in loving memory of karl lagerfeld 1933-2019

As Chanel prepares for its Paris Fashion Week show, i-D reflects on the life and work of the visionary, and celebrates how his legacy continues to inspire.

by Osman Ahmed
01 October 2019, 7:00am

This story originally appeared in i-D's The Voice of a Generation Issue, no. 356, Summer 2019. Get your copy here.

Karl was eclectic, quixotic, a distillation of mercury and concrete (his favourite perfume),” says Amanda Harlech, Lagerfeld’s right-hand creative consultant since 1996. “He tangoed with light and shade. He loved the mix, creating new and surprising resonances through juxtaposition and echo. He spliced Le Corbusier and the 18th century, rap with the Baroque, Bohemian Rhapsody with the fleeting starlight as we sped in the open-topped Rolls Royce down into Saint-Tropez at midnight for a drink at Le Sénéquier every summer.”

As others (sometimes even half his age) creatively expired around him, Karl was an endless energy force of constant rebirth who remained spiritually plugged in to the zeitgeist far beyond the age of retirement. This was someone who began his career in the 50s and journeyed through the birth of celebrity culture and MTV, into an internet age of digital imagery, global branding and mass marketing. Through his eyes, fashion shows became more than theatre, they became spectacular Hollywood productions. Whoever said Rome wasn’t built in a day clearly hadn’t been to a Chanel show.

“More than anything, he loved working,” Amanda says. “He always encouraged me to paint more, take photographs, write. He taught me so much — ‘No second opinion! Just commit and do!’ The slightest detail inspired him, whether it was a millimetre that needed adding to a pagoda shoulder, or the stitching on the edge of a 30s Swedish lampshade. His eye was penetrating and all-seeing.”

Whereas once a designer was only truly deified if they had established a fashion house of their own, looking back, it is hard to pinpoint an iconic style or silhouette that Karl created. Maybe that’s the point. Karl was a creative chameleon, his legacy is less about the body of work he leaves behind and more about the direction in which he led fashion and the irrepressible boldness and perennial curiosity with which he did so. His work spanned several fashion houses, starting with Pierre Balmain and Jean Patou, then for Chloé, Fendi and Chanel. “My style is more: Another Spring, Another Love,” he once said, referring to the Marlene Dietrich song. It was about the new, the now, the next.

Karl Lagerfeld was an icon in every sense of the word. His impact on the world of fashion is as extraordinary, inspiring and gargantuan as the spectacular show set s and collections he became famous for.

As far back as 1979, Karl understood the tectonic shifts that would erupt through fashion: “It’s not very modern any more to talk about the new silhouette,” he once said. “The mood is more important than the line in a way, because we are not in the 50s any more… It’s more a spirit and an atmosphere.”

Jacque Lenoir, the original co-owner of Chloé who hired Lagerfeld in the 60s, remembered a dinner that summed up Karl’s elegiac versatility. Someone asked him what Gianfranco Ferré’s collection for Dior would look like the next day and Karl replied by taking three pages of blank white paper and firing off sketches. Then someone else asked him what he predicted for Sonia Rykiel’s collection. He drew it. Ralph Lauren? On and on Karl went, sketching collections faster and faster, until he had dispensed 50 collections, not one of them his own.

Of course, what Karl would become most known for was his work for Chanel, which was a moribund fashion house before he revived it (at the age of 50) in an unprecedented move just 11 years after Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel’s death. “People tend to forget,” he famously recalled, “that once upon a time, Chanel was old hat. It was only Parisian doctors’ wives who still wore it. Nobody wanted it, it was hopeless… When I was offered it, people said, ‘Don’t take that, it’s hopeless, it’s over.’ Because today it’s all about the reanimation of the most absurd brands! But at the time, you didn’t do that. New names were needed.”

At Chanel, he hyperbolised a vocabulary of indelible Cocoisms, many of which he amplified to become instantly recognisable leitmotifs: camellias, braid-trimmed tweed suits, quilted bags and pumps, ropes of pearls, gold chains, monochrome. Many of those Chanel archetypes were never really in the founder’s lexicon, yet Lagerfeld made the world believe they were part of the brand’s historical iconography. Perhaps most significantly, he turned the interlinked CC logo into the sartorial equivalent of Esperanto, recognisable all over the world in every language — and he applied it to just about everything, from surfboards to boomerangs to espadrilles.

Karl’s genius lay in observing, assimilating and recreating as well as a consummate sense of knowing when to move on. He could sense a trend, exploit it, communicate it through the prism of Chanel and soon after eject it ruthlessly from his intellectual system and pass on to the next thing. He filled his numerous homes, in Paris, Biarritz, and Monte Carlo among others, with stacks of history books and biographies, of which he always bought two (one to keep, one to tear apart for references) and hundreds of iPods loaded with various types of music — Michel Gaubert points out that his favourite music was Latin America, and Karl took tango lessons in his ballroom at home — as well as museum-worthy collections of artwork and furniture that he would unceremoniously dispose of every few years once a new period or style ignited his passion. He also wasn’t afraid to embrace pop culture. Case in point: his 2004 collaboration with H&M was unprecedented, setting the benchmark for news worthy fashion disruptions and a movement towards designers collaborating with mass market retailers.

