Better known for his successful reinvention of former vintage brands like Fendi, Chloé, and Chanel than for the fashion products under his name, Lagerfeld lent a fugacious industry a smart sense for nostalgia.
Cover: Closeup view of a piece of the actual collection by Chanel, ©Olivier Saillant, Chanel News.
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Karl Lagerfeld, the iconic fashion designer, photographer, book collector, publisher, and political caricaturist, highly versatile and constantly active since the launch of his career in 1954, had a singular long-term influence on the fashion industry without being one of the great couturiers of his time. His special talent? The ability to meld two concepts that appear contradictory at first sight: fashion, intrinsically ephemeral and continually in motion, and successful branding, essentially unequivocal due to its enduring nature.
Lagerfeld’s work for Chanel, Fendi, and Chloé proved what he understood and mastered like no one else during his lifetime: The constantly new reinterpretation of immutable brand codes of fashion houses that would have been otherwise long-forgotten and literally “démodé”. Lagerfeld cracked the secret of brand longevity in fashion, and even achieve to make a brand of his himself and his own appearance: his clothes, his hairdo, and pose are already emblematic in the history of fashion.
Lagerfeld’s special talent, the way to see everything from a new and singular perspective and to stand out from the crowd, could be traced back to his childhood. Born in 1933 into a wealthy German industrial family, he was raised in a villa nearby Hamburg, where he built a world of solitude and creativity far from Hitlerian Germany. He could spent hours in his room, being himself, drawing, painting, and disconnecting from the air of uniformity, collectivity, and opression that took his country hostage. His distant attitude, his flawless way of dressing, his atypical hairdo, and his refusal to play the usual games of sport and war with the other boys, made him look like an outsider in that time. After the war, he listened to the words of his mother: “Germany is dead” and headed to Paris, where he stayed the rest of his life.
A Young German in Paris
In the fifties, a young Karl Lagerfeld was seen in Paris focusing diligently on two concrete aims: improving his drawing and learning French. Just by chance, though, he made a move that would change his life for ever: he enlisted in the competition of the International Wool Secretariat with the innovative design of a wool coat. Together with a very young Yves Saint Laurent, who participated in the same contest with the design of an evening dress, he won the first price in 1954, finding himself suddenly in the middle of the limelight.
The Versatile Freelancer
The first prize of the very severe Parisian Wool Secretariat jury was the start of a very successful career for both Lagerfeld and Saint Laurent. While the last signed a contract with the renowned house of Dior, Lagerfeld took engagements for the no less prominent houses of Balmain and Jean Patou. A couple of years later, though, the difference between both talented fashion designers would be crystal clear: While Saint Laurent established his reputation as a great couturier for Dior and his own brand, Lagerfeld made his way as a celebrated freelancer for diverse fashion houses. He continued drawing and cartooning, broadening his book and photography interests, and taking a consistent look at the world around him.
Through his freelance jobs, Lagerfeld seemed to get an all-over view of diverse aspects of the fashion market, internalizing the dynamics of a business that transformed itself constantly through the years. Lagerfeld’s general approach, his versatility, his unbiased interest for everything happening around, and his own distance from all of it, made him an expert in branding issues: Moving persistently with the times, and always vividly interested in the person and trends of the moment, he literally breathed in all what the zeitgeist had to offer. However, the faster the world around him transformed, and the more he stayed in the middle of the hype, the more eagerly he distinguished himself from the breathless crowd. With dark sunglasses, fans, fingerless gloves, and an immutable, austere silhouette, he erected an invisible barrier around himself, staying unaltered in an industry that lives from incessant change.
The Brand Renovator
The enigmatic figure of Lagerfeld soon mutated into an object of desire himself. He became a star of the fashion world, a style icon on his own, a perfect brand: able to move with the times, but staying loyal to its intrinsic codes, unique, rare, deeply desired. This is the principle he mastered as creative director for vintage brands like Chloé, Fendi, and Chanel for decades: With a sharp eye, he captured the very essence of the brands, soaked them with an avidly absolved zeitgeist, and made them look so amazingly fresh and contemporary every season anew.
