Image: Karl Lagerfeld 1987 Sipa/Shutterstock
Words Adrian Glass
Karl Lagerfeld passed away at the age of 85 on the 19th February 2019. His remembrance as a legendary figure within the fashion world, is of the 36 year old legacy of being the creative director for Chanel, with his final show that posthumously occurred at Paris Fashion Week on the March 5th 2019 for Chanel’s Ready-to-Wear collection. His career remains an ardent representative of high end fashion and with this recent passing of Lagerfeld, the fashion industry has not only lost a designer superstar, but also an icon. An eidolon of stylisation and aesthetics, that in his esteemed vocation at Chanel projected the famous Fashion House under an invigorated presence. Whilst also maintaining, since 1965, the creative reigns of the Italian Leather and Fur company Fendi.
A forward thinking idealist, who manifested not only a presence of being aware that style and production of fashion need not be about the numbers of sales, he was able to maintain a complete creative input without being overly conscious of what the fashion business entails, rather what it creates. This was his uniqueness of personality and the very core of Lagerfeld’s artistry and implementation of design, that became the pinnacle that he embodied. Yet, despite the overt artistic leanings, Lagerfeld was also a very shrewd businessman aware of stylisation and importance of brand within the namesake of his business model, famously quoting from an interview with the BBC before his death, he considered himself his own “hired gun” for the Karl Lagerfeld marque. This ability to detach from himself and utilise his own skill set was an astounding feat, uniquely crafted over the many years of his career, Lagerfeld expressed in an earlier 2015 interview for the New York Times that he controlled the Karl Lagerfeld “marionette”, to which he pulled the strings. Becoming his own puppet. Lagerfeld in a simultaneous du jour also cleverly wrote the script of his masquerade, which in turn enabled him to achieve a level of notoriety that many may never be able to accomplish; to become his own separate entity. A self made caricature.
With a relentless work ethic, Lagerfeld instilled that detached enthusiasm for refining new and marketable ideas for the brands that he worked with, which included his own signature label. Reworking old and in someways outdated concepts to be remodel as anew, drawn from and developed into a quick and conceptualized vision. Lagerfeld didn’t waste time and it was this realtime perspective that he derived his own philosophy of consumption. To adsorb and utilize everything. He redefined his influences, as a gathered plethora of outsourced material from books to music, which was the fuel that drove Lagerfeld’s progression, with an ardent dislike of complacency — he read constantly, reportedly hosting his own library within his Paris apartment of over 100,000 publications from art and literature to photography books. Everything had to be new not dated, current and relevant, at least suitable enough as the creative director of Chanel, to assign as a new product, style and aesthetic. Yet, paradoxically in 1983 when the chairman for Chanel Alain Wertheimer asked Lagerfeld to design for the famous fashion house, as a renewed approval for haute couture, which Lagerfeld always rebelled against, to what he viewed was an outdated fixture. He succeed in lifting Chanel up, resetting its template and imprinting the sleeker, modernised version that we know of today. Lagerfeld did this without disturbing its couture history. Despite his rapid accession and focused intention of reestablishing brands under his control, he always respected their history. Skilfully moulding, almost in a surgical manner, to set it forward in time, as he famously said that his purpose with Chanel was not to disturb the spirit of the historic fashion house, rather, his intention was to update it.
Lagerfeld was also a chief provocateur, carefully monitoring emerging trends in popular culture that if he was displeased about he would issue a decree, trying to unsettle proponents of the traditionalists on one side and the morally rigid on the other, which included anyone else caught in the crossfire of his, at times, biting critique. But, the controversy that he so called attracted, was on the cue of being very self aware of initiating advertising without the ads. Calling himself a “google mind”, Lagerfeld knew the power of self promotion, that in turn could be channeled back, even if it was seen as a negative, any rebuttal from his detractors would end up serving as a positive in his continual reassertion of the Lagerfeld figurehead. Yet, the sarcastic remarks and at times harsh commentary, was always etched towards the celebrity mentality, particularly what he viewed as an ivory tower of its feigned righteousness, Lagerfeld knew very well that their hypocrisy manifested from arrogance. That was his main aim and where he angled his vitriol, as at the end of the day he saw it as a way of promoting and selling his own brand name. However, in 1994 Chanel was forced to apologise for Lagerfeld’s use of printing verses from the Koran on several dresses. Years later he praised feminism in 2015 as a slogan orientated show for Chanel’s Spring/Summer collection, whilst at the same time having an immense aversion towards the catchphrases of ‘celebrity feminist’ movements. Lagerfeld defended glamor for what it is, a fantasy and escapism. An inherent desire of narcissism. So, it is hard to say that he was, in his so called controversy, a contrarian.
Lagerfeld, despite his apparent complex persona, was without any self deception, his characteristics were finally tuned and maintained, that was the beauty of his consistency as a designer, he famously said, “Whatever it is, good or bad, it influences fashion…You can see that in fashion quicker than in any other thing going on. Fashion is something that reflects our lives and times with the shortest release.” It was within the now, which Lagerfeld set as the purpose that in turn defined his appeal, he lived purely for the moment. Rising Chanel up as the household name it has become today, with sales now over $9 billion annually. It is the most powerful independently owned fashion house in the world. Owed to Lagerfeld’s drive and focus in maintaining a daily presence, not to discard the past, but also not to live in it. Move it forward, redesign and rework its possibilities. Play with it, while avoiding taunting its history, but more importantly Lagerfeld urged, through his persona as a general rule, not to take life seriously. It is short. There is a respectful irony of a man that begin his career in 1954 with Pierre Balmain, after winning a fashion sketch competition, later evolving into what we know as the iconic designer, with a sole intention of fixing, what he believed was the archaic model of fashion. Yet, Lagerfeld’s last sketch before his death, which was one of many that he completed in quick succession over the years, was an image of himself and Coco Chanel walking together side by side, with the heading. “The beat goes on…”
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