Karl Lagerfeld is one of the most renowned designers in the history of fashion. His successful career spanned 65 years, including 50 years at Fendi, making him the longest-running creative director of a fashion house. In 1983, he also became the creative director of Chanel. While spearheading both Fendi and Chanel, he launched the eponymous Karl Lagerfeld label in 1884.
Having an awe-inspiring sense of work ethic, he embraced being a sartorial tour de force and brought to life more than 15 collections each year. What’s more, Lagerfeld is an avid photographer and illustrator. The multitalented designer shot most of the advertising campaigns for Fendi and Chanel, as well as hosted exhibitions of his personal work.
Truly, there was nothing Karl Lagerfeld could not do. Up until his death in February 2019, Lagerfeld was the creative director of Fendi, Chanel, and his very own brand. Today, his extraordinary accomplishments dubbed him a legend in the fashion industry.
Allow us to take you down memory lane, starting with Lagerfeld’s revival of Chanel.
The Modernization of Chanel
Despite leaving an impalpable mark on Fendi, Lagerfeld’s most compelling legacy unquestionably lies with his revival of Chanel. In 1983, the French fashion house – which was once at the cutting edge of Parisian style – had become stagnant and dull, brought upon by older traditionalists. When Lagerfeld become the creative director that year, he was triumphant in resurrecting the brand, instilling a youthful je ne sais quoi that made sales skyrocket.
Around the same time, many considered Yves Saint Laurent (YSL) as the reigning king of French fashion. Consumers adored YSL’s postmodernist designs, which combined high fashion with street style. Lagerfeld used a similar approach to reform Chanel. Knowing what the luxury brand stood for already, he transformed contemporary fashion into high fashion pieces, while infusing Chanel’s classic and chic style. Genius, indeed.
“There are very few designers who have changed the course of fashion history. Coco Chanel was one of them, and Karl Lagerfeld was another. His great talent was his ability to identify, articulate, and frequently anticipate changes in the zeitgeist. Effectively, he invented the language of late 20th- and early 21st-century fashion with his creative genius and quickfire, epigrammatic wit,” remarked Andrew Bolton of the Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“He was a true chameleon who could adapt to the needs of a brand or the changing moods of society with unparalleled skill,” added Emma McClendon of New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology.
Contemporary Classics by Chanel
Lagerfeld’s opening haute couture collection for Chanel was a stunning ode to the luxury label’s earliest silhouettes from the 1920s and 1930s. Chanel had reformed fashion after the First World War, in which they adapted traditional unstructured menswear shapes and materials, including tweed and ticking, and repurposing them for women’s apparel.
The comfortability of menswear appealed to several consumers in an era distinguished by the confining corsetry of women’s clothes. Chanel’s style was a breath of fresh air, as it was simple, versatile, and focused on the comfort of the wearer. Chanel established a democratic and inclusive style of fashion. Their pieces were sold at couture prices, yet they popularized traditional working class fabrics and materials into the realm of high fashion couture. This democratization is something Lagerfeld injected into his high-street collaborations.
Lagerfeld modified the classic boxy tweed Chanel suit of 1925, reinventing it for the modern age. The iconic suit appeared in all his collections, and his versions revolutionized Chanel’s fabrication, expanding it to include leather and denim, and then embellishing the pieces with wood, plastic, and even digital printing methods.
Chanel Meets Sex Appeal
While Coco Chanel had referenced her humble beginnings through the use of pedestrian fabrics, Lagerfeld ripped and frayed his suits, as well as made versions of them in miniskirts, maxi dresses, and even controversial hotpants. Coco Chanel herself, would have gasped at the latter – speaking of Mary Quant’s miniskirt: “Have they all gone mad?”
Lagerfeld’s unique designs at Chanel were often ridiculed and debated, much like his predecessor. Adding sex appeal to the brand in the 1980s, he sent his models down catwalks almost completely naked with just flowers covering their nipples.
During the mid-1990s, Lagerfeld took advantage of the rising popularity of hip hop. He accessorized his collections with large gold chains and featured fashion inspired by street style. Another one of his unique collections involved surfer-style. “He combined a vast knowledge of fashion history with an insatiable interest in contemporary culture and was never shy of provoking controversy,” said Oriole Cullen of the V&A.
“Lagerfeld’s drive, ambition, and clarity of vision enabled him to take on not just multiple collections each season, but numerous fashion houses, defining each with his ability to combine a unique identity with an overriding sense of the present”, tells Rebecca Arnold of the Courtauld Institute. However, is own label never achieved the same success he had at the French fashion house.
Chanel and Collectible Handbags
No one creates statement bags the way Lagerfled does. His Chanel handbags epitomize his couture knowledge and unparalleled creativity. He never failed to surprise the public with his one-of-a-kind designs, which include but are not limited to:
- The buoy clutch from the Chanel Cruise 2019 show
- The sparkling ball clutch from the Chanel Spring and Summer 2018 show
- The rocket clutch from the Chanel Fall and Winter 2017-2018 show
- The robot clutch from the Chanel Spring and Summer 2017 show
- The supermarket basket bag from the Chanel Fall and Winter 2014-2015 show
- The N°5 clutch from the Chanel Cruise 2014 show
- The plexiglass tote bag from the Chanel Fall and Winter 2009-2010 show
The Spectacle of the Catwalk
To Karl Lagerfeld, self-proclaimed caricaturist, fashion was about wearing masterpieces and performing at the theater of life. During his time with Fendi and Chanel, he engineered his fashions shows to become the most theatrical in the industry. He brought his collections to life by masterminding catwalks around luxurious settings. For instance, he transformed Paris’ Grand Palais into a scaled-down Eiffel Tower; a 148-meter ship that took over 30 days to install; and a beach complete with a moving tidal machine. For Fendi’s 90th anniversary, he designed a beautiful fashion show that bridged a glass catwalk with Rome’s Trevi Fountain.
A Lasting Legacy to Remember
Karl Lagerfeld was a giant in the fashion world. “Throughout a long and impressive career, he managed to retain an important place at the center of the industry,” said the V&A’s Cullen. “He will be greatly missed by all in the fashion world. As the last practicing designer from the 20th century’s golden years of fashion, his passing marks the end of an era.”