Chloé, a brand for which Lagerfeld intensively worked from 1963 to 1983, is a good example of his brand renovation effect. Founded in 1952 by the Egyptian fashion maker Gaby Aghion, Chloé offered a distinctively young alternative in the fifties with airy, feminine, easy to wear prêt-à-porter pieces, which instantly attracted the attention of young women. In the seventies, as more and more people wallowed in nostalgia, and Chloé started to be regarded as a brand of the past, Lagerfeld renovated the brand’s core ability to attract a younger public, melding its original young approach with the spirit of times. Inspired by Gustav Klimt’s and Aubrey Beardsley’s art deco aesthetic, he revived the characteristic nonchalant femininity of the brand with sophisticated nostalgia. Chloé’s flowing lines started to personify that relaxed Parisian chic that characterizes the brand until today.
Fendi, a company that benefited from Lagerfeld’s creativity even longer than Chloé, was practically reinvented by him in every way. When in the year 1965 the Fendi sisters requested Lagerfeld’s cooperation, the Roman company was in fact a well-known name for its high-quality fur and leather pieces for decades, but had no presence in the fashion business. Lagerfeld changed this situation once and for all: He created the iconic Fendi inverse FF logo, renewed the traditional creations of the company with bold, original fashion designs, transforming its furs into “haute fourrure“ and introducing unconventional fur-based prêt-à-porter fashion pieces. Lagerfeld’s relationship with Fendi is probably one of the longest and most successful in the fashion business: Over the decades, he operated as the creative mind behind Fendi, contributed to expand the company’s product range and freshened up the typically Roman, timeless sex appeal he saw in the brand constantly anew. Playing and important role in the internationalization of the house, Lagerfeld conceived the impressive Fendi fashion show in November 2007 on the Chinese Wall, which became the world’s longest catwalk and the greatest place for brand exposure in the industry to this day.
What applied to Fendi, applied a fortiori for Chanel. Lagerfeld’s work for the brand established by Gabrielle Chanel in 1918, started in 1983 and displayed until the time of his death a legendary character: Not only the fashion creations, but the fashion shows themselves became fancier, the story-telling stronger, the orchestration ground-breaking. But at the time Lagerfeld took over the creative direction, the brand was hitting rock bottom. Chanel was regarded as an old-fashioned old ladies brand, nothing for the young, dynamic women of the time. Paradoxically, Chanel represented in the twenties an option that embodied the complete opposite of dated, acclaiming the right to use the fashion fabrics, shapes, colors, and combinations that were implicitly reserved to men, due to their comfort and functionality. And exactly this revolutionary legacy was revived by Lagerfeld. Like Gabrielle Chanel, he was able to quickly grasp the upheavals of times, and used this intuition to redefine the brand’s iconic elements to appeal the fashion needs for the women of the eighties, nineties and the new millennium.
Lagerfeld recognized in the past creations of Chanel the components of a brand, whose personality was intertwined to the aspiring, free spirit of its creator: The camellia as the flower of the demimondaines, the excessive pearl chains, the colorful glass brooches, the pretentious bracelets, the box jacket, the golden lion head buttons, the bag with shoulder chains, the tweed ensembles, the double C logo, the black bow. He resumed Chanel’s brand codes, injected them with the spirit of times, and melded their glamorous demimondaine character with the contemporary desire for wealth and luxury. Under Lagerfeld’s creative direction, this fashion house evolved to the billion-heavy global company we know today.
The Discreet Man
Lagerfeld, the fashion designer, the brand renovator, and versatile artist, also developed own brands that he did not particularly pursue. As a highly creative freelancer, he dedicated his creativity and passion to the brands of his customers, his 300,000 books, his publishing, his photography, his drawings and caricatures, and enjoyed a private life surrounded by secrecy. His intimate world was quiet, dreamy, magic in the emulation of the eighteenth century and of the art deco: a closed cosmos that nurtured his fantasy and protected his sensibility from the buoyant nature of the fashion world. Karl Lagerfeld died on February 19th 2019 in Paris leaving a permanent influence on an industry, which is paradoxically known for its fugacity.