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The ‘one-man multinational fashion phenomenon:’ Karl Lagerfeld

The tsar of fashion has died on Tuesday, 19 November 2019. Fashion has lost one of its last universal talents, a master of self-staging and a pop culture icon.

In a word: Karl was everything. Karl did everything, could talk about everything, had a strong opinion on everything and lived everywhere. His work makes it impossible to pin him down. He could design a wine glass as well as a dress, he illustrated, created perfumes, drew caricatures for the German ‘Freie Allgemeine Zeitung’ but was also an entrepreneur, a film-maker and pre-eminently a master of staging.

Born in Hamburg, Germany, to the businessman Otto Lagerfeld and his second wife Elizabeth Bahlmann, Karl entered the fashion world in 1955 by winning the design competition of the International Wool Secretariat in the ‘Coats’ category. Balmain hired him as an assistant but three years later Karl moved on to Jean Patou where he designed two couture collections per year. His first collections, however, were not received positively from the conservative press. They considered the hems too short and the necklines too low, all which made his designs too pret-a-porter and excluded from couture. Later, it would be exactly this ability to transform and reshape couture as something wearable that would underscore his revival of struggling brands. But before that chapter started, he worked for Tiziani, Chloé and had various side projects, from lingerie to shoes and sweaters.

His rejuvenation of established brand signatures came to the fore in his work with Fendi in the mid-1960s. His playful attitude towards luxury pelts like mink or sable released the brand from its stale, squarish image. Instead, Karl’s ‘fun-fur’ was shaved, dyed and bound into tufts to make the renowned double F logo. The same ludic method also shaped his success at Chanel. The brand offered a virtually inexhaustible archive of visual elements for him to use: rows of shimmering pearls, camellias, oversized buttons. Performing respectful iconoclasm, Mr. Lagerfeld made the Chanel suit suitable for the woman of the 21st century and hailed the black Chanel bag as an ‘it-accessory.’

His endeavours with his own personal label never reached as much popularity as his work with already established brands – the Lagerfeld brand, started in 1984, switched ownership several times. Malicious tongues said he was only able to produce his best work within the framework of another designer’s vision. His supporters argued he was simply too busy. While others retired, Karl designed eight collections per year for Chanel alone at the age of 85. He had life contracts with both Fendi and Chanel and he abided them as a man who “designed like he breathed”, who only death could keep him from creating.

A master of visuals, he created elaborate scenes to present his fashion in the same way as he invented himself as an icon. The sets of his Chanel shows were legendary. Post-apocalyptic wastelands were followed by underwater paradises and even a fully-stocked Chanel supermarket. His one-liners are pop-culture at its finest and were even published as the book ‘The World According to Karl’. Ever a showman, Lagerfeld was never afraid to comment, even if his comments were often branded inappropriate or politically incorrect. Examples include Adele’s weight, criticising the #metoo movement and Germany’s decision to open her borders to millions of Syrian refugees. Many of his quotes turned into bon mots. His opinion on wearing sweats was critical: “Sweatpants are a sign of defeat. You lost control of your life so you bought some sweatpants.” But Lagerfeld was not above accessible fashion. The fast fashion giant H&M chose him as the first designer with whom to create an inexpensive capsule collection. It sold out in two days.

Karl himself claimed he was working towards being remembered by no one, but for someone whose tireless creativity has spanned decades, that is too ambitious an aim. After he himself paid respect to other designers’ visions for so long, it remains unclear whether the continuation of his brand will allow him to establish his own design legacy posthumously. One thing is certain: the world of fashion has lost a leading creative force. But at the same time, I am excited to see the ideas and creatives who will fill the void he has left behind.

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