When in 1954 a young German designer won the first prize of the International Wool Secretariat in Paris, no one could have foreseen that his influence would shape the European fashion industry for decades. We have a look at how it happened.
Cover: Closeup view of a piece of the actual collection by Chanel, ©Olivier Saillant, Chanel News.
This post contains advertising and affiliate partner links.
Karl Lagerfeld, the fashion designer, the photographer, the book collector, the publisher, the political caricaturist… The highly versatile Lagerfeld, constantly active since the launch of his career in 1954, had a singular long-term influence on the fashion industry without being a great couturier. He had the rare talent to meld two concepts that seem to be contradictory at first sight: On the one hand fashion, naturally ephemeral and permanently in motion, and on the other hand his own interpretation of immutable brand codes, which made him extremely successful. Specially outstanding are his achievements for Chloé, Chanel und Fendi: Three brands, that without his influence would be possibly long gone, but remain today more actual than ever. We give a glance to the highlights of his life to understand how he transformed fugacious elements into permanently successful fashion codes.
Karl Lagerfeld was born in the year 1933 into an upper-class Northern German family, and enjoyed a protected childhood in a noble country residence near Hamburg. Back then, the little outsider looked quite different from the boys of his time: His hair was conspicuously long, his clothes were invariably elegant, his gaze seemed mature, and his attention was rather drawn to the art in his room, than to the football games in the schoolyard. He could stay alone for hours, drawing, painting and disconnecting from an outside world that consisted at that time of Hitlerian Germany and war. Lagerfeld did not talk much about his past, or his private life at all. However, it is known that his mother, whom he adored, drove him to leave his home country with the words: “Germany is dead”, after the war. Paris, the city of fashion, culture and the refinement that his ambitious mother claimed for herself, became his target.
A Young German in Paris
In Paris, Lagerfeld spent his time improving his drawing and learning diligently French. By chance, he enlisted in the competition of the International Wool Secretariat in 1954, and unexpectedly won the first prize. His innovative design of a coat convinced the severe jury and placed him suddenly into the limelight. However, he had to share this early fame with someone else: A very young Yves Saint Laurent participated also in the competition and won the first prize for his design of an evening dress, too. The award turned out to be the best possible career start for both of them: Saint Laurent came under contract at Dior, Lagerfeld was engaged by the houses Bailmain and Jean Patou.
The Freelancer Who Moved With the Times
A couple of years later, Saint Laurent took over the succession of the deceased Dior, and concentrated over time on the setup of his own brand. Lagerfeld took the opposing path: He freelanced for diverse fashion houses, continued drawing and cartooning, broadened his book and photography interests, and took a consistent look at the world around him. He wanted to know the market, to internalize the dynamic of the fashion business and constantly proved a professionalism that went beyond fashion. More and more, he revealed the most intrinsic side of his personality: A creative mind that did not fit into any concrete scheme, an artist who constantly looked for new stimuli.
Lagerfeld moved persistently with the times, and never let any star or starlet aside: He was always vividly interested in the person of the moment, he literally breathed in all what the zeitgeist had to offer. He understood exactly, what people time and again wanted, and what was already gone, passé, outright démodé. In doing so, he evolved more and more into an icon: The faster the world around him transformed, and the more he stayed in the middle of the hype, the more eagerly he built a sophisticated distance. With dark sunglasses, fans, fingerless gloves, and an unmistakable, austere silhouette, he erected an invisible barrier around himself, and confirmed like this what he once stated:
“Between me and the rest of the world, there is a glass wall”.
The Brand Renovator
The unmistakable image that characterized Lagerfeld until the end of his life appeared so enigmatic, that he soon mutated into an object of desire himself: He became a star of the fashion world, the style icon with whom celebrities wished to be seen. In this way, he perfectly exerted the most important factor of success in the luxury goods industry: Become unique, rare, deeply desired. This is the principle that he categorically mastered as creative director for Chloé, Fendi and Chanel for decades: With a sharp eye, he captured the very essence, the distinctive elements of the brands, soaked them with the zeitgeist he avidly absorbed, and made them look so amazingly fresh and new, that everyone wanted to have them.
