The fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, who brought a flagging brand called Chanel back to life in the early 1980s and turned it into one of the most powerful luxury brands in the world, has died at age 85.
Famous for his dark sunglasses, snowy ponytail, and black suits, Lagerfeld was prolific, seemingly indefatigable. At the end of his career, he was simultaneously the creative head of Chanel, the Italian fashion house Fendi, and his own eponymous brand. In addition to producing multiple collections per year for each label, Lagerfeld was a photographer, shooting many of Chanel’s advertising campaigns himself, and a book publisher.
Lagerfeld had a keen sense for the spectacle of fashion: His Paris Fashion Week shows for Chanel involved set pieces like icebergs and towering cruise ships, which were just as much a testament to the brand’s financial muscle as they were to its designer’s inventiveness. Celebrities like Rihanna, Marion Cotillard, and Keira Knightley packed the front row. Chanel’s most intricate, handmade couture dresses invariably wound up on the red carpets of the Oscars and Golden Globes, worn by A-listers like Nicole Kidman and Emma Stone.
It can feel like an understatement to say that Lagerfeld was a titan in the industry. He took Chanel’s classic designs and reworked them over and over, turning them into enduring products for the modern era. Instead of setting the fashion agenda by starting specific trends that trickled down widely into the fashion ecosystem, Lagerfeld established items like Chanel’s quilted bags and two-tone shoes — indeed, anything bearing Chanel’s interlocking C logo, which he used liberally — as the ultimate markers of luxury and status. He shaped what we think wealth looks like, and it looks like Chanel.
Lagerfeld and Chanel
Chanel was legendary long before Lagerfeld came along. Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel founded her namesake fashion house in 1913, and today she’s widely credited with liberating women from their corsets by introducing jersey fabrics into her dresses, giving them an easier, more comfortable way of moving through the world. Certain Chanel pieces have reached icon status: the little black dress, the quilted handbag, and Chanel No. 5, a perfume with a history veiled in layers of marketing and mythology. The same can be said of Chanel herself, whose enduring status as the matriarch of French fashion can obscure less savory aspects of her life, like her ties to the Nazi Party.
Born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1935 — a biographical detail that has been the subject of some debate — Lagerfeld moved to Paris as a teenager. At 21, he won a fashion competition with a design for a women’s coat, kicking off his career in the business. (That same year, an 18-year-old Yves Saint Laurent won in the dress category; the two influential designers would later become rivals.) Lagerfeld worked at Balmain and Jean Patou before becoming head designer of the French fashion house Chloé in 1964. The following year, he took on the same role at Fendi, the Italian fur brand, working both jobs at once.
Chanel died in 1971, having shuttered her business during World War II and revived it to hard-won acclaim. According to the New Yorker, Chanel sales plummeted in the ensuing years: “By 1982, the label was little more than a perfume company with some clothing boutiques. The iconic Chanel suit — a tight-shouldered, boxy tweed jacket and matching knee-length skirt — was seen as a dowdy throwback for, as [former Paris Vogue editor Joan Juliet] Buck put it, ‘middle-aged lady politicians in the provinces.’”
When Lagerfeld took on the artistic directorship of Chanel in 1983, leaving his post at Chloé but keeping the job at Fendi, his challenge was to modernize the brand without alienating longtime fans. This meant refreshing the house’s look without throwing out its history altogether. Lagerfeld’s first collection earned both encouraging reviews and criticism. Certain clients “caviled at revisions and objected to some details,” the New York Times reported.
By 1985, however, the newspaper wrote that Lagerfeld “succeeded in bringing the Chanel image into the modern age. He has reshaped the suits, recolored the clothes and introduced knitted styles that are both pertinent and contemporary. Best of all, he has silenced the nay-sayers who perpetually complained that this is not the way Chanel would have done it.”
Throughout his time at the brand, Lagerfeld reworked the classics, often in irreverent fashion. The tweed jacket he cut to the midriff, covered in sequins and styled with bike shorts (and a surfboard), and lengthened into an athleisure look. The quilted, chain-strap 2.55 bag begat textured eyeshadow palettes and smoky eye makeup. Chanel may have been a storied fashion house, but Lagerfeld injected humor into his collections, dressing models in Chanel ice hockey garb and men’s briefs over black tights.
Lagerfeld’s Chanel runway shows were over-the-top. Ever the showman, he commissioned enormous, elaborate sets for the brand’s Paris Fashion Week presentations, turning the Grand Palais into a beach, an airport, a brasserie, and a casino. In 2002, he launched a “Métiers d’Art” collection to highlight the work of the artisans with which the brand collaborates; for these shows, Chanel took its guests around the world, to Dallas, Shanghai, Salzburg, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
During Lagerfeld’s tenure, Chanel sales skyrocketed from a reported $4 billion in 2007 — “reported” because the notoriously private company doesn’t typically release earnings — to nearly $10 billion in 2017, when Chanel pulled back the curtain on its finances for the first time.
