‘I’m a kind of fashion nymphomaniac who never gets an orgasm’ – Karl Lagerfeld
On the February 19, 2019, Karl Lagerfeld, fashion’s icon and, as some would say, godfather, died. The news came as a shock, because Karl was viewed to almost transcend time and age – he was there, he was iconic, he was a constant.
The revered fashion designer is most famous for being the Creative Director of Chanel, one of the industry’s most influential and venerable fashion houses. Apart from Chanel, he was the head of Fendi and his own eponymous label, producing a staggering 15 collections per year, and frequently photographing and filming editorials and advertising campaigns himself. His work was an integral part of his life, and as he said himself, it came as naturally as breathing.
His outspoken opinions and signature look have almost become part of his oeuvre. The white ponytail, the sunglasses, the huge sharp collars and the pinned tie have become Lagerfeld’s instantly recognizable attributes. And, of course, his cat Choupette, is now an international sensation. Lagerfeld was definitely not a stranger to controversy, with some of his comments on beauty standards and body image being particularly problematic. But when he was controversial, and he owned it.
Some people would argue that Lagerfeld’s contribution to the fashion world is overstated. When we think of Lagerfeld we think more of his personality and Chanel as a brand in general, rather than a particular piece of clothing he (re)invented or a revolutionary trend he established. When we think of Yves Saint Laurent, we think of rive gauche, when we think of Martin Margiela we think of the Tabi boot. With Lagerfeld, it is his ubiquitous presence in the fashion world that we immediately seem to recall.
But in talking of Lagerfeld’s heritage like this, one is forgetting his role in inducing important changes to the ways the industry operates. His 2004 H&M line, which sold out in a matter of days, set a trend for collaborations between high-street and high-fashion brands, and the way he breathed new life and modernity into Chanel while preserving the brand’s identity set a tone for how a stagnant fashion house should be reinvented. While these contributions can easily be overlooked, they are there, and they had a lasting and defining impact.
It is also important to acknowledge the problematic side of Lagerfeld’s legacy. Some accuse him of being a misogynist and creating an image of women that produced an unattainable ideal centred around wealth and youth. He has also been criticised for his extensive use of fur and leather in his Fendi collections. But to what extent is this Lagerfeld’s unique contribution or rather a manifestation of the issues that still proliferate the fashion industry as a whole remains an open question.
Karl will be greatly missed as one of fashion’s most iconic personalities. His contribution and output throughout the years has been enormous, and his controversial but true to himself personality will always be remembered.