On the 19th of February 2019, the fashion world was shocked when news broke that the legendary Karl Lagerfeld had died from complications of pancreatic cancer. Lagerfeld’s death caused a great deal of upset and anguish amongst the fashion industry because he was such an influential figure in modern fashion. It was so beautiful to see designers, creative directors, fashion editors and models alike coming together to grieve the loss of such a well-known figure and sharing stories on how he had impacted and changed their lives.
The German designer’s entrance into the fashion industry began when he entered and won a coat design competition in 1955, sponsored by the International Wool Secretariat. Soon after this, he was hired by Pierre Balmain and worked as his assistant then apprentice for three years. It was under Balmain that Lagerfeld was able to attain some of the skills that would help propel his career in the fashion industry and help him to become the celebrated icon that he was. After working with Balmain, Lagerfeld became the artistic director for the French brand Jean Patou in 1958. Here he designed 10 couture collections spanning over a 5-year tenure and honed his talent as a craftsman and couturier.
In 1964, he went to Rome to study art history and work for Tiziano, whilst freelancing for an array of brands including Chloé, Valentino, Charles Jourdan and Valentino. During all this time, Lagerfeld remained a relatively unknown figure, except to those who possess vast knowledge about the fashion industry. It wasn’t until 1967 when he was hired by Fendi that Lagerfeld began to gain critical acclaim. He was initially hired to modernise the brand’s fur line but due to his ground-breaking designs. Lagerfeld remained at Fendi until he died.
The height of Lagerfeld’s fame came when he was hired by Chanel in the 1980s. It was a decade after the death of the brand’s founder, Coco Chanel, and it was considered to be a nearly dead brand due to lack of a cohesive creative vision.
Lagerfeld’s work at Chanel had an undeniable impact on the fashion industry. Coco Chanel believed in the empowerment of women through clothing and was a revolutionary in her own right as she was able to create clothes that were both feminine, liberating and inspiring. Lagerfeld is known to have said: “what I do, Coco would have hated. The label has an image and it’s up to me to update it. I do what she never did. I had to find my mark. I had to go from what Chanel was to what it should be.”
He believed that the highly effeminate and ladylike image that Chanel had at the time did not apply to the modern fashion climate. Instead, he wanted to experiment with fabrics and styles and, create a more sensual and slightly provocative version of this established fashion house. The most iconic change to Chanel under Lagerfeld was the creation of the now-famous interlocked “CC” logo, as a representation of the founder’s name. Also, Lagerfeld was able to stay ahead of trends, making striking designs whilst keeping an element of the traditional Chanel, through his use of tweed and pearls. For me, his incorporation of classic Chanel designs during the grunge movement in the 90s was inspired and something very few designers were able to execute with such finesse; a true testament to his creative genius.
Lagerfeld also redefined fashion shows by creating the most extravagant, creative and impressive shows possible. Every season, he never failed to transform Paris’ Grand Palais to match his unique vision, be it a carousel, a decadent buffet or a man-made street with peaceful protest. My personal favourite was the Chanel supermarket for their Fall/Winter 2014 show, where he recreated a traditional market embellished with the brand’s monogram.
The most recent Autumn/Winter show, which fell after his unfortunate death, was one of his most astounding, creative and well-executed shows to date. The show’s alpine theme served as a magical and ethereal backdrop for the elaborate designs which highlighted the glamour and chicness of “chalet life.” The show’s finale saw many models shedding tears, mourning the loss of such a loved figure. Although he was not there, his presence was certainly felt.
For me and many other fashion lovers, Karl Lagerfeld’s influence on the industry is undeniable. He was outspoken, eccentric and insanely talented. One could even argue that he was a jack of all trades, as he dabbled in not only design but the creative direction and even photography. I was first blown away by his immense talent when I saw his Little Black Jacket exhibition at the Saatchi in 2012. Here, he displayed 100s of black and white photographs, taken by him, of his favourite muses dressed in this iconic jacket. What I found particularly beautiful was the diversity of the photographs, although all models wore the same jacket, the effect and style of each differed greatly, which is a reflection of his range and talent.
Like with many great couturiers before him, Lagerfeld’s death was met with great sadness and also uncertainty about what the future of the most famous fashion brand was. I do believe that his impact will be long-lasting and it is safe to say that no one will ever forget the flamboyant German man with white hair and sunglasses. Before his death, Lagerfeld said, “I would like to be a one-man multinational fashion phenomenon”. Without a doubt, he will be remembered as such.