Remembering Karl Lagerfeld

Marina He’20

On the morning of February 19th, my phone sounded with an alert. Karl Lagerfeld had passed away at the age of 85.

I could not believe it at first. The iconic designer and fashion photographer, with his signature white ponytail, dark glasses, and fingerless gloves, had always emitted an aura of immortality to me, and this sudden news left me shocked. As I checked my Instagram, posts from different news outlets repeated the same message, confirming again and again that Karl Lagerfeld had passed away.

Karl Otto Lagerfeld, born Lagerfeldt, was born on September 10th, 1933 — though throughout his life, he never revealed his true birthday to the public — in Hamburg, Germany, to parents Elizabeth and Otto Lagerfeld. As a child, he demonstrated great interest towards the visual arts. He often cut out pictures from fashion magazines, and according to Wikipedia, many of his schoolmates claimed that Lagerfeld was always sketching “no matter what we were doing in class.” He fully immersed himself in the fashion world when he moved to Paris at the age of 14 to study art and history, where two years later, he entered a design competition and won first place in the coat category. His design caught the attention of Pierre Balmain, the French designer who founded the notable fashion house Balmain. Lagerfeld had his breakthrough into the fashion industry working as Pierre Balmain’s assistant and later as his apprentice for three years.

Afterwards, Lagerfeld quickly found his place at Jean Patou as the art director, in which he designed “ten haute couture collections”, as stated by the Business of Fashion, during his time there. Soon, he began freelancing in France, Italy, England, and Germany, working in brands such as Charles Jourdan, Krizia, Valentino, Tiziani, and Curiel. Lagerfeld also designed for the French brand Chloé, becoming its creative lead in 1964. Under his guidance, Chloé reached international success, exuberating confidence, fun, and freedom through bold prints and flowing dresses. He would return to the brand again in 1992, though having less of an impact as he did before.

Lagerfeld also began his collaboration with Fendi in the 60s, which continued until his death. He was appointed to work on the fur designs for the label, and immediately, he began pushing boundaries, introducing rabbit and squirrel fur within his first year, which had never been used before in the industry, and breaking the traditional association between fur with formal wear by incorporating it into everyday wear. He would go on designing collections for womenswear and furlines for Fendi, and the collaboration lasted for a total of 54 years. Despite his poor health later in his career, Lagerfeld continued to work hard for what would be his last collection for the brand, continuing to write notes to the team regarding the upcoming show. Fendi honored Lagerfeld’s legacy at its fall 2019 show in Milan and through a series of Instagram posts, including a video of an interview with Lagerfeld wherein he described what he wore the first day working at the label. “Thank you Karl for the most beautiful journey” the brand wrote under one post, “with all our love Your Fendi family.”

Lagerfeld was most well known for being the chief creative director of Chanel beginning in 1983. He was approached by chairman Alain Wertheimer and given the opportunity to completely remake the brand a decade after founder Coco Chanel’s death. As Lagerfeld recalled to The New York Times “Everybody said, ‘Don’t touch it, it’s dead, it will never come back.’ But by then I thought it was a challenge.” Under Lagerfeld, Chanel would rise from its decline to a “ $10 billion global fashion machine,” as Bloomberg reported. He maintained the signature elements of Coco Chanel’s style while also incorporating elements that were more modern and part of current popular culture. The iconic interlocking C’s logo that is so strongly tied to the label was also designed by Lagerfeld. Through Chanel, Lagerfeld also broke the traditional boundaries with runways, being the first to introduce an immersive experience to the show, such as an airport terminal, a casino, a Chanel-branded supermarket, and the Eiffel Tower.

Though he did cause some controversies in his lifetime, Karl Lagerfeld’s passing will be a significant absence felt deeply across the fashion industry. A pioneer in the field, Lagerfeld constantly challenged boundaries and tested the limits. As Lagerfeld said himself, “I am a black diamond, unfaceted. Black diamonds are rare, hard to cut, and therefore uncommercial.”