He was so prolific, indefatigable, larger-than-life and multifaceted that the fashion world does not feel the same without Karl Lagerfeld.
He brought energy, boldness and a rare rock-star charisma, and seemed to galvanize Paris as the creative heart of fashion.
Since his death last February at age 85, the industry has mourned, mounted tributes, planned books and exhibitions, and pondered all the wisdom to be gleaned from one of the pioneers of brand rejuvenation, high-low collaborations and multitasking — and a master of storytelling, showmanship and witty repartee.
By all accounts, he left the brands he piloted in fine fettle — recognizing early that brands matter most, not the designers behind them. Chanel is now led by his longtime right-hand woman Virginie Viard, who is staying the course while adding a youthful elan. Fendi, now unofficially piloted creatively by Silvia Venturini Fendi and her Rome-based team, is said to be growing at a healthy and stealthy 10 percent clip.
Meanwhile, Lagerfeld’s namesake house brought on renowned stylist and editor Carine Roitfeld to work in tandem with design director Hun Kim, who had been handpicked by Lagerfeld and has been working quietly behind the scenes since August 2015. And sales have been flourishing in 2019.
Reflecting on an unprecedented career that spanned more than six decades, observers agreed that the likes of Lagerfeld might never be seen again.
“His voice is missing,” lamented Ralph Toledano, president of the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, French fashion’s governing body. “For the outside world, he represented fashion. He was kind of a global spokesperson for the industry, even if everyone didn’t always agree with what he was saying.”
“There’s an emptiness. He created a void, and I don’t see anyone filling it,” echoed Michael Burke, chairman and chief executive officer of Louis Vuitton. “I don’t see too many people lining up to assume that vision of leadership.”
Lagerfeld loved to do things he’d never done before, and he ended up opening multiple new frontiers in an industry long bound by tradition.
“He’s done so many firsts. He’s shown us that a designer can be so much more than the narrow definitions of what a designer was in the 20th century, when designers felt they had to stick to their knitting — pun intended. He was a such a multilingual, multibrand generalist in an industry where everyone had a singular point of view,” Burke said in an interview. “He was inclusive before the word existed in our industry. He was digital before we were digital. He was global before global was a word. He was about newness before newness was an absolute necessity.”
Lagerfeld also brought speed to fashion — and a sense of fun — like no other before him, Burke said.
Just how fast? Toledano, who helmed the Karl Lagerfeld fashion house from 1985 to 1995, knows firsthand.
“I’ve seen him design 10 jackets in 15 minutes,” the veteran executive marveled. “He would have an idea and then, boom, boom, boom. His shows tended to be long because he had so many things to say. He was so prolific. And he could express himself in so many fields.”
What Burke — who worked beside Lagerfeld at Fendi for nine years, starting in 2003 — misses the most is Lagerfeld’s light touch, and his delicious, sometimes ribald sense of humor. “His laughs were legendary” Burke said. “That was Karl, we were laughing all the time. We were having fun all the time. I had an advantage because all his dirtiest jokes were in German.”
Yet his greatest legacy — and perhaps the most under-appreciated — was smashing the idea that creative freedom and commercial success are mutually exclusive, according to the executive.
“He would always say, ‘Commercial success does not remove my freedom. It’s quite the opposite,'” Burke recalled. “Most designers create this negative tension between the two. You have so many designers who feel that by being successful that they are pandering to the marketing.”
Lagerfeld, by contrast, “always made fun of the tortured artists,” Burke said.
“He remains a model, and an inspiration for many of us who love this business,” agreed Pietro Beccari, chairman and ceo of Dior, who worked with Lagerfeld at Fendi after Burke, from 2012 until 2018.
Lagerfeld was famous for saying he never took meetings, and claimed puzzlement at the mere mention of marketing, or a marketing department.
“He hated the word marketing, but let me tell you, he was the number-one marketer, the best I’ve ever met in my life,” Beccari said. “We live in a world of communication, and getting people behind an idea is critical and that’s what he was so good at.
“He even managed to market Choupette,” he said, referring to Lagerfeld’s beloved pet cat, who was an online sensation, the star of several advertising campaigns and an icon of the Karl Lagerfeld brand.
More enduringly, Lagerfeld had a comportment and way of thinking that was always forward-looking, uncompromising and restless — never satisfied. No wonder he bristled when Beccari wished to mark his 50th anniversary at Fendi.
The designer’s suggestion was to add to his workload, and show an haute fourrure collection in Paris during couture week. “That he loved very much because it was the future and not the past,” Beccari marveled.
His personal qualities — kindness, humility and attentiveness — are also part of his legacy. He also managed to project an ageless image — not only because of his graphic uniform of dark suits and dark glasses contrasting with his white shirt and white ponytail, but by continually adapting himself to the modern age and the latest trends in order to anticipate the next ones.
