KARL LAGERFELD 1933 – 2019 “The beat goes on…”

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…”

Arti­cle from our debut issue #001 avail­able in print and dig­i­tal here.