The world of Karl Lagerfeld

Fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, who is known for his cutting-edge approach to style as creative director of Chanel and Fendi, for the French-inspired rock-chic of his namesake line, and for breathing new life into declining fashion empires passed away today in Paris at the age of 85.

Karl Lagerfeld au festival de Cannes. Karl Lagerfeld at the Cannes festival. Photo by Georges Biard, 2007. CC-BY-SA 3.0. Story: The World of Karl Lagerfeld:
Georges Biard [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

“I design like I breathe,” he was known to say of his artistic process, “you don’t ask to breathe — it just happens.” 

He equated not working with not being able to breathe. That was a common response when journalists asked him about retirement. He saw it as the end.

Some time after Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel passed away, Lagerfeld took over as creative director for the House of Chanel and reinvented the foundational pieces – the Chanel jacket and suit, the little black dress, tweeds, two-tone shoes, quilted handbags, pearls and costume jewelry – and would later create the interlocking Cs in the Chanel logo.

Regarding Coco, he said, “My job is not to do what she did, but what she would have done,” as he went on to reinvigorate the House of Chanel with a less reserved, more liberating, youthful spirit that included slashed hemlines.

Alain Wertheimer, CEO of Chanel, praised his “creative genius, generosity and exceptional intuition,” saying that Lagerfeld was ahead of his time, which contributed to the House of Chanel’s success. “Today, not only have I lost a friend, but we have all lost an extraordinary creative mind to whom I gave carte blanche in the early 1980s to reinvent the brand.” 

Virginie Viard, Director of Chanel’s Fashion Creation Studio and Lagerfeld’s collaborator for more than 30 years, has taken on the role of creative director.

Lagerfeld was known as much for his creativity and tireless work ethic as for his personality. He was constantly cloaked in a black and white, stripped-down officer’s uniform, dark sunglasses, fingerless gloves and a ponytail.

As he got older his runway productions got more extravagant. His presentation at the Grand Palais in Paris “achieved a staggering level of theatrical opulence,” writes Eric Wilson in the Business of Fashion.

“At a cost of millions of dollars per season, the events surpassed the mundane boundaries of a fashion show to become something more like large-scale performance art – media spectacles where Lagerfeld, as both gifted designer and visual provocateur, could best demonstrate his ability to interweave the superficialities of fashion with matters of great depth, while also parading seemingly endless ways to keep Chanel’s classic tweeds looking modern and fresh.”

His presentations were over-the-top.

The fall 2017 collection featured a 115-foot-tall mechanical rocket ship that simulated blast off. In 2014, he built a Chanel shopping centre, its superstore-like aisles bursting with more than 500 different products that included a Chanel-logo chainsaw, doormats, candy, and ketchup. For fall 2010, he imported enough snow and ice from Sweden to create a 265-ton indoor iceberg. Backdrops of a man-made beach with rippling waves (spring 2019), a scale rendering of the Eiffel Tower (fall 2017 couture), a French brasserie with uniformed bartenders (fall 2015) and an enormous model of a passenger ship (cruise 2019) suggested no idea was too fantastical, nor expense too decadent.

– writes Wilson

In 2000, Lagerfeld redesigned his own persona, changed his look after losing 42 kgs (93 lbs), then published a book, The 3D Diet, about the experience.

He was outspoken and critical of himself but it was his opinion of others that was not always well-taken. Comments such as: “sweatpants are a sign of defeat,” “trendy is the last stage before tacky,” “I think tattoos are horrible – it’s like living in a Pucci dress full-time” – criticism of celebrities and most notably of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s migration policy for asylum-seekers who were displaced by the Syrian war. Lagerfeld evoked the Holocaust to support his position against allowing more migrants into Germany.

“One cannot — even if there are decades between them — kill millions of Jews so you can bring millions of their worst enemies in their place,” Lagerfeld told French talk show Salut les Terriens! (Hello Earthlings!) – says the Euro News.

“I know someone in Germany who took a young Syrian and after four days said: ‘The greatest thing Germany invented was the Holocaust’,” he added. 

Today, middle eastern designer Zuhair Murad and Canadian model Bella Hadid are among those who’ve paid homage to Lagerfeld on social media. He performed the role of photographer for Hadid who appeared on the cover of Vogue Arabia’s first September issue in 2017.

Lagerfeld began his career in fashion in 1954 at the age of 17. He took first prize in a contest organized by the Secrétariat International de la Laine (International Wool Association), for a sketch of a coat. The coat was then produced by Pierre Balmain who offered him a job as his assistant.

Lagerfeld was also known for being very private. Few people knew him well. Sebastien Jondeau, his personal assistant and bodyguard for over 20 years, says he was a simple man.

Jondeau travelled the world with Lagerfeld, joining him at every fashion show, photoshoot and event, first as his bodyguard then eventually his personal assistant, private secretary and general support. 

Jondeau was the subject of a series profiling Karl Lagerfeld influencers and brand shapers, in which he said he grew up on the streets and Lagerfeld taught him “everything about life.”

He started working with Lagerfeld in his 20s. In 2005, he began modelling for the Karl Lagerfeld menswear label, and in 2017 his role expanded into design. The “Karl Lagerfeld curated by Sebastien Jondeau” menswear collection launched in early 2018.

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