“No one can replace Coco Chanel — not even Kaiser Karl — nor should anyone — not even KK — make the attempt.”
So began WWD’s review of Karl Lagerfeld’s first collection for Chanel, which ran on Jan. 26, 1983 under the headline, “Lagerfeld Sputters.” Whoever typed those words on one of the manual typewriters that were standard issue at Fairchild Publications well into the Eighties, the opinion expressed was most definitely that of John B. Fairchild. He had spent his formative years as a fashion journalist in Paris, where he became enamored of Chanel — the woman — and her work. Even having watched her recede from prominence and her postwar comeback garner limited praise at best, he knew her brilliance and believed firmly that no one could come close to measuring up.
Everyone gets it wrong sometimes, even Mr. Fairchild. Which he ultimately admitted, if not overtly, then via the reams and reams of Karl and Chanel coverage, much of it rapturous, that would ensue.
By the time of that first Chanel review, Lagerfeld had been a fixture in the pages of WWD for decades, his first mention in 1954 for his Wool Secretariat prize. Reports on his work for a broad roster of houses followed. In addition to his well-known relationships with Fendi and Chloé, Lagerfeld also worked for the likes of Jean Patou, Balmain and Tiziani (a Roman couture house owned by an American). There was also coverage of his social comings, goings and penchant for high-profile hosting duties, including the wedding party for Paloma Picasso and Rafael Lopez Sanchez and the 1978 Venetian Ball in Paris, an extravagant fete with a massive guest list.
Indeed, Lagerfeld was already a star well-known to WWD and its readers when he accepted Alain Wertheimer’s carte-blanche offer to resuscitate the house of Chanel, and, in the vicinity of 50 years old, he was no kid. (While most obits including ours put Lagerfeld’s birth year at 1933, it’s a fungible number.) A brilliant, fascinating, creative stewardship would result. It will close definitively today when Virginie Viard takes her bow at the end of the Chanel show, and fashion’s post-Lagerfeld era commences. Until last week that change seemed unimaginable, even if we all knew it had to arrive at some point.
The Chanel Lagerfeld took over was in a dusty, musty, irrelevant state, and he quickly recalibrated its creative course back to unprecedented heights of luster and might. Along the way, he became a global cultural icon, his fame and magnetism escalating even into his elder years, a period by which some of his famous contemporaries had receded in prominence and creative relevancy. Lagerfeld’s star never lessened an iota; it only grew brighter through the years.
No doubt in the coming months and years, much will be written on Lagerfeld himself and his impact on the industry, both its commercial structures and the fashion of fashion. Here, timing and scale allow for only skeletal analysis. Lagerfeld’s genius was rooted in many factors, not the least of which was a superhuman work ethic. One of his favorite lines, which he repeated often through the years: “Lots of class but working class.” That work was always forward-thinking.
In terms of industry structure, Lagerfeld virtually created the star creative director employee model for storied houses. It started with his arrival at Fendi a remarkable 54 years ago, in 1965, when he was hired by the five sisters to inject some fashion into their family’s fur business. Lagerfeld did more than that, taking the house to the forefront of Italian fashion. There were spats along the way, and some laundry aired publicly, but the situation stabilized positively when LVMH acquired a majority stake in the brand.
This emergent concept solidified early in Lagerfeld’s reign at Chanel, as he almost immediately returned the house to a level of excitement and allure to match that which it had enjoyed at the height of Mademoiselle’s mastery, only more broadly recognized, given the more advanced communications of the day. Lagerfeld’s example thus became the gold standard for designer hires. A decade or so after, the model he forged would take hold across the luxury landscape, first with Tom Ford at Gucci, and then Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton, Martin Margiela at Hermès, Michael Kors at Celine, Nicolas Ghesquière at Balenciaga, John Galliano at Dior, Alexander McQueen at Givenchy, Phoebe Philo at Chloe, and on and on. Yet ultimately the template Lagerfeld established at Fendi and Chanel proved an unsustainable model for any pairing other than Lagerfeld at Fendi and Chanel. Since Ford assumed the title of creative director at Gucci, that brand has had four grace that role; Dior, three and a pair of interim stints; Givenchy, several. You get the picture. Once a mutual goal of brands and the designers they signed, longevity in the role of creative director has proven increasingly elusive; today, it’s doubtful that either side expects a run past the first contract. Lagerfeld’s level of success proved untouchable.
Lagerfeld inaugurated the itinerant show craze that has become almost a blood sport among the handful of major luxury houses that can afford to hit the road, or more accurately, take to the skies, armed with great expectations and greater budgets. Similarly, he led the way in the area of high-impact, high-budget major clickbait sets, installing all kinds of wonders beneath the Grand Palais, some frenetic, some serene: art gallery, supermarket, rocket ship, Eiffel Tower, waterfall, beach forest, Mediterranean villa.
