Karl Lagerfeld was the most prolific designer of the past two centuries and is credited with revolutionizing Luxury Fashion as Industry. He was the first Shape Shifter: never creating new silhouettes like Dior and Balenciaga, he created a new kind of designer. Shape Shifters breathe life into heritage lines by reworking iconography. For all this he was called a styliste, never a true designer. Closer to the truth-he was a forward looking genius with a mixed legacy whose impact is immeasurable.
Karl Lagerfeld was brilliant in his understanding of reinvention. Born Karl Otto Lagerfeldt in Hamburg, Germany in either 1933 or 1935, he never revealed his true birthday and removed the ‘t’ from his name to make it ‘more commercial’.
Karl and his two sisters enjoyed a privileged childhood where intellectual activity and artistic expression were encouraged. His father Christian made a fortune bringing condensed milk to Germany, and his mother Elizabeth was an accomplished violinist. When Hitler rose to power in the 1930s the Lagerfeldts moved to rural north Germany, where Karl (of his own account) was cut off from any knowledge of the Nazi party.
Lagerfeld took a strong interest in the world of high fashion when the family returned to Hamburg, and at 14 he moved to Paris. Two years later he took first place in the coat category of an esteemed design competition; Yves Saint Laurent won the dress category. Lagerfeld apprenticed with Pierre Balmain for three years afterward, and was soon taking the reigns at Chloe and Fendi (where he introduced Fun Fur-an irreverent concept that made Fendi hip again and inspired the FF logo).
He left Chloe in 1982 to head Chanel: this proved a match made in heaven given the house’s rich collection of icons (pearls, camellias, interlocking C’s) and Lagerfeld’s penchant for irreverent use of them. The resulting alchemy built an empire whose sales near $4 billion dollars annually, and paved the way for designers like Tom Ford (who transformed Gucci), Stella McCartney (Chloe), and Ricardo Tisci (Givenchy and Burberry). As Anna Wintour said, “More than anyone I know, he represents the soul of fashion: restless, forward-looking and voraciously attentive to our changing culture.”
Rest In Peace Karl Lagerfeld
NEXT WEEK: Karl Lagerfeld Part II: Controversy, Caricature, Cats…