Karl Lagerfeld, the prolific creative, director of two storied fashion houses, architect of the most successful brand revival in fashion history, flawed public figure, and friend to countless fashion elite has died at 85.
Upon hearing the news, I was taken aback. My first reaction was that of disbelief and I immediately turned to the internet to verify. Google search results unveiled a flood of announcements from every major fashion and news outlet. The obituaries and essays remembering him at his best and at his worst would come hours later, but those initial announcements still had me a bit shell-shocked. Lagerfeld, in my mind, was immortal. Even in his twilight years he oversaw upwards of 20 collections each year, and after 30 years in an industry known for a relentless pace he never seemed to be slowing down. When he skipped Chanel’s latest couture presentation because he was “feeling tired,” I probably should have read between the lines. The veil of fantasy was slowly being pulled back, but I’m not entirely sure the fashion industry was ready for it. I certainly was not.
Leafing through the endless stream of eulogies and quotes remembering the creative powerhouse is quite overwhelming for someone like me who didn't know the man personally. They are vastly different than the vision I was able to form over years of watching him from a distance.
In 2008 at the age of 15 I was a high school student first discovering what the fashion industry really was. I was first drawn to Chanel, between the household recognition and extraordinary runway presentations I was captivated by the legend that was the Chanel brand. The music and the sets and the beautiful clothing - it was like watching a dream on a computer screen. I poured hours into watching and re-watching Chanel shows trying to make sense of everything from the models’ makeup to the life-sized Chanel boutique (Spring 2009), the giant Chanel carousel (Fall 2008), and the larger than life Chanel No. 5 bottles (Fall couture 2009) that were the backdrops to Lagerfeld's presentations. Busy trying to figure out what the difference between “couture” and “prêt-à-porter” was, I still found the time to gawk at the mysterious figure in a white high-collared shirt, a large-lapeled jacket, sunglasses, and a white pony tail that would saunter out at the end of each show. The image of that man, so different from the people I was surrounded by in the American Midwest, was powerfully intriguing. As my interest in fashion expanded to early obsessions of Schiaparelli and Valentino, the awe inspired by those black jeans and boots never really dissipated.
Through the years my obsessions with brands waxed and waned. Diving head first into McQueen after his death faded to a retrospective on Marc Jacobs' collections as he left Louis Vuitton and soon after I discovered Galliano’s origami inspired couture at Dior. But I always, always went back to Chanel. My mother, a seamstress, would ask me what I loved about the clothes when I would share photos with her. Chanel designs by Lagerfeld are, at their core, the same styles reworked again and again over the years; tweed jackets and dresses in new iterations. But no matter how many Chanel jackets were marched down the runway by Lagerfeld’s many muses, they never got old. They were never tired, never once. He somehow landed just right between the past and the present.
Since 1983 Lagerfeld sat at the helm of Chanel and brought the stagnant brand to the forefront of the fashion industry. Presenting new versions of tweed jackets and quilted bags for the better part of 30 years drilled the look into the subconscious of everyone from the fashion elite to the general public. Having the ability to present these icons in new ways, with fanciful themes or pop culture references, ensured that Lagerfeld could push his narrative forward and not recede into non-relevance. Consequently, Chanel iconography became synonymous with our perception of luxury and timeless style.
Simultaneously, as Chanel rose from the ashes, Lagerfeld was working on his own mystifying brand of designer-as-celebrity. His commitment to his own point of view garnered the respect of those around him. He celebrated history and technical skill, saving the art of his seamstresses from the prying fingers of automation to the celebration of fashion insiders. He kept fashion shows interesting with bigger and better sets and locations, pioneering the traveling show to the delight of fashion hungry internet surfers around the world. He was able to appease fashion insiders while also drawing the general public, never an easy feat. A master of brand strategy, Lagerfeld was the first to crack the code keeping fashion cool and relatable but also wildly unattainable.
In addition to the explosive work he was doing at Chanel and Fendi, the designer poured his currency of cool into his own line, Karl Lagerfeld, which celebrated less success but was also much more accessible. One of the most notable projects he undertook was Karl Lagerfeld for IMPULSE collection in 2011. Not a newcomer to the collaborator’s table, the capsule collection for Macy's was a highlight reel of Lagerfeld’s personal taste. The collection boasted high collars, leather, and dresses cinched at the waist - all at a competitive price range starting a $50. (Your’s truly owns a tank with Lagerfeld’ image sketched on the front. Outrageous, so comfortable, and definitely cut for women.) Thus, Lagerfeld further burrowed into our subconscious. Solidifying his household name with a move that had the potential to be disastrous but was executed with no less finesse than a Chanel couture show. Lagerfeld is as Lagerfeld does.
In 2011 my girlfriends and I gushed over the collaboration that was still a bit outside of our 18-year-old price ranges. The splurges that were inevitably made are still cherished to this day. My tank top has been carted around to China, Korea - and back again. One girlfriend in particular provided an update on her Lagerfeld-for-Macy’s moment after hearing about his passing. The bag she had purchased also survived many closet purgings. She claimed she couldn't stand to be parted with a bag that she got so attached to. It wasn't a shock to hear that these pieces meant something to us, Lagerfeld had a way of injecting his persona into all of his projects - our purchases represented both us and him.
Lagerfeld built a brand around his labels and himself that everyone could identify with. This duality of being was perhaps his greatest legacy. His persona forcibly drew you into his beautiful world. That duality unfortunately also translated to his regard for people who did not fit into his immaculate fantasy. His shortcomings in the areas of inclusivity and diversity cannot and should not be overlooked by the authors of history. But for every shortcoming there is a moment of triumph and we can do nothing now but learn from his mistakes and strive to do better then he.
Shortcomings aside, I will remember the Karl Lagerfeld that I discovered as a 15-year-old boy; he taught me to grasp the beauty and fantasy that only fashion can provide. The response to his passing made it clear that I am not alone. His magnetism was so palpable and personality so strong that even if I do not have memories of him and I together in the atelier or backstage at a show, I still feel as if I knew the man behind the sunglasses. I wanted to be sitting with him while doing fittings for couture looks before the show. I wanted to be hand in hand with him as he followed the final model on the runway. I wanted to remember parties as his many homes decorated with 18th century French furniture. And I'm not alone.
Karl taught us that we too could identify with the freedom and reinvention that he so famously fostered at Chanel. He represented a mindset and type of creativity that inspired us to be both. Timeless and modern. Outrageous and unapologetic. Dreamers and doers. We, too, could be both.
The Times is calling Lagerfeld the 'Last Designer.' He was everything we wanted and more. Lagerfeld isn’t only the man who walked among models and fashion editors, he was also an inspiration to all of us.
That’s how I will remember Karl Lagerfeld.