Author: Michael Newell
20 Feb 2019
In his 36 years as creative director of Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld reinvented the crumbling brand and created the iconic interlocking ‘CC’ monogram, one of the world’s most recognisable labels. On February 19, it was announced the German designer had passed away in Paris, aged 85.
Born in Hamburg in 1933, Lagerfeld began his fashion career in 1955, having won a coat design competition sponsored by the International Wool Secretariat the previous year. He befriended fellow winner Yves Saint Laurent and was subsequently hired as an assistant to Pierre Balmain, before working at Fendi and Chloé in the 1960s.
Karl Lagerfeld joined Chanel in 1983, transforming the brand’s fortunes 12 years after the death of founder Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel
Lagerfeld joined Chanel in 1983, transforming the brand’s fortunes 12 years after the death of founder Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. In 2017, the brand released its financial figures for the first time, posting a profit of $1.79bn (€1.58bn). The iconic Lagerfeld was also responsible for high-street label H&M’s first designer collaboration in 2004.
The use of fur in his collections saw Lagerfeld endure the wrath of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), with the group first targeting the German in 2001 at a fashion premiere in New York. Lagerfeld’s appearance was met by the hurling of tofu pies; poor aim, however, saw the fur-free Calvin Klein struck instead.
Lagerfeld continued to support the use of fur until 2009, a year before Chanel switched to a fake alternative. Following reports of Lagerfeld’s death, PETA was criticised for posting an “insensitive” tweet: “Karl Lagerfeld has gone, and his passing marks the end of an era when fur and exotic skins were seen as covetable. PETA sends condolences to our old nemesis’ loved ones.”
Karl Lagerfeld has gone, and his passing marks the end of an era when fur and exotic skins were seen as covetable. PETA sends condolences to our old nemesis’s loved ones.
— PETA (@peta) February 19, 2019
Lagerfeld never shied away from controversy, either: in 1994, the Indonesian Muslim Scholars Council called for a boycott of Chanel after Lagerfeld embroidered a verse of the Koran onto one of his designs. In 2012, he labelled singer-songwriter Adele as being “a little too fat”.
Lagerfeld himself went through an intense period of weight loss in 2001. “I suddenly wanted to wear clothes designed by Hedi Slimane,” he said, in reference to the designer’s notoriously small sizing. It birthed Lagerfeld’s distinctive style, instantly recognisable to even the most fashion illiterate: a white ponytail, black sunglasses, suit, tie, white shirt and leather fingerless gloves.
His passing has sparked an outpouring of grief in the fashion world. Anna Wintour, Editor-in-Chief of Vogue, said: “Today the world lost a giant among men.” Over the course of his career, Lagerfeld’s strong opinions divided critics and fans alike. Yet upon his death, Lagerfeld leaves behind a legacy that his successors will struggle to match.