Karl Lagerfeld’s extraordinary legacy

A look back at fashion maestro Karl Lagerfeld’s prolific career

With the news that Karl Lagerfeld had died, a truly astonishing era in fashion came to a close.

The German designer, who was creative director of Chanel, Fendi and his own eponymous brand, died yesterday in Paris at the age of 85.

He had been ill for the past few weeks.

Lagerfeld’s contribution to the fashion industry over the past five decades is difficult to overstate. He was known to be exceedingly prolific, creating seasonal ready-to-wear, cruise and pre-fall collections for all three of the brands he was associated with, as well as two haute couture collections for Chanel each year.

A keen photographer, he also famously shot all of the marketing and media campaigns for each of the brands.

He published a number of books featuring his own snaps, most famously The Little Black Jacket: Chanel’s Classic Revisited, which captures a long list of celebrities donning the brand’s timeless classic. 

FILE PHOTO: German designer Karl Lagerfeld appears at the end of his Spring-Summer Haute Couture 2009 fashion show for French fashion house Chanel in Paris, France January 27, 2009.  REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen/File Photo

The designer’s towering reputation was hard won. After emerging as an inexperienced fashion student in 1954 (when, alongside a teenage Yves Saint Laurent, Lagerfeld won the prestigious Woolmark Prize), his ascent in the world of fashion was slow and steady rather than explosive.

He started at the studio of Pierre Balmain, before joining Jean Patou and then freelancing for Chloe from 1964. By 1970, his eye for fluid elegance led to him creating all Chloe’s collections, wowing audiences with loose jackets and silken trousers so wide they resembled ankle-length skirts.

He joined the house of Fendi in 1965 and never left, creating collections that appealed to a younger audience while losing none of the technical know-how that the house is famed for. But it is for his work at Chanel that Lagerfeld will be remembered.

Taking over in 1983, Lagerfeld stepped into a company that had lost its way after the death of its founder, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, in 1971. Bringing stability, drive and vision to the house, Lagerfeld propelled it from being a maker of safe but predictable tweed to a fashion must-have adored by young and old alike.

In 1983 Karl Lagerfeld joined Chanel as its chief artistic director fashion designer. A year later March 5, 1984 he finishes his new Haute Couture collection in the Chanel studio on rue Cambon in Paris. This Autumn Winter collection will be shown three weeks later. Chanel was on the brink of total financial loss, but Lagerfeld succeeded to bring the company back to life. An atmosphere of creative work prevails in the studio as his team puts the final touches for the coming runway show. (Photo by John van Hasselt/Corbis via Getty Images)

Boldly turning his back on the shapes of 1950s Chanel, Lagerfeld instead wanted to embrace the original carefree spirit of the house, so referenced Gabrielle’s own designs from the 1920s and 1930s.

The move was not initially well received, but his resilience and willingness to work 16-hour days soon won over critics and clients alike.

Rather than resting on Chanel’s weighty archive, each season Lagerfeld would experiment with bold new lines, whether neatly squared shoulders or ones that rounded down into the elbow. He introduced a more casual element to the house – denim in the 1980s and, more recently, trainers. “My job is not to do what she did, but what she would have done. The good thing about Chanel is it is an idea you can adapt to many things,” he said.

PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 03:  Models walk the runway during Chanel Cruise 2018/2019 Collection at Le Grand Palais on May 3, 2018 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

In his later years, Lagerfeld adopted a sort of uniform of severely cut black trousers and jacket worn with high starched collars and powdered white hair in a ponytail, and it was not without irony that he said: “When I was younger I wanted to be a caricaturist. In the end I became a caricature.”

Armed with an acerbic wit, Lagerfeld often found himself in trouble, famously insulting singer Adele for not being a size 10 (he apologised by sending her armfuls of Chanel bags). Last year, he courted controversy by claiming that the presence of Muslim migrants in Germany was an affront to Holocaust victims, and was widely criticised.

At Chanel’s most recent show in Paris, the world was given a first glimpse that the unstoppable Mr Lagerfeld might, finally, be starting to slow down, when he missed the customary end of show bows at both presentations of his latest haute couture collection. At the time, Chanel announced that Lagerfeld was tired and that he had asked his second-in-command Virginie Viard to take his place.

FILE - In this Oct.2, 2018 file photo, French fashion studio director Virginie Viard and German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld pose after the presentation of Chanel Spring/Summer 2019 ready-to-wear fashion collection in Paris. Chanel said Tuesday, Feb.19, 2019 that Virginie Viard, his longtime head of studio, will create the house's upcoming collections after Lagerfelfd died. Chanel did not say whether her appointment was permanent. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena, File)

His absence was keenly felt, with the crowd collectively voicing concerns that more serious news was to come. Sadly, that news has now arrived, and the fashion world is mourning the loss of one of its greats.

“The world has lost an icon. Karl Lagerfeld was a creative genius; he was influential, curious, powerful and passionate,” said Pier Paolo Righi, chief executive of the Karl Lagerfeld brand.

“He leaves behind an extraordinary legacy as one of the greatest designers of our time.”