“Karl loved to watch people — he loved the rhythm of life in the street,” Amanda says, who lists an eclectic medley of his passions: Marc Newson’s turquoise cloisonné desks, Suzanne Belperron’s jewellery, Bridget Riley’s rugs, the Bloomsbury Group, the Omega Workshops, Paul Ruhlmann’s furniture, Richard Serra’s sculpture, the paintings of Louis Douzette and Adam Elsheimer, the vocal silences of Vilhelm Hammershøi, Velázquez’s Las Meninas, Tadao Ando’s Art Island. “There was so much more that turbo charged his collections and shows for Chanel, Fendi and Karl Lagerfeld with depth and vigour.”

The image of Karl Lagerfeld is, as he acknowledged, a caricature. In 1971, Karl had a role in Warhol’s little-known film L’Amour, playing himself as a parvenu fashion ringleader, opposite Donna Jordan and Jane Forth. Observing Warhol up close gave him a sense of how to manipulate image and reality. A year later, he would pick up a fan during a trip to Japan and establish it as his signature accessory for the next 30 years. Throughout his career, Karl was radically recognisable. Though his look changed over the years (Saint-Germain dandy in the 60s; monocled Mafioso in the 70s; fan-fluttering Yohji-clad Kaiser in the 80s and 90s; dramatic Prussian-collared Dracula in Dior Homme in the 00s) it was always a cipher for Karl himself, a vision that was absolute and impenetrable.

Little is truly known about his upbringing, about which he would often imaginatively exaggerate. He frequently talked about an aristocratic provenance and a peripatetic European upbringing, but the truth is likely that he was born in 1933 and grew up in northern Germany during the Second World War. It is easy to see how that could light the lifelong fire and insatiable desire to succeed in life, even if that meant transcending conventional human comforts and mythologising himself. He was the paradigm of Diana Vreeland’s mantra: “There’s only one very good life and that’s the life you know you want and you make it yourself.”

“Karl admired anyone who started from scratch and made a success of their endeavour. He believed in fairy tales. Karl was always moving forwards. He crested every wave. He could surf every moment.” Amanda Harlech

One of his greatest achievements was urging Chanel to purchase the last couture workshops that were on the brink of extinction at the turn of the millennium, master embroiderers Lesage, feather magicians Lemarié, costume jewellers Goossens, fabric flower artisans Guillet, shoemaker Massaro and the millinery Michel. The idea, Karl liked to say, is that as long as there is Chanel, there will always be haute couture.

“He admired anyone who started from scratch and made a success of their endeavour,” Amanda says. “He believed in fairytales. He also translated political and social currents like a Geiger counter; it was how he could surf every moment. Karl was always moving forwards. He crested every wave. He would say to me that ‘When the train leaves the station, you better forget about it.’”

“How other people loved their holidays, he loved his work,” Claudia Schiffer says. She was the face of Chanel at the height of the supermodel phenomenon, bouncing down the catwalk in Karl’s playful and irreverent designs. “I’ve often described him as the Warhol of fashion, because like Warhol his work spanned such a wide variety of media and he understood the relationship between photography, artistic expression, celebrity culture and advertising. He was the only person who could make black and white colourful.”

“Karl really wasn’t too serious, he didn’t take himself seriously, but he worked seriously,” remembers Victoire de Castellane, the jewellery designer who was one of his first employees at Chanel, and remembers the jolly atmosphere of the studio, which Karl would arrive at in the late afternoon and proclaim to have slept for only two hours. “He would give you the confidence you needed. He would say, ‘Never compete, never compare.’”

Only his mother was faster than he was at the draw.”

“With Karl there was never any visible angst; there was no flailing around on the studio floor, gnashing of teeth and sobbing, ‘I can’t do it anymore’,” wrote Alicia Drake in The Beautiful Fall. “There was no thrashing of the breast for inspiration, no burnt offerings to conjure up the favours of the muses, no ‘Monsieur Lagerfeld can’t talk right now, he’s in a fitting’. On the contrary, Monsieur Lagerfeld was to be found chatting away with a journalist, fitting a dress, composing a press release in verse and negotiating a contract simultaneously.”

He was a true polymath: an intellectual, a designer, a photographer, a couturier, a collector, an entrepreneur, a marketer, a publisher, a caricature, a mentor, a celebrity. His oracular vision, endless energy and alchemist’s instinct for creating fashion and imagery simultaneously spoke to daughters, mothers and grandmothers — and it changed the global fashion system. Yet he was also straightforward, and seemed to put it best when he said: “I have no opinion whatsoever about my influence; who cares?” he said in 1978. “What is important is what I will do, not what I did in the past.” That may be true now, but his legacy will live forever.

Karl Lagerfeld
Paris Fashion Week
the voice of a generation issue