Fashion Flashback: Karl Lagerfeld

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When a fashion icon dies, not only does the fashion community morn the loss, the entire global community experiences the loss and separation. Everyone reflects on the genius and great collections of the fashion designer, and immediately following their death retrospectives are organized as the fashion community gathers to remember the designer’s contributions.With Karl Lagerfeld’s transition, the fashion industry has lost a fashion designer that helped to redefine luxury fashion and the luxury’s transition from couture to ready-to-wear. When Lagerfeld took over the helm of Chanel in 1983, he singlehandedly transformed Chanel from its former glory to a relevant brand that could appeal to a younger consumer. Lagerfeld went against the grain, not focusing his first collection for Chanel on the brand’s historic comeback in the 1950s but conjuring up images of the brand’s heyday in the 1920s and 30s.

“A very static image has emerged based on Chanel’s last years,” Lagerfeld explains as detailed in a wwd.com article, “so I’ve looked over her whole career and found something much more interesting.” This was a huge risk for the brand and Lagerfeld was heavily criticized for this direction. Still, Lagerfeld, over time, managed to harness a group of influential fashion industry professionals who grew to admire his work.

When Lagerfeld first came to the House of Chanel, he was already the creative director of Chloe and Fendi. Before his directorships at Chanel, Lagerfeld had worked as a design assistant at Balmain, served as creative director at Jean Patou, and freelanced at Krizia, Valentino, Charles Jourdan, and Chloe, as well as doing private label work at a slew of German department stores.

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In 1984, Lagerfeld established his own eponymous line, Karl Lagerfeld. Lagerfeld said that his own brand would bring “intellectual sexiness” back to fashion. In 2002, Renzo Russo of Diesel said, “I am honored to have met this fashion icon of our time. Karl represents creativity, tradition and challenge, and the fact that he thought of Diesel for this collaboration is a great gift and acknowledgement of our reputation as the prêt-à-porter of casual wear.”What many may not realize about Lagerfeld is that he instituted the fashion industry’s obsession with collaborations. Back in 2004, Lagerfeld was the first fashion designer to collaborate with H&M which turned into a popular collaboration series. Since that first collaboration, Lagerfeld has collaborated with Moschino, Stella McCartney, Comme des Garcons, and Kenzo. At the time of his death, Lagerfeld had continued to collaborate with Fossil watches, the department store Macy’s, makeup brand Shu Uemura and even drinks giant Coca Cola.

Lagerfeld slender frame was recognized by his powder white hair, shades, fingerless gloves, and highly starched, detachable collars, However, earlier in Lagerfeld’s life he had been quite large. Lagerfeld lost over 93 lbs over a thirteen-month period in 2001. He explained: “I suddenly wanted to dress differently, to wear clothes designed by Hedi Slimane … But these fashions, modeled by very, very slim boys—and not men my age—required me to lose at least 40 kg. It took me exactly 13 months.”

Over his lifespan, Karl Lagerfeld was the focus of several controversies. Lagerfeld has been accused of being racist, homophobic, fatphobic, Islamophobic, and critical of the Me Too movement. His biggest controversy involved the misuse of a verse from the Qur’an in Chanel’s spring 1994 couture collection. The Indonesian Muslim Scholars of Jakarta called for a boycott. Lagerfeld explained the misuse of the Qur’an verse, thinking it was a poem from the Taj Mahal and not from the holy Muslim text.

Lagerfeld has been critical of many feminine icons, calling supermodel Heidi Klum to fat to be a supermodel, criticizing Pippa Middleton’s looks, and calling pop sensation Adele fat. Critical of PETA, Lagerfeld had always been a fan of natural pelts; however, Lagerfeld used fake fur in Chanel’s 2010 collection.

In 2007, a full-length documentary, “Lagerfeld Confidential” was made by Vogue. In 2013, he directed the short film “Once Upon a Time…” in the Cité du Cinéma, Saint-Denis, by Luc Besson, featuring Keira Knightley in the role of Coco Chanel and Clotilde Hesme as her aunt Adrienne Chanel.

Karl Lagerfeld died from complications to pancreatic cancer on February 19, 2019. He asked to be cremated and buried next to his mother and his late partner, Jacques de Bascher. Karl Lagerfeld was 85 years old.

—William S. Gooch

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