“I was calling him the living Google. He had an immense culture. Maybe the only thing he didn’t care about was sports,” Beccari said.
Born in Hamburg, Germany, and obsessed with clothes, reading and sketching from a young age, Lagerfeld moved to Paris in 1952 and attended the Lycée Montaigne and later, a drawing school.
In 1954, he won the Woolmark Prize in the coat category, thrusting him to prominence alongside Yves Saint Laurent, who won in the dress category. Lagerfeld apprenticed at Pierre Balmain, where he remained until 1958, when he became the chief designer at Jean Patou. In the early Sixties, bored by working for just one label, he launched a freelance career with Fendi and Chloé among his most important early clients. Others included Mario Valentino, Max Mara, Tiziano, Repetto and Monoprix. He left Chloé when he joined Chanel, but returned for a five-year stint that wound up in 1997, when he was succeeded by the then-unknown Stella McCartney.
“When people ask me what I do, ‘designer’ seems inadequate; I tell them I’m in the fashion business,” Lagerfeld said back in 1975. “But that is what happens with ready-to-wear. You become an enterprise.”
His role at Fendi expanded from furs to ready-to-wear, and that put him in the rare position of staging multiple fashion shows in multiple capitals. In 2006, he showed his signature label in New York, Fendi in Milan and Chanel in Paris.
When Chanel hired Lagerfeld in 1982, initially for couture only, it was more than a decade since the death of the founder, and the label had grown dusty. “When I started at Chanel, what people said to me was, ‘Don’t do it. It will not work; it’s an old name, it’s done,’” the designer recalled in a 2003 interview. “Nobody believed in it except me and [Chanel owner] Mr. [Alain] Wertheimer.”
His strong suit was his ability to continually reinterpret the Chanel style, while keeping the brand’s image at the highest level. “Chanel is a style and a standard,” he would say. Lagerfeld was able to bend the look to the style of Goths, surfers, hippies, robots — you name it — and to continue to attract young women to a label that once had a bourgeois, slightly older, image.
“This year has been all about this handover between Karl and Virginie, and it’s happening in the best possible conditions, with Virginie revealing, were it necessary, all the facets of her talent,” Bruno Pavlovsky, president of Chanel fashion activities and president of Chanel SAS, told WWD earlier this month.
He noted that Viard’s first solo collection, for cruise 2020, hit stores in recent weeks and has been selling briskly. “From an economic point of view, 2019 is shaping up to be an exceptional year, despite the events in Hong Kong,” he said.
To be sure, Lagerfeld’s place in fashion history looms large — not necessarily for inventing a new silhouette, but for his range, and longevity.
“Because he belonged to a generation that had known a fashion world still far from its formatting in brands and big luxury groups, a world still preserved from marketing and purely corporate spirit, Karl Lagerfeld had something rare and very precious: a freedom of expression and an independent spirit,” said Olivier Gabet, director of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. “He had seen it all before, and his panoramic vision of fashion, a certain long-term view, too, allowed him to put things in perspective. It allowed him distance, irony, and an ability to project himself, to judge with severity or to support with kindness. Let’s say he was the last from this generation.”
Gabet concurred that central to Lagerfeld’s philosophy was to take his work seriously, but not to assign his job too much importance.
The designer famously loathed pretentiousness, especially from other designers who claimed to be doing the work of artists. “We are all dressmakers, that’s all,” he said in a 2003 interview.
Indeed, he liked to call himself “working class,” a winking description, given his lavish lifestyle and faultless manners.
“Karl Lagerfeld showed that in fashion it’s useless to play the artist too much, but a real culture, artistic and literary [knowledge], can help — the alliance of attention to detail and global vision, without resorting to standard turns of phrases,” Gabet said, highlighting Lagerfeld’s passion for “refined and precious techniques, the métiers d’art side” of fashion.
That he did not succeed in becoming synonymous with a silhouette — as Saint Laurent was for Le Smoking, or Christian Dior for his Bar jacket — seems to miss the point.
“I don’t think Karl Lagerfeld was an absolute inventor, because he totally assumed that being a perfect reinventor was the key to success in the fashion system,” according to Gabet. “And if there is a silhouette, a look forever associated with him, it is his.”
Lagerfeld’s imperious appearance could be off-putting.
“I’m open to everything. When you start to criticize the times you live in, your time is over,” he said in 2008. “The most important thing in fashion is lucidity, if you want to last.”
According to Burke, Lagerfeld helped lay the groundwork for today’s hyperactive luxury brands, energized with events and clever storytelling.
“He had his finger on the pulse,” he said. “People would walk out of his fashion shows smiling. He showed that fashion could engage with everyone, every sociological trend.”
What’s more, he showed that the leaders in fashion, on the creative or business sides, “have to be relevant, and that means taking risks and seeing things before others — and he did it,” Burke said. “He kept on writing new pages.”