Yet fashion is ultimately about the clothes. While profound, Lagerfeld’s impact on the fashion of fashion is less easily quantified. He didn’t produce collections and looks with titles etched into fashion history, à la Yves Saint Laurent, with his Le Smoking and Ballets Russes, nor did he create a highly recognizable, if unnamed look, à la Giorgio Armani. He did have a major, early impact on the growth of the French ready-to-wear industry, particularly at Chloé, where in the Seventies he developed a fresh sportswear attitude while identifying the commercial possibilities inherent in the tony boho culture that he codified into pretty, fluid lines and a gentle attitude. It’s a look that has wafted in and out of fashion prominence ever since.
At Fendi, Lagerfeld early on recognized the impact materials research and development can have on creative expression, particularly so in the once-staid arena of fur. As he and the sisters chartered their course together, they developed techniques and treatments that allowed him to treat fur like fabrics of different weights and textures, with various primary and decorative uses. The results were technically remarkable and often visually stunning as Lagerfeld took Fendi on wild seasonal swings — haute hippie, futuristic, sleek, architectural — finally focusing on an aesthetic of graphic polish. Along the way, he expanded the house’s focus into rtw, and eventually, the couture, with a resplendent, romantic fur collection inspired by the fairy-tale illustrations of Kay Nielsen shown at the Trevi Fountain in Rome. Yet he saw the current cultural handwriting on the wall. While never rejecting fur, together with Silvia Venturini Fendi, Lagerfeld started to downplay its presence on the rtw runway. His fall 2019 collection, shown in Milan the day after he died, featured surprisingly little fur.
But it was through his phoenix-rising miracle at Chanel that Lagerfeld cemented his place as unique fashion genius, iconoclastic in his invocation of iconography. His Chanel is so revered today, and so consistently fabulous, that the reality of his amazing turnaround of the house gets shortchanged. In 1983, Chanel had a name, a lauded history inclusive of great codes and a snooze-fest present. Karl arrived undaunted by both the inevitable work it would require to wake this sleeping goddess and the prospect of working in the shadow of the house founder. But then, he’d always been confident.
WWD may have challenged Karl’s Chanel cred initially, that first show, but it couldn’t deny Karl’s mastery for long. In short order, all of fashion was intrigued as Lagerfeld embraced and deflowered the codes — chains, braids, quilting, camellias, buttons, boaters, costume jewelry, black and white, and especially the revered tweed jacket. Critics have often noted Lagerfeld’s lack of pure invention; he had all the building blocks upon arrival at Chanel. (To that point, Mademoiselle claimed no invention. Her famed bon mot: “Only those with no memory insist on their originality.”)
Yet even a cursory review of Lagerfeld’s Chanel through the years shows incredible innovation and creativity, the jackets and skirts worked every which way, in every conceivable silhouette, some trimmed to the nines, some nary a button or braid. Lagerfeld was a man of many moods, lifelong interests and momentary fascinations. Inevitably, these crossed over to his runways, with messaging that ranged from tacky (the micro-bras of 1996, basically pasties on straps) to playful to ultra-chic. Some collections oozed opulence, others, restraint. Chanel leggings, ladies? And he loved to lace the work with humor. “I am not a serious person,” he would say. Over the years he celebrated haute ladies, punks, rappers, Marie Antoinette, surfers and skaters, among other characters, once staging a full-on women’s demonstration. Cheeky, yes, the cause du jour, fighting for the right to chic. But Lagerfeld intended it as an homage to his feminist mother, who, he said, “was very much into that.” Now, with just a few years’ hindsight, it feels prescient. On the road for cruise and Métiers d’Art, he would tweak his lineup for his locale — sweater comfort in Edinburg, a touch of Tyrolean Salzburg, cowboy chic in Dallas, traditional Korean-inspired embroideries and patchworks in Seoul, golden flourish in the Met’s Temple of Dendur.
For all the range, it always looked consummately Chanel — and ultimately consummately Karl. Yes, the originals were Coco’s, but Lagerfeld claimed them as his own. He revived the client base of lunched ladies who, in the early Eighties, still dressed to lunch, and (well-paid) working ladies while also attracting younger generations in Chanel’s traditional markets, Europe and the U.S. as well as in the newer global markets in Asia and the Middle East that are now luxury’s commercial epicenter.
Just as customers paid attention, designers around the world paid attention — and paid homage. There’s barely a fashion brand from midtier to luxury that hasn’t pilfered something from Chanel, whether a quilted bag or a jacket. This season alone, Jacobs, Gucci’s Alessandro Michele, Brock Collection’s Kristopher Brock and Laura Vassar and Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing did variations on the Chanel jacket, the homage directed, consciously or otherwise, less at Mademoiselle’s originals than Karl’s modernist reinventions. Karl did what Coco couldn’t: He kept Chanel ever current and pointed toward what’s next.
Ultimately, that’s what mattered most to Lagerfeld: staying busy and staying current. “I’m really a person made to work,” he said in 2008. Karl more than lived up to that self-assessment, and he made all of us who love fashion his beneficiaries.