How Mysterious Was “The Mysterious Mr. Lagerfeld”?

Since his death in 2019, the fashion industry has reflected on the legacy of Karl Lagerfeld and his larger-than-life legacy personality. Even as the ‘Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty’ exhibit at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum celebrates his life with homages to his fashion collections, sketches, or colorful takes on his beloved cat, Choupette, there remains a level of controversy that surrounds the late and great Mr. Lagerfeld.

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Some of this has been examined in the new BBC documentary, “The Mysterious Mr. Lagerfeld.” The documentary interviews Lagerfeld’s friends, family, and close confidants in an attempt to shed light on the many facets of Lagerfeld. Along with this documentary, many other media outlets have attempted to dissect Lagerfeld’s history and give voice to the controversies around the legendary fashion figure. In this article, Fashion Reverie examines the many complexities and controversies of Lagerfeld, while honoring his immense talent and craft.

Born in 1933 to Elisabeth and Otto Lagerfeld, Karl was blessed with family wealth. Later in life, he’d obscure two most basic facts about himself, the extent and source of his family wealth, as well as taking five years off his age by saying he was born in 1938 to ‘Elisabeth of Germany’ and Otto ‘Lagerfeldt’ of Sweden. His baptismal records, which were made public in 2010, showed his correct birth date. The need to hide these two things though, highlights Lagerfeld’s embrace of vanity and the degree to which he cared what people thought.  

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By 1954 Lagerfeld would enter the International Wool Secretariat, winning the coat competition in 1955. Lagerfeld met his later rival Yves Saint Laurent at the International Wool Secretariat, with Yves Saint Laurent winning in the same year.

During the next three years, Lagerfeld would be the assistant to the couturier Pierre Balmain before eventually becoming his apprentice. These early years allowed him to hone his talent and become gifted in each aspect of fashion design, he also learned the business aspects in the fashion industry as well.

In these early years, Lagerfeld enriched himself by creating privately licensed items for many of the large department stores throughout Germany. By 1965 he’d begun to make a name for himself and was hired by the Italian brand Fendi to modernize their fur line. Making established fashion brands more fashion-forward for younger consumers would come to be one of Lagerfeld’s strongest assets.

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During the ‘70s he reigned supreme at Chloe and became seen as one of the most influential designers at the time. Lagerfeld drew inspiration from Nyorican fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez, and top models Grace Jones, and Pat Cleveland, creating collections that were more bohemian and fashion forward.  Generous to a fault, Lagerfeld paid this triptych’s living expenses in Paris as he continued to contribute designs to Chloe and grow his fame and fortune.


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 By 1982 he’d been hired by the brand that would make him famous: Chanel.  Since Coco Chanel’s death in 1971, the iconic brand was floundering and needed a facelift, so to speak. Lagerfeld restyled the design perspective of the company’s ready-to-wear (RTW) line, created the now iconic interlocking logo, and began to design skirts that rose above the knee–something that would have made Coco Chanel shudder. Yet, these tweaks to the Chanel image brought the iconic brand back into fashion public’s consciousness and made the brand more appealing to younger consumers. As Chanel’s growth skyrocketed and Lagerfeld media presence increased, Lagerfeld opened his eponymous label.

Lagerfeld dealt with multiple blows in his personal life. The first, and one that easily rocked him the most, was the death of his longtime muse, friend, and possible boyfriend, Jacques de Basher. While there was never a sexual relationship, as Lagerfeld explained, “I infinitely loved that boy, but I had no physical contact with him. Of course, I was seduced by his physical charm.” As de Bascher battled complications of HIV infection in 1989, Lagerfeld was known to stay on a cot in the hospital room during the final stages of his illness. After his death, it was reported that Lagerfeld’s ashes would either be mixed with those of his mother or of de Bascher. The death of someone so close, so early in his career, can explain away only some of Lagerfeld’s later refusal to filter himself or be sensitive to others.

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Lagerfeld created several controversies in the fashion industry in the early ‘90s, most prominently with the use of a verse from the Qur’an in his spring 1994 couture collection for Chanel. Though Lagerfeld apologized for using words from the Muslim holy book on a low-cut dress, this was not the last time Lagerfeld was embroiled in a controversy with Muslims.

Lagerfeld again raised eyebrows by expressing anger that German Chancellor Angela Merkel accepted one million Muslim immigrants into Germany, his homeland. This influx of Muslim immigrants made Lagerfeld publicly contemplate if he should give up his German citizenship.

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More recently Lagerfeld came out against the #Me Too movement. Lagerfeld also appeared to a body fascist, made evident by his many comments about women who were outside of standard modeling requirements. The British singer Adele was a victim of Lagerfeld body fascism, referring to her as ‘a little too fat.’ Lagerfeld was also opposed to the idea of plus-sized models and never wanted to include larger models in his runway shows and presentations.

These moments showed that Karl Lagerfeld was not only a creative genius, but a human being who sometimes created an environment that could be short on empathy and long-term friendships.

Lagerfeld was known to be generous with his friends and family members. He often gifted them cars, limitless clothes, and irreplaceable designs. He’d pay exorbitant prices to get what he wanted done. Going so far as to stir rumors that he paid Andre Leon Talley (ALT) $100,000 to stay at his house before each season to give him inside information on what the big wigs in American fashion was favoring for a particular season.

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That said, ALT and Lagerfeld did have a close relationship, Lagerfeld being his longtime friend and mentor. In a preview for Apple TV+ series Dear…, Talley recalls Lagerfeld gifting his clothes he wouldn’t ordinarily be able to purchase. “He started throwing things at me — shirts and scarves and things. ‘Here, take this, take this … this will look good’… and these were all the clothes he got tired of and he was giving them to me because I was, like, a person making 75 dollars a week at Interview.”

Lagerfeld’s generosity with gifting clothing was legendary. But Lagerfeld could easily withdraw the generosity as he could bestow it, without rhyme or reason. Antonio Lopez, the well-known fashion illustrator and fashion designer had his house paid for by Lagerfeld and yet when he was diagnosed with AIDS, Lagerfeld abandoned him. (The 2017 documentary “Antonio Lopez: 1970, Love, Fashion & Disco” examines Lagerfelds’ complicated relationship with Lopez.) 

Claudia Schiffer was the face of Chanel for years, even debuting the infamous Qur’an dress, she would eventually be cast out of Lagerfeld’s inner circle. Time and again, he’d cut people from his life without explanation. When his former right-hand at Chanel, Gilles Dufour left Chanel, the two never even said goodbye. At one point, even Lagerfeld summarized his attachment to people when speaking to The Telegraph, saying “Fashion is about elimination. I’m good at cutting people off. I can wait 10 years and then pull the chair. Sometimes people don’t even know that it was me who pulled the chair. Some are not even worth the effort. Others are so mediocre that life takes care of them anyway.

In spite of his seeming lack of long-term attachment to people, there was something that remained consistent throughout his later years as a source of love; Choupette. The blue-cream tortie Birman cat was meant to be watched by Lagerfeld for two weeks, only he fell in love with her and refused to give her back. That was his great love, so much so that many chose to honor Choupette at this year’s MET Gala.

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‘Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty’ exhibit at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum demonstrates that the fashion industry’s adoration of Karl Lagerfeld continues, despite his controversies and even as the evolution of Chanel changed with his long-term assistant Virginie Virad now at the helm as creative director.

Sydney Yeager

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