“To do this job, you must be able to accept injustice. There are other careers. You can work for social security. Get promoted and work behind a counter. It’s a safe bet. If you want social justice, be a civil servant. Fashion is ephemeral, dangerous and unfair.” These words by Lagerfeld, spoken in the 2007 documentary film ‘Karl Lagerfeld Confidential,’ in a way, and unapologetically, sums up the man who was one of the most iconic and prolific fashion designer the world has ever seen.
Lagerfeld passed away on February 19, in Paris, at the age of 85, thus bringing to an end a career that lasted over six decades. In a profession that was “ephemeral, dangerous and unfair,” he not only survived but was at its leading edge through most of it. Dubbed ‘fashion’s ultimate free-agent’ by the industry press, he was at the helm of not one but three global luxury brands, all of whom delivered positive results in 2017: Fendi, owned by LVHM, “continued to grow strongly,” according to the group’s annual report; Lagerfeld’s eponymous label delivered a 30 percent growth; Chanel, meanwhile, released the first-ever financials in its 108-year history which reported a revenue of 9.62 billion, an increase of eleven percent from the previous year.
This should come as no surprise to those who observed him as he had become increasingly prolific with age, rather than slowing down. For Lagerfeld, being creative was equivalent to breathing, and so would often say “if I can’t breathe, I’m in trouble,” whenever anyone would bring up the topic of retiring.
In the documentary ‘Confidential,’ he gives a surprising insight into his creative process: “The best things I’ve ever done have come from dreams. Unfortunately, you cannot rely on it. Sometimes it is a whole show, including the sets. I filled in the details, but I had seen the basic thing [in the dream]… It is rather surprising because I don’t fall asleep thinking about dresses, my head teeming with ideas. I’m not that obsessive. I love the job but its no more important to me than photography, books, etc. It’s part of my life. Two hundred percent apparently, since my sub-conscience is overloaded. But it is not something I ponder.”
Another aspect of his creativity that seemed to increase with his age was the extravagance of his runway productions which, not only cost millions of dollars to produce each season but seemed more like grand theatrical sets rather than a stage to present his latest creations. Chanel’s Fall 2018 show, for example, transformed the Grand Palais into the woods with the brown leaves of fall covering the floor and leafless trees lining the runway; where models unveiled an astonishing total of 80 looks that included classics such as Chanel’s tweed, fur coats, lace gowns, and oversized scarves.
The Lagerfeld story began in 1933, in Hamburg, Germany, when Karl Otto Lagerfeld was born to Elisabeth and Otto Lagerfeld. His father made his fortune from importing evaporated milk while his mother was an accomplished violin player. As such, Karl, his older sister and half-sister from his father’s earlier marriage, grew up in a wealthy home where intellectual activity was encouraged, liberal values were espoused, and religious dogma was not enforced. The family wealth allowed them to move to a small northern town near the Denmark border “where nothing ever happened;” which meant they were able to escape the worst ravages of World War II.
“The few people who knew me as a child say I was like a male Shirley Temple: rather unbearable and spoiled. I always felt hard done by! I never considered it was enough”.Karl Lagerfeld
When asked about his ambitions he adds: “I had a vision of what I wanted to do, and how I wanted to do it. An idea, a vision for which I was prepared to make any sacrifice but not any compromise. I was born determined.”
In school, Lagerfeld spent a great deal of time making sketches no matter what was being taught in class. In fact, Lagerfeld has even claimed that he learned much more from his frequent visits to the Kunsthalle Hamburg museum than he ever did in school. He was also a Francophile at heart. He drew inspiration from French artists and admitted he only stayed in school to learn French.
At the tender age of 14, Lagerfeld made the bold decision to move to Paris where he joined the Lycée Montaigne school to focus on drawing and history. Just two years later, in 1955, came the pivotal moment in Lagerfeld’s professional life. He submitted a series of sketches and fabric samples to a design competition sponsored by the International Wool Secretariat and won first place in the coats category.
The event led to the commencement of two important chapters in Lagerfeld’s life. First, the event introduced him to the winner of another category in the same competition, who would become one of his closest friends – Yves Saint Laurent. Second, the win led to him being hired by French designer Pierre Balmain, with whom he worked as a junior assistant and later as his apprentice. In 1958, he became the artistic director for Jean Patou. In 1964, he moved to Rome to study but freelanced for a number of brands including Tiziano, Chloé, Charles Jourdan, Krizia, and Valentino.
Then in 1967, he was hired by Fendi to modernize their fur line and thus began his lifelong association with the brand. Lagerfeld’s designs, while being innovative, also introduced new materials such as mole, rabbit, and squirrel pelts into high fashion. These hallmarks defined Lagerfeld throughout his career.
His other great lifelong association, with Chanel, came in 1983. The Wertheimer family who own the house that Coco Chanel built, had waited 12 years to find a successor to its charismatic founder. By then, however, the house was considered by many to be as dead as its founder.
“When I took on Chanel, it was a sleeping beauty. Not even a beautiful one. She snored.”Karl Lagerfeld
“But the owners knew that. That’s why they called me. They saw that respect doesn’t sell. So I was to revive a dead woman whom most people believed to be definitely dead. I was told: don’t do it, It will never work. Because the notion of revitalizing brand names didn’t exist in 1983. What I am saying isn’t arrogant, it was the reality of the times. Also, people said: Chanel will turn in her grave. That was a good thing too. It proved she wasn’t dead. A violent reaction is a reaction. No reaction at all is death,” says Lagerfeld in ‘Confidential.’
Now that Lagerfeld has himself moved on, the Wertheimer family recently ended succession speculation by announcing Virginie Viardas as the new Creative Director of Chanel. Viardas, who had a 30-year working relationship with Lagerfeld, was widely regarded as Lagerfeld’s “secret weapon.” Her appointment, therefore, signals continuity, and according to an official statement, she has been “entrusted by Chief Executive Alain Wertheimer with the creative work for the collections, so that the legacy of Gabrielle Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld can live on.”