Karl Lagerfeld, one of the most prolific and influential designers of the 20th and 21st centuries, has died in Paris. He was 85 years old. Lagerfeld is considered a key force in the creation of the modern luxury fashion industry.
News of his death followed reports in late January 2019 that Lagerfeld missed Chanel’s spring 2019 haute couture show in Paris because of health problems. Since he took the helm of Chanel in 1983, he had never missed the opportunity to speak to fashion fans after a show.
Tributes poured onto social media on February 19th, with Donatella Versace posting: “Karl your genius touched the lives of so many, especially Gianni and I. We will never forget your incredible talent and endless inspiration. We were always learning from you.”
Henry Holland quoted Lagerfeld himself: “To design is to breathe, so if I can’t breathe I’m in trouble. RIP.”
And Elton John wrote on Instagram: “What a talent. What an appetite for life. Wonderful and lethal company. Never a dull moment. Love, Elton xx.”
Lagerfeld was one of the most acclaimed designers in fashion thanks to his unparalleled talent to design for three brands at once. In addition to clothing design, he was also a respected photographer and director, whose work has been featured in magazines and advertisements.
Vogue magazine writes: “Lagerfeld was Creative Director of Chanel, the French house founded by Gabrielle Chanel, for an era-defining, age-defying 36 years. Upon assuming the reins in 1983, Lagerfeld swiftly revived Chanel, reinterpreting the house founder’s iconic tweed skirt suits, little black dresses, and quilted handbags. He did it via the lens of hip-hop one season and California surfer chicks the next — he was a pop culture savant — without ever forgetting what the revolutionary Coco stood for: independence, freedom, and modernity.”
Lagerfeld was also a distinctive physical presence on the fashion scene with his dark suits, white pony-tailed hair, and tinted sunglasses. “I am like a caricature of myself, and I like that,” runs one legendary quote attributed to him. “It is like a mask. And for me the Carnival of Venice lasts all year long.”
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Karl-Otto Lagerfeld was born in Hamburg to Otto Lagerfeld, a managing director of the German branch of the American Milk Products Company, and the former Elisabeth Bahlmann. He later immigrated to France, where he studied drawing and history. His first position at a fashion house was in the 1950s at the couture house of Pierre Balmain.
In 1963, he began freelancing at Chloe, considered to be France’s first ready-to-wear label, and in the 1970s he became creative director at the Roman furrier label Fendi, a post that he held until his death.
His greatest achievement was undoubtedly at Chanel. The brand had lost its prominence in the years before Lagerfeld. As he told WWD, “Nobody cared about [Chanel] anymore. She was the most démodé thing in the world.”
As the New York Times put it, “In his 80s when most of his peers were retiring to their yachts or country estates, he was designing an average of 14 new collections a year ranging from couture to the high street, and not counting collaborations and special projects.
His signature combinations of ‘high fashion and high camp’ attracted Rihanna; Princess Caroline of Monaco; Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund; and Julianne Moore.”
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Lagerfeld was responsible for so many shows, stores, and events that in 2017, the mayor of Paris awarded him the city’s highest honor, the Medal of the City of Paris, for services to the metropolis.
Nancy Bilyeau, a former staff editor at Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and InStyle, has written a trilogy of historical thrillers for Touchstone Books. Her new book, The Blue, is a spy story set in the 18th-century porcelain world. For more information, go to www.nancybilyeau.com.