Culture

Karl Lagerfeld, R.I.P.

German designer Karl Lagerfeld appears at the end of his Spring/Summer 2019 women’s ready-to-wear collection show during Paris Fashion Week in Paris, France, October 2, 2018. (Stephane Mahe/Reuters)
Remembering the provocative, ingenious fashion designer, who died Tuesday at 85 years of age

Yesterday, Karl Lagerfeld passed away at 85 years old. The designer with the trim, powdered white ponytail and quadrangle black glasses was as iconic as his designs. He was sincere even when it was not charming, which endeared him to many and left a few cold.

Lagerfeld said of fashion, “We created a product nobody needs, but people want. If you need an ugly old car, it can wait, but if you want a new fashion item, it cannot wait.” It was a surprisingly flippant statement from one of contemporary fashion’s great geniuses, but then Lagerfeld was like that, cultivating a public persona at once direct and enigmatic. “I am like a caricature of myself, and I like that,” he famously remarked. “It is like a mask. And for me the Carnival of Venice lasts all year long.”

Although instantly recognizable and a fixture of the fashion world, he hid his face nearly perpetually behind sunglasses and gave contradictory accounts of his life’s details, specifically those concerning his parents, childhood, and age. He had many friends, but in his later years insisted that he preferred to be solitary. He lived alone with his tawny Birmin cat, Choupette, whom he’d kidnapped years ago from a friend, and whom he once joked he would marry if it were legal. (Choupette happens to be one of the possible rumored heirs to his fortune.)

Lagerfeld was also known for epigrams that were funny, controversial, and often truthful. Indeed, he lived by them. He once said in an interview that “Berlin is like a human body with an arm and leg missing,” and the quip captures him to a tee: concise and acute in both his words and his designs. He saw things from a particular angle and expressed himself clearly.

Of course, his bluntness could get him into trouble. To take but one of many examples, he was heavily criticized for telling Focus magazine that “no one wants to see curvy women.” But when one November he woke up and decided that he wanted to fit into Hedi Slimane’s slim Dior suits, he adopted a strict diet and lost over 90 pounds in 13 months.

Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, wrote that “Karl was brilliant, he was wicked, he was funny, he was generous beyond measure, and he was deeply kind. I will miss him so very much.” If anyone’s earned the right to heap such praise on him, it’s Wintour, who walked out of a 1993 show in which strippers modeled his seasonal Fendi collection.

Lagerfeld was certainly not obsequious. He was one of those brash few who prioritized creative sincerity above niceties, a herd that thins out a bit more every day. Although sometimes transgressive for transgression’s sake, evenly cheaply so, he was not a sycophant.

One of the secrets to his success was an ability to keep an eye on the new without abandoning the old. He successfully synthesized traditional designs and contemporary trends, rather than regurgitating tired forms or relying on anachronisms masquerading as classics. He renewed for each decade the magnetism that had originally attracted crowds to a legacy brand.

Lagerfeld did not have much patience for those who were unable to adapt. “I get along with everyone except for men my age, who are bourgeois or retired or boring, and cannot follow the evolution of time and mood,” he told New York magazine. The world changed enormously during the course of his life, but he never condemned the past or fell out of touch with the future. “It is up to us to adjust to our times. The times are not supposed to adjust to our, perhaps passé, taste.”

Lagerfeld found success early. At a tender age — some say 18, others 21 — he entered the coat category of the International Wool Secretariat (now the International Woolmark Prize) in Paris. He won the prize with a daffodil-yellow coat. He had his first show at Chanel in early 1983. The house was considered past its prime and on its last legs in the wake of Coco Chanel’s 1971 death. As creative director, he revitalized the brand, combining its trademark pearls, quilted leather, and tweed jackets with his keen eye for balanced and forward-looking luxury aesthetics. He later became creative director at Fendi, and then founded his own eponymous fashion brand.

Lagerfeld had a gift for guiding the spirits of titanic-but-stolid fashion houses into the future. He once remarked “Each season, they tell me [the Chanel designs] look younger. One day we’ll all turn up like babies.” He remained at Chanel for the rest of his life.

For better or worse, he was known for his work with furs, which earned him the occasional wrath of animal-rights advocates. In 2001, he was confronted at Lincoln Center by PETA activists who pelted tofu pies at him and called him a “fur pimp.” The protesters’ aim was as good as their pies; they hit Calvin Klein, whom Lagerfeld was walking next to, in what one of the activists called a case of friendly fire. Still, he was undeterred. Brigitte Bardot once wrote a letter to Choupette, asking her to “purr at [Lagerfeld’s] ears” entreating him to stop using fur. Lagerfeld never complied, or perhaps Choupette never bothered to ask him (though he did draw PETA’s praise for using fake fur in his 2010 Chanel collection).

While at Fendi, originally a furrier, Lagerfeld injected a newness into their furs that had been around for decades, updating but not corrupting their signature focus. Silvia Venturini Fendi collaborated with Lagerfeld on the 2013 Fendi fall ready-to-wear line, Lagerfeld’s 96th collection for the house. The line included a dyed-blue fur, cropped jacket with blood orange trim, a fur sweater-vest, and caps blooming with oversized feathers.

Fendi said upon Lagerfeld’s death, “For Fendi and myself the creative genius of Karl has been and will always be our guiding light.”

Despite his eccentries, Lagerfeld was known for his kindness and patience with those he worked with. And although reclusive, he often indulged reporters in interviews before and after shows. When asked about retirement, he said “Why should I stop working? If I do, I’ll die and it’ll be all finished.” He remained a creative force up until his death — his designs opened the December pre-fall 2019 Chanel Métiers d’Art show at the Met in New York.

Lagerfeld is survived by Choupette, by Hudson Kroenig, his godson, and by a grieving fashion industry. He will be missed.

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