The Chloé Period (1963-1983 and 1992-1997)
In the beginning of the Seventies, as more and more people started to wallow in nostalgia, Lagerfeld intensified his work for Chloé, a fashion house founded in 1952 by the Egyptian Gaby Aghion. Since its beginnings, the brand offered a distinctively young alternative: While in the fifties traditional Haute Couture still dominated, Chloé presented airy, feminine, easy to wear Prêt-à-Porter fashion pieces, which instantly attracted the attention of young women. Lagerfeld took up this exact core capability and inserted the inspiration he got from Gustav Klimt’s and Aubrey Beardsley’s art deco aesthetic: He freshened up the characteristic nonchalant femininity of the brand with sophisticated nostalgia. His creations adopted Chloés flowing lines and started to elegantly personify that relaxed Parisian chic, that became the face of the brand. To this day, Chloé lives from this association, which is interpreted every time anew.
The Fendi Period (1965-2019)
In the year 1965, Lagerfeld was engaged as designer by the Fendi sisters. At this point, the Roman company had already made a name for itself for high quality fur and leather pieces. For more than forty years, Fendi stood for good handicraft and tradition, but was not a known brand in the fashion world. Lagerfeld changed this situation his way: He created the today iconic inverse FF logo, renewed the traditional fur creations of the company with bold, original designs, and freed the brand from any kind of dowdy reminiscences once and for all.
Lagerfeld transformed Fendi’s furs into Haute Fourrure, and created fancy, utterly sought-after Prêt-à-Porter pieces for it, as well. Over the decades, Lagerfeld operated as the creative mind behind Fendi, contributed to expand the company’s offer to fashion, accessories and perfumes, and freshened up the typically Roman, timeless sex appeal he saw in the brand constantly anew. Lagerfeld played an important role in the internationalization of the house, especially as he conceived the tremendous Fendi fashion show in November 2007 on the Chinese Wall. On that day, the world’s longest catwalk rocketed Fendi’s international brand awareness entirely reflecting Lagerfeld’s views:
“Logos and branding are so important. In a big part of the world, people cannot read French or English -but are great in remembering signs.”
The Chanel Period (1983-2019)
What applied to Fendi, applied a fortiori for Chanel. Lagerfeld’s fashion shows for the brand established by Gabrielle Chanel in 1918, attained, especially in the last years, a legendary character: They became fancier, more narrative, ground-breaking in their orchestration. And yet, at the time Lagerfeld took over the creative direction, the brand was hitting rock bottom: Chanel was regarded as old-fashioned, nice for older ladies, but nothing for young, dynamic women. Paradoxically, Chanel began as a brand that embodied the complete opposite of dated: Its founder claimed the right to confidently use the fashion fabrics, cuts, colors and combinations -which were implicitly reserved to men, due to their comfort and functionality- in women’s clothing.
Lagerfeld revived Chanel’s revolutionary legacy. Like Gabrielle Chanel, he was able to quickly grasp the upheavals of times, and used this intuition to redefine her iconic elements and fashion pieces for the women of the Eighties, Nineties and the new millennium. He recognized in the past creations of Chanel the components of a brand, that was closely linked to the aspiring, free personality 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 the timeless character of Chanel with the contemporary desire for luxury. Under Lagerfeld’s creative direction, this fashion house evolved to the billion-heavy global company we know today.
The World of a Discreet Man
Lagerfeld, the fashion designer, the brand renovator, and versatile artist, also developed own brands that he did not particularly pursue. He dedicated his creativity to the brands of his customers, his 300,000 books, his publications, 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 him from the buoyant nature of the fashion world. Casually, we could remark that his wealth enabled him to state that for his closest employees, after his death, “it will be taken care of”. He was generous, as his friends say, but he was discreet, too. The love of his life was Jacques de Bascher, with whom he had a relationship for eighteen years, and who died of aids about thirty years ago. Nothing more is known about his private life, nothing spectacular was arranged after his passing. Karl Lagerfeld died on February 19th 2019 in Paris, and held his world until the end:
“After me the Flood. It begins with me, it ends with me. I don’t care for anything else. I am only concerned with my work and with a couple of people, for whom I do really care.”
His legacy, though, remains: As a permanent influence on an industry, which is actually known for its fugacity.