Lagerfeld’s success at Chanel didn’t merely benefit the brand; it also gave luxury conglomerates a blueprint for how to revamp historic fashion houses that had grown dusty. “Lagerfeld’s success at revitalizing the Chanel brand inspired similar makeovers at other fashion houses, including Gucci (which hired Tom Ford), Dior (John Galliano), Louis Vuitton (Marc Jacobs), Lanvin (Alber Elbaz), Balenciaga (Nicolas Ghesquière), and Burberry (Christopher Bailey),” reported the New Yorker.
Though all these brands now have different designers (Alessandro Michele at Gucci, Riccardo Tisci at Burberry) or have traded players (Ghesquière now works for Louis Vuitton), they are still the industry’s biggest brands. The shot of adrenaline that Lagerfeld delivered to the fashion business continues to work its magic today.
Yet Lagerfeld’s approach to revamping a famous fashion house differed from that of many of the designers who followed in his footsteps. Others radically expanded their brands’ playbooks — Michele took Gucci’s sleek sexiness, which had by that time grown lackluster, and reinvented the brand as a kooky, maximalist romp through the ruffles; Tisci’s early collections at Burberry are already far edgier than his predecessor Bailey’s take on upscale Britishness. Lagerfeld, conversely, kept Chanel’s look extremely contained.
He knew how to constantly refresh Chanel’s classics in such a way as to hold shoppers’ interest for decades, a nearly impossible task in the fickle fashion world. Because he returned to the same concepts season after season (the two-tone shoes, the tweed suit), his aesthetic at Chanel was singular; the clothing he created often seemed to exist in a bubble, largely impermeable to trends that worked their way into other brands’ collections. “Cool” or any other description evoking of-the-moment-ness didn’t seem to apply to Chanel.
It didn’t need to. People coveted Lagerfeld’s Chanel because it spoke of something older, more elegant; it became synonymous with status and class. Today, Chanel lives in the pop culture canon as the property of rich girls and stylish, moneyed women. In Clueless, Cher carries a Chanel water bottle holder to gym class (a costume design idea that Lagerfeld later reappropriated into a Chanel collection), and the TV show Scream Queens features a bevy of mean sorority sisters named Chanel. When in The Devil Wears Prada Anne Hathaway’s Andy comes into the office after her big makeover, she’s wearing “the Chanel boots.”
Lagerfeld’s designs for Chanel and updates on the brand’s classics have, of course, also inspired a sea of fakes. When you see a quilted handbag with a chain strap at Aldo or Kate Spade, or a pair of beige slingbacks with a black toe at DSW or Forever 21, that’s Lagerfeld’s influence you’re looking at.
The cult of Karl
Like Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, Lagerfeld was the rare fashion figure to cross over into pop culture at large. That’s partly because his look (accessorized with fingerless gloves and various necklaces, pins, and rings) was so distinctive, making him an easy subject for parody or Halloween costume inspiration. He encouraged this immortalization, producing, for instance, furry Fendi dolls in his likeness. Though he once said “I don’t do internet,” his blue-eyed cat Choupette became a full-on Instagram petfluencer in the 2010s.
At times, he seemed to play into stereotypes of a fashion person, telling the New York Times in 1982 that he’d rather be called superficial than intellectual. (“Most intellectuals are a bore.”) By all accounts, he was a voracious reader and cultural consumer, though even those heady pursuits had a larger-than-life quality. Per the New Yorker, he once filled a mansion in Biarritz with 150,000 of his books, eventually selling it because he never stayed there.
In interviews, he spoke at a fast clip, expressing an unsentimental zeal for what was new and next. “The most important piece of furniture in a house is the garbage can! I keep no archives of my own, no sketches, no photos, no clothes — nothing! I am supposed to do, I’m not supposed to remember!” Lagerfeld told the New Yorker in 2007. He was known for giving outrageous, sometimes offensive interviews.
While Chanel trickled down to the mass market in the form of knockoffs, Lagerfeld also designed for the mainstream, collaborating on limited-edition Diet Coke bottles — his beverage of choice — and, in 2004, a clothing collection for H&M that sold out in hours. He even wrote a book titled The Karl Lagerfeld Diet, available on Amazon for $15.34, based on his weight loss experience in the early 2000s.
After the H&M collection came out, the New Yorker reported, “Lagerfeld achieved a level of fame usually reserved for pop stars and movie idols. ‘I can no longer walk in the street,’ he says. ‘That’s over.’”
This is the crux of Lagerfeld’s legacy. Not only will he go down in history as one of the most influential designers of the 20th century — he’ll be remembered for being himself, larger than life.