Karl Lagerfeld 1933-2019: End of an era

The incomparable iconoclast, whose career spanned more than seven decades in fashion, leaves behind a powerful legacy

German designer - nay, global celebrity and pop-culture icon - Karl Lagerfeld died in Paris on Tuesday aged 85. Where to begin for a man whose long life and prolific career are the stuff of legend?

The news first came as a shock - Lagerfeld was the kind of character you imagine immortal. He was the institution, as far as fashion was concerned.

Lagerfeld is best known today for his work at the House of Chanel. The Wertheimer brothers who own the company hired the designer in 1983 to resuscitate its ailing business.

Following the death of its namesake founder Coco Chanel, the brand had been struggling for relevance and needed an irreverent jolt of life. That gamble by the Wertheimers clearly paid off.

The Chanel we imagine today is an entirely modern creation by Lagerfeld, who for 36 years reinvented and subverted the vast lexicon of the iconic brand. He once described Chanel as an "old hat" that stank of old-fashioned bourgeois tastes, but gave it currency and contemporary life so it regained its status as one of the most important and venerated names in fashion - a position it had lost for a while.

Before Chanel, however, Lagerfeld was a creative gun for hire. His first job in fashion was with Pierre Balmain and he quickly became an apprentice to the couturier. There, he learnt old-world dressmaking methods from the 1920s and 1930s.

His next appointment was at Jean Patou, where he designed haute couture for the upper crust of French society. The stuffiness of the clientele and styles quickly bored Lagerfeld, who left to freelance for a host of French and Italian brands such as Chloe, Krizia and Mario Valentino.

An eccentric modernist who once declared he had no "human feelings", the German designer is nevertheless survived by his godson Hudson Kroenig (both seen at the Chanel Metiers D'Art show in New York in December last year). He had taken to including the boy in his Chanel shows and finales since 2010. PHOTO: NYTIMES

In 1966, he was made the main designer for Chloe and worked for more than 20 years.

That all pales compared to his time at Fendi: a total of 54 years, since starting in 1965.

The Italian fur house, led by Silvia Venturini Fendi, embraced Lagerfeld's irreverent approach to the expensive fabric. Shaving, painting, dyeing and reimagining its uses in maverick ways, he revived and crafted a fashionable identity out of Fendi, as he did at Chanel.

Lagerfeld belongs very much to what we now call the old guard of fashion. That is, the generation of designers whose careers skyrocketed in the 1970s and 1980s and were formally trained in the tradition of haute-couture dressmaking.

Consider this: Lagerfeld won the International Wool Secretariat - the prestigious award today renamed the Woolmark Prize - at the age of 21 for the coat category. That same year, Yves Saint Laurent won for dress design.

The two would go on to develop an infamous rivalry. While Saint Laurent was an emotional and often self-destructive creative force couched in the archetype of an artist's melodrama, Lagerfeld worked relentlessly, famously declaring himself averse to drink, drugs and cigarettes - the vices of Saint Laurent.

Pierre Berge, Saint Laurent's longtime life and business partner, decried Lagerfeld, saying he "is not a designer, he's a mercenary".

This healthy loathing was mutual. On Berge's death in 2017, Lagerfeld's florist called, according to an interview given to Numero Magazine, to ask if they ought to send a cactus to the funeral.

Karl Lagerfeld as a student in the 1950s with a model during the presentation of a cocktail coat. PHOTO: AFP

But with Lagerfeld gone, fashion can now truly say that it is an end of an era. The industry of haute couture had its heyday in the 1950s and was continued in spirit by the ilk of Lagerfeld, Saint Laurent and Valentino. It was an era of designers who were also dressmakers - who had the technical know-how as well as expansive creative wells. Today, the leaders of the industry are more likely creative directors who simply curate image and branding.

No small feat, but a far cry from the couturiers of yore - of which Lagerfeld was certainly the last. Valentino retired about 10 years ago.

For instance, in the 2009 documentary Valentino: The Last Emperor, Lagerfeld was seen backstage after Valentino Garavani's final runway show. During a congratulatory embrace, he whispers conspiratorially to Garavani: "Compared to us, the rest are making rags." Hubris, of course, but perhaps not far from the truth.

Lagerfeld and a hairstylist adjusting a model's outfit for his first Chanel Spring/Summer collection show in 1983. PHOTO: AFP

He also - though perhaps unconsciously and quite ironically - became a prototype for the modern fashion designer. The rock-star status of these creatives can be traced to Lagerfeld's embrace of fame and personal branding. In 2004, he was the first to collaborate on a limited-edition collection with mass retailer H&M, birthing an unstoppable wave of designer collaborations that has continued since.

Today, skate brands and heritage luxury houses hawk see-through suitcases and thousand-dollar cellphone cases. The fact is these collaborations owe their existences to Lagerfeld's initial bridging (or democratising) of high fashion for the masses.

