ROSE MARY ROCHE remembers legendary fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld …
Karl Lagerfeld, who died earlier this week, was an enigma. A globally famous designer for the equally famous House of Chanel he was also one of the most opaque figures in the fashion firmament. His greatest creation was his own persona: he crafted a glamorous celebrity identity, was more famous than his illustrious clientele, he even made his pet cat Choupette a social media star, yet did anybody really know this fascinating, infuriating and inscrutable designer?
For the last 20 years of his life, he adapted a puritanical uniform of severe black tailoring and skinny jeans, starched white collar, leather gloves and dark glasses which rendered him a living caricature. His image was his armour – throughout Lagerfeld’s life he created and then discarded the elements of his life in a ruthless carousel, including his clothes, homes, collections of art and antiques and even friends with industrious efficiency. He was perhaps the ultimate fashion chameleon, constantly experimenting with, exploring and then abandoning influences, identities and individuals in a constant state of flux. He admitted that one of his greatest fears was boredom. The others were illness and ageing.
As he became older, he showed no signs of slowing down (he designed 14 plus collections annually) and his muses and entourage became even younger. He admitted: “I am a sort of vampire, taking the blood of other people.” Whatever about vampirism, he did possess an uncanny ability to distil the essence of popular culture and trends into his collections.
He pursued a path of constant creative renewal, explored themes with wit and a lightness of touch, and littered his collections with insider references and erudite allusions. He was a fashion alchemist – observing, assimilating, de-constructing and re-creating ideas and constantly pushing forward to the next vision.
He was thought to be 85 – he had chopped two years from his age early in his career to embellish his status as a child prodigy. He launched his career with a win in the International Wool Secretariat competition in 1954 and spent periods with Balmain, Patou and Chloé but it was his appointment to Chanel in 1983, when he was 49-years-old, that gave Lagerfeld the opportunity to display his versatility, creativity and imagination. It also gave him prestige and a position at the top of French fashion which he had craved all his life. He said in 1979: “It was my dream, the only thing I ever really wanted to do was to come and work in a high fashion house in Paris.”
When his first Chanel collection received underwhelming reviews, Lagerfeld immediately understood that being too reverential wasn’t his best course. Instead he refreshed and revised the Grande Dame of Paris couture by deconstructing her codes and classic styles. His Chanel collections featured a fusion of celebrity, popular culture and an irreverent dash of humour, pastiche and high camp. Black biker jackets, underpants, pedal pushers, baseball caps and trainers were all emblazoned with the Chanel logo as he referenced street culture, music, cinema and the zeitgeist to revive the jaded brand.
His rumoured $1 million contract was unprecedented in the ‘80s but under Karl’s unique creative direction, Chanel grew dramatically into a global powerhouse – its 2017 revenues were $9.62 billion. His career with Chanel spanned four decades, multiple muses (including Inès de la Fressange, Claudia Schiffer, Kristen Stewart, Cara Delevingne and Pharrell Williams) and a prolific work schedule that encompassed haute couture, ready to wear and the brand’s imagery (he took up photography in the ‘80s).
Unlike traditional designers who forged a signature style, Lagerfeld anticipated the rise of fast fashion where ideas would come and go with alarming speed. He understood that fashion was mutating and spawning new genres. He foresaw the democratisation of style and that a fusion of silver screen, art, music, irony and individualism would define modern fashion and displace the traditional designer. He interpreted the mood of the moment and then swiftly moved on. He detested nostalgia.
He was the first post-modern fashion designer – experimenting with Chanel’s iconography, referencing the brand’s heritage but never ever, being intimidated by it. He worked across all levels of the marketplace – he had his own KL line, collaborated with H&M on their first designer range, designed for both Monoprix and Fendi, had licences in Japan and partnered with Mattel on a Karl Barbie doll.
He was happiest designing in other’s signature style or identity – there was no typical Karl look – he was prolific and shift-shaping. There is a story about him dashing off sketches of his predictions of other designer’s collections with a speed and accuracy that was surreal.
Despite being surrounded by people, he had a solitary nature, reportedly re-constructing his childhood bedroom in his Paris apartment. He didn’t drink, smoke or do drugs yet remained the best interviewee in fashion. His gossipy declarations held the fashion press in thrall and the esteemed American publisher John Fairchild claimed he played fashion journalists “like a symphony orchestra”. He was garrulous, funny, controversial and very opinionated.
He was the ultimate fashion opportunist, who reflected the mood rather than a personal design philosophy. In 1984 he assessed his motivation in a typical Karl aphorism: “I’m a kind of fashion nymphomaniac who never gets an orgasm.”
Fashion will be in a duller place without him.
Rose Mary Roche
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