapult the image of H&M, creating a new annual selling bonanza that endures still, and it would ultimately inspire the template for Lagerfeld to relaunch his brand in 2012 in the then-burgeoning “masstige” zone, convinced his sweet spot was affordable clothing for a wide audience.

The big bang that the Lagerfeld for H&M project unleashed is also a reminder that instinct and daring should not be underestimated — or discarded in an era of influencer marketing, big data and AI.

Lebar said Lagerfeld kept an eye on everything, was always open-minded and rarely said “no” by reflex. While he had never visited an H&M store himself, the designer noticed young people in his studio wearing its clothes, and he knew it eclipsed all other fashion brands in terms of its mighty distribution network, then numbering about 1,000 stores in 19 countries.

“The surprise at that time came from a fast-fashion brand, so we should be very careful about what could be next,” she mused.

Lebar stressed that H&M was a “personal project” not associated with Lagerfeld’s signature fashion business, then operating under the Lagerfeld Gallery moniker with an ultra-exclusive, rarefied approach to ready-to-wear headquartered at one boutique on Rue de Seine in Paris.

Yet the designer reasoned that a sketch for a Chanel couture dress, Fendi fur coat, Lagerfeld Gallery blazer or H&M shirt involved the same process, cost and effort — the design component being the most important. He proved “that fast-fashion can also be creative,” Lebar said.

“Karl had never done mass market — and he loved a challenge,” recalled Eric Pfrunder, who worked closely with Lagerfeld on all his photography and collaborations. “He proved he could do an elegant line, but less expensive. I still have the shirts he made for H&M.”

The H&M project magnified Lagerfeld’s fame, as he based the coed range on his emphatic and graphic personal style, hinged on high-collared shirts and lean black tailoring. H&M even included his fingerless driving gloves and a T-shirt bearing a sketch of his face.

A t-shirt part of the collection

A t-shirt part of the collection  Courtesy of H&M

Margareta van den Bosch, creative adviser at H&M and Lagerfeld’s key contact there, said the collaboration with the designer replaced what was typically an underwear campaign for November.

“It was something really new. Karl understood that, and he was the first one,” she said in an interview this week. “We learned a lot from this collaboration.”

Van den Bosch said the teaser campaign, including billboards featuring Lagerfeld and model Erin Wasson, was an innovative element that propelled swift sellouts.

Not only did H&M learn that it was best to launch such designer capsules in fewer stores, it ultimately gave the chain the confidence to flex its own design muscles, launching its own Studio and Conscious collections, the former with big Paris runway shows, alongside the high-profile collaborations.

“Now we have different price levels in our stores,” van den Bosch said. Meanwhile, H&M soldiers on with its annual holiday collaboration and will reveal its 2020 one soon.

Margareta van den Bosch and Karl Lagerfeld

Margareta van den Bosch and Karl Lagerfeld  Courtesy of H&M

“The press is maybe a little tired of it. The customer is not. Nobody wants it to stop,” she said.

A lesser known, yet pivotal figure in the groundbreaking collaboration was art director Donald Schneider, who now runs his own creative agency in Berlin. Here, his account of the project, and how it changed the fashion world:

WWD: Can you recount how it all happened?

Donald Schneider: I still remember it all very clearly — those adrenaline-pumping nine months in 2004, working day and night with Karl and H&M helping to give birth to that legendary first designer collaboration.

At that time my creative agency, Donald Schneider Studio, was based in Paris and H&M was one of our clients for whom I was regularly art directing campaigns. I liked what they stood for, always thinking so big and modern, and their inspiring legacy of outstanding campaigns.

So one day in late 2003 I was in Stockholm again for meetings with H&M, having lunch with the-then marketing director Jörgen Andersson and the-then creative director Janne Nord. They were mentioning that this same morning they had received the results of an extensive survey on H&M by a respected consulting firm and that its conclusion was that H&M should surprise with a big new idea.

That challenge instantly tickled my mind and I spontaneously came up with an idea: How about inviting a high-fashion designer to design a special collection for H&M and create a surprising campaign around that? That would generate a buzz around a collection in a totally new way by putting the big name behind that, instead of H&M’s regular supermodel-in-the-campaign approach. They were completely surprised by this idea. Back then it was unthinkable to mix these two completely separate worlds — high fashion and retail.

A few days later Andersson called me and said that he very much liked my idea and that H&M wants to go for it. This was amazing news! In order to create a bombshell, I proposed we should try to get the king of high fashion, Karl Lagerfeld. Jörgen agreed. So I called Karl and asked him if he knows H&M — “Of course, all my assistants are wearing it!” Lagerfeld reported — and if he would be interested in designing a special collection for them. “Yes!,” Karl said. “The future will only be about high and low. Everything else in between will disappear. The high I already have with Chanel and this would be perfect to get the low.“ That was it! Karl instinctively went for it. He only had one question: “Have you asked somebody else for this, too, or am I the first one?“ “You’re the first one,” I told him. And Karl said, “OK, then let’s do it!”