Today, designers are also routinely swapped around at big-name brands for continuous infusions of newness. This idea, borrowed from Lagerfeld's revival of Chanel, saw houses in the 1990s such as Gucci (by Tom Ford), Louis Vuitton (by Marc Jacobs), Givenchy (by Alexander McQueen), Lanvin (by Alber Elbaz) and Dior (by John Galliano) hire fresh young talents to bring newness to brands riding on a famous old name.

Lagerfeld with British model Stella Tennant during the Metiers D'Art show for Chanel in Paris in 2011. The show, which has existed since 2003, is an homage to the talents of artisans and craftsmen who make haute couture possible. PHOTO: REUTERS

Today, even older names from the annals of fashion such as Schiaparelli, Poiret and Vionnet are being dragged out of their graves. Invariably, that too is a path Lagerfeld carved for the rest of the industry.

There is almost too much to say because any description of Lagerfeld draws its own competing duality. His resistance to technology such as e-mail and cellphones, for instance, is compounded by the countless iPods he keeps for music to work to. The meanness of his most scandalous comments is tempered by countless stories of generosity by his friends and colleagues. He disregards his past work to strive for newness, all the while outfitting himself in the same uniform of Dior suits, high-collared Hilditch & Key shirts, fingerless gloves and sunglasses.

He designs some of the most desirable, cherished and coveted things for women, yet sells his own multi-million-dollar collections of art and furniture with neither sentimentality nor material attachment.

He is an international celebrity, yet puts up a public identity so absurdly idiosyncratic he almost becomes his own caricature.

In a profile by New York Magazine in 2006, he had this to say about his work: "Marc Jacobs and all, they will have to wait. This is not an easy job because I have the understanding about Chanel and couture design that nobody has anymore. I have the training that nobody else has. This job is not free."

It feels only fair to talk about Lagerfeld's work in relation to his life, him having likened it to breathing. His lifetime contracts with Chanel and Fendi provided him the leeway to work, as he preferred, to his death. He was an ardent modernist who looked to the next and the new with endless projects including photography and a publishing imprint with Steidl.

And work to the end he did, even providing notes for the Fendi collection that will show in the coming weeks' Milan season. As inexhaustible as he was, the human condition demands an end.

After an unrivalled marathon career that outlasted all of his peers', Lagerfeld can finally allow himself rest in the pantheon of legends.

• Gordon Ng is a freelance fashion writer.

His cutting quips

Designer Karl Lagerfeld was an icon in the fashion world. But the outspoken designer's legacy stretches well beyond the fashion runway. He was also known for his witty repartee and oft controversial quips. Here are some of his most famous lines:

On himself

"I am like a caricature of myself and I like that. It is like a mask. And for me the Carnival of Venice lasts all year long."

On selfies

"They are this horrible thing where you are distorted. The chin is too big, the head is too small. No, this is electronic masturbation."

On interview etiquette

"I had an interview once with some German journalist - some horrible ugly woman. It was in the early days after the communists - maybe a week after - and she wore a yellow sweater that was kind of see-through. She had huge t*** and a huge black bra and she said to me: 'It's impolite; remove your glasses.' I said: 'Do I ask you to remove your bra?'"

On late American artist Andy Warhol

"I shouldn't say this, but, physically, he was quite repulsive."

On Chanel founder Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel

"What I do, Coco would have hated. The label has an image and it's up to me to update it. I do what she never did. I had to find my mark. I had to go from what Chanel was to what it should be, could be, what it had been, to something else."

On sports clothing

"Sweatpants are a sign of defeat. You lost control of your life, so you bought some sweatpants."

On designer wear

"Don't use expensive clothes as a screen for your personal doubts. Be proud of yourself and not only because you wear expensive designer clothes. They are great, but lots of people are happy without them." On his cat Choupette "She is like a kept woman. She has a strong personality. She has lunch and dinner with me on the table, with her own food. She doesn't touch my food. She doesn't want to eat on the floor. She sleeps under a pillow and she even knows how to use an iPad. She has two personal maids, for both night and day. She is beyond spoiled."

On intellectuals "

I hate intellectual conversation with intellectuals because I care only about my opinion."

On beauty

"Life is not a beauty contest, some ugly people are great. What I hate are nasty, ugly people... the worst are ugly, short men. Women can be short, but for men it is impossible. It is something that they will never forgive in life... they are mean and they want to kill you."

On children

"They grow so fast, and having adult children makes you look 100 years old. I don't want that."

On his iconic status

"I've always known that I was made to live this way, that I would be this sort of legend."

Compiled by Melissa Heng

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 21, 2019, with the headline Karl Lagerfeld 1933-2019: End of an era. Subscribe