Karl Lagerfeld was one of the fashion industry’s most renowned designers, having helmed Chanel since 1983. He designed Chanel’s ready-to-wear and couture lines, his own label, and collaborated with Silvia Fendi to create Fendi’s ready-to-wear collections. Lagerfeld’s aesthetic was inspired with cultural and historical reference points. The designer was also an impressive linguist, versed in German, English, French and Spanish.
Born in Germany, Lagerfeld was the son of a wealthy Hamburg businessman. Following his family’s emigration to France Lagerfeld completed his education at Lycée Montaigne, where he focused on drawing and history. He was inspired to go into fashion when he accompanied his mother to a Dior fashion show in 1933, drawing fashion designs as a young child.
At 14 years old Lagerfeld made the bold decision, with the blessing of his parents, to move to Paris. He’d been there just two years when he submitted a series of sketches and fabric samples to a design competition. He ended up taking first place in the coat category and meeting another winner, Yves Saint Laurent, who would become a close friend. After winning the competition, Lagerfeld was hired as Pierre Balmain’s assistant in 1955. In 1958, after three years at Balmain, he moved to Jean Patou where he was involved in the design of ten haute couture collections. Following a brief stint at Tiziano, a couture house based in Rome, Lagerfeld began to freelance for French fashion house Chloé in 1964. At first Lagerfeld designed a few pieces each season, but soon he was designing the entire collection. In 1965, he began a short design collaboration with Curiel, following which he began his collaboration with Fendi.
In 1982, the chairman of Chanel, Alain Wertheimer, asked Lagerfeld to design for the house. Lagerfeld told The New York Times that he had huge reservations. “Everybody said, ‘Don’t touch it, it’s dead, it will never come back’, but by then I thought it was a challenge,” he said. The designer would go on to redefine the house’s codes while paying homage to Coco Chanel herself, subverting her ideals with his own modern take on her most renowned designs and has made cult items of the house’s bouclé tweed, pearls, dual-toned footwear and interlocking C’s for new generations around the world.
In 1984 Lagerfeld founded his own line, telling Vogue, “I’ve not been dreaming all my life to have my name over a shop. Now, we’ll put it there because it’s the right moment to do it; and I made this name, why not use it?” Lagerfeld sold the brand to the Tommy Hilfiger group in 2005, but remained its chief creative and directly involved in the design process.
In addition to his design talents, Lagerfeld was also a photographer and filmmaker, and regularly brought Chanel’s heritage to life through film and imagery; he also shot and creatively directed all of Chanel’s advertising. Lagerfeld lived in Paris with his cat Choupette. He died in Paris on the 19th of February 2019.