A backstage image of Karl Lagerfeld shooting the campaign  Courtesy of H&M

WWD: Was there a particular business imperative from H&M that this project fulfilled?

D.S.: H&M had a stellar success in the Eighties and Nineties. They were the hottest fashion retailer. But by the late Nineties competitors had caught up. So H&M needed some sort of a big bang to further establish its leading position. And this first designer collaboration with Karl Lagerfeld in 2004 did that magic.

Of course going into this, there was no precedent to follow, no blueprint. We had to invent everything on this project while doing it. For example, up until then campaigns had always launched simultaneously with when the products became available in the stores. So we instead invented a countdown strategy for actually building up hype before, putting the campaign out in the days and weeks before. Even actually launching the collection on the same day in all countries was an almost impossible logistic stumbling block. But we did it, it was incredible teamwork, H&M fearlessly believing in it and throwing all its weight behind it.

WWD: Describe the context at the time. How popular were collaborations then?

D.S.: There maybe had been some small local collaborations before, I don’t know. But for sure nobody had ever taken it to this massive scale. And don’t forget, this was before the rise of e-commerce and social media. The phrase “capsule collection” was not common yet, neither putting an X between two names.

Also, Karl had just completely reinvented his persona, just completed his diet to fit into Hedi Slimane’s skinny Dior suits, started wearing lots of Chrome Heart jewelry, several rings on every finger — Karl the rock star! It was the perfect moment to have Karl himself starring in our campaign, I thought. But I knew he doesn’t like to be photographed, so I asked him to be the photographer himself and to shoot the campaign images as self-portraits, him wearing the men’s looks and standing next to model Erin Wasson in the women’s looks. For inspiration I showed him some sketches and mood photos, also some from an old Richard Avedon self portrait-shooting, him together with Marilyn Monroe. Karl loved this direction.

WWD: Did he have to get the permission of Chanel and Fendi to proceed? Or anyone else?

D.S.: No, he didn’t have to ask anybody for permission. Karl said that he has a contract for life with Chanel and can do whatever he wants in his own name.

WWD: The ad campaign played off the incredulity of a luxury name meeting cheap chic. Were you expecting some resistance in the marketplace to this new concept?

D.S.: We wanted to surprise and astonish — doing what nobody had dared before, mixing high and low, making luxury fashion available to everybody. Don’t forget in 2004 it was simply unthinkable that fashion could become democratized one day, the word “collaboration“ was not yet part of fashion’s everyday language. It was clear to us that not everybody would be pleased with this. As you can imagine there was lots of resistance and skepticism from all different sides, also from some journalists. I also remember when I let my Parisian agent into our secret, he was in shock and completely disapproved of it. He thought that this will destroy fashion.

Karl Lagerfeld's sketches for the H&M collection

Karl Lagerfeld’s sketches for the collection  Courtesy of H&M

WWD: Was there any nervousness on the H&M side? The Karl side? How risky was it?

D.S.: During the whole project, while working in total secrecy, we could feel that we’re on to something very big. But of course we all had our moments of doubts, even Karl. The morning of the launch, Nov. 12, 2004, 4 a.m. his time in Paris, he called me on my portable. It was 10 p.m. in New York where I was for another shooting. And he was very nervous: “What will we do if nobody shows up today at the stores?“

WWD: Karl liked to be first with things. Why do you think that was so important to him?

D.S.: Karl loved to surprise. He immediately grasped that this is the opportunity to catapult him into the forefront of everything. To break down the borders between luxury fashion and retail. To make him the designer who proved that looking chic is no longer a question of money. After all, it was Karl Lagerfeld for H&M that made Karl into the absolute superstar!

WWD: In what way or ways did it change fashion? How did it affect notions of brand elasticity?

D.S.: This one bang pushed open the door to what’s still thriving in fashion today. Just think of Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton, coming from streetwear being nabbed by high luxury and his own penchant for collaborating at all levels, from Ikea to diamond jewelry. Or think of Moncler Genius and its extremely successful serial collaborations.

WWD: What can we learn from this today?

D.S.: The origin of every big shift is a creative idea. Today I too often hear, “We need to find out what the customer wants, follow data, algorithm, consulting firms, Excel sheets.” But come on. If back then in 2004 we would have done a customer survey, no customer would have wished for a Karl Lagerfeld-designed collection from H&M. Therefore my callout for today: Let’s give more empowerment to creative ideas and visions; let’s surprise and dare.

See More from WWD:

Karl Lagerfeld Changed the Fashion Industry Forever

Karl Was the Ultimate Industry Role Model

Video: Remembering Karl Lagerfeld’s Prolific Fashion Career