Goodbye, Karl Lagerfeld: 10 things you should know about Chanel's long-time creative director

Karl Lagerfeld appears at the end of Chanel's Spring/Summer 2013 women's ready-to-wear fashion show during Paris fashion week, on Oct 2, 2012.
Karl Lagerfeld appears at the end of Chanel's Spring/Summer 2013 women's ready-to-wear fashion show during Paris fashion week, on Oct 2, 2012.PHOTO: REUTERS

Legendary German designer and fashion industry stalwart Karl Lagerfeld died in Paris on Tuesday (Feb 19), aged 85. He was best known as the creative director of French couture house Chanel, and also produced collections for LVMH's Fendi and his own eponymous label.

In his later years, Lagerfeld was rarely seen without his leather gloves, signature ponytail and tinted sunglasses.

Here are 10 things about the late "Kaiser Karl" who became as famous as the fashion house that he was associated with.

1. Mystery over when he was born

While Lagerfeld's website cited his year of birth as 1938, the outspoken German had often cited different years of birth in interviews.

He is believed to have been born on Sept 10, 1933, in Hamburg, to a German mother and a Swedish father. His family was well off and his father was the managing director of the German branch of the American Milk Products Company.

Lagerfeld spent his early childhood in Bavaria, and had a French tutor.

2. Name change

The designer's birth name was Karl Otto Lagerfeldt, but he dropped the "t" from his last name so that it would sound "more commercial".

3. Legacy with Chanel


Karl Lagerfeld appears at the end of Chanel's Spring-Summer Haute Couture 2009 fashion show in Paris, on Jan 27, 2009. PHOTO: REUTERS

Lagerfeld took over the creative reins at the French luxury house in 1983 and was overseeing its campaigns until his death.

When the German was asked to take over Chanel, the fashion house had been in decline following founder Coco Chanel's death in 1971.

The iconic Chanel suit - a narrow-shouldered, boxy tweed jacket with a matching knee-length skirt - had become a tired silhouette.

Lagerfeld refreshed the Chanel collection without alienating its heritage, reworking the classic tweed and other classics throughout his years with the fashion house. He transformed the fashion house, made it relevant to the young and in the process became a fashion personality himself.  Chanel is reported to have revenues of more than US$4 billion a year. 

The label's runway shows under the German were massively elaborate, fitting of the designer's larger-than-life personality. In the recent spring/summer 2019 show in Paris, Chanel built a French country house, complete with grass, ponds, and palm trees.

For Chanel's fall/winter ready-to-wear show at Paris Fashion Week in 2014, the Grand Palais was transformed into a supermarket, where models strutted down aisles stocked with Chanel "foods" including spaghetti and fruit juice.

4. His pampered cat, Choupette

The designer's beloved Birman kitty may well be the richest cat in the world following Lagerfeld's death, as he has said in previous interviews that she will inherit some of his fortune.

Choupette is an Instagram star in her own right, with more than 160,000 followers on the social media platform.

She has two personal maids and eats at the dinner table, dining on Goyard dishes, no less.

Treated like royalty, Choupette eats caviar, and world-renowned chefs like Toyofumi Ozuru, formerly of Nobu Paris, has prepared meals for her.

In 2015, the designer's "daughter" made US$3 million (S$4.06 million) after appearing in two commercials.

5. He knew four languages

Lagerfeld spoke in four languages: German, English, French and Italian.

In a 2016 interview with Harper's Bazaar, the designer said that he could speak three languages - German, English and French - by the age of six.

"I have a French accent, but in German I have a French accent too," Lagerfeld told the fashion magazine.

"It's more my way of talking."

6. Sharp wit and unforgiving candour


Karl Lagerfeld stands on the beach after presenting Chanel's 2009-2010 cruise collection at the Excelsior hotel on the Venice Lido, on May 14, 2009. PHOTO: REUTERS

The German was known for his outspoken personality and controversial remarks. He called Adele "a little too fat" and said that the Duchess of Cambridge's sister Pippa Middleton "should only show her back".

In the 2007 documentary Lagerfeld Confidential, he did not mince his words when commenting on the fashion house that became synonymous with his career.

"When I took on Chanel, it was a sleeping beauty - not even a beautiful one," Lagerfeld said. "She snored."

But despite loving being in the spotlight, Lagerfeld kept an air of mystery around his life, mirrored by his penchant for dark sunglasses.

"It's not that I lie, it's that I don't owe the truth to anyone," he told French Vogue in an interview.

7. A fashion talent even in his youth


Karl Lagerfeld at Saks Fifth Avenue showing one of his snug-waisted styles, a silk taffeta skirt and blouse, in New York, on Sept 20, 1976. PHOTO: NYTIMES

In 1954, when the Chanel icon was barely 21, a coat he designed won a contest organised by the International Wool Secretariat.

The coat was produced by Pierre Balmain, who offered Lagerfeld a job as his assistant, kicking off his career in the City of Light.

French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent won the dress prize in the same contest, starting the fierce personal and professional rivalry between the two couturiers.

8. Penchant for photography and sketching


Karl Lagerfeld poses before the opening of his photo exhibition titled Little Black Jacket at the Grand Palais in Paris, on Nov 8, 2012. PHOTO: REUTERS

Lagerfeld took up photography in the 1980s, moving behind the lens to photograph his own fashion campaigns.

He also shot several fashion editorials, and many of his campaign shoots were later published as art books.

In 2015, Lagerfeld's photography was exhibited at the Pinacotheque de Paris gallery in Paris.

The designer also became a monthly contributor of bespoke caricature sketches to F.A.Z, a supplement of the Frankfurter Allgemein Zeitung newspaper in Germany in 2012.

In 2017, one of his sketches took a dig at Chancellor Angela Merkel's pro-refugee stance, while another likened disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein to a pig.

9. A fashion pioneer with a focus on the future

The fashion icon was also one of the most forward-thinking minds in the industry, combining his creative genius with business savvy.

In 2004, before luxury fashion and fast fashion collaborations were the norm, Lagerfeld was the first designer to collaborate with Swedish brand H&M on a capsule collection.

Other fashion labels which followed in his wake included Comme des Garcons and Maison Margiela.

Lagerfeld always kept his focus on the future and worked with the hottest names in Hollywood and in the modelling world. 

Some of his recent muses included 17-year-old Kaia Gerber, the daughter of American model Cindy Crawford, for a collection released by his eponymous label in 2018. Another was Lily-Rose Depp, 19, actor Johnny Depp's daughter, who landed her first show with Lagerfeld and Chanel in 2015.

10. Diet coke obsession


Karl Lagerfeld appears at the end of his Autumn/Winter 2015/2016 women's ready-to-wear collection for Chanel during Paris Fashion Week, on March 10, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

Lagerfeld was obsessed with Diet Coca-Cola, and said that he drank 10 cans of it daily in a 2012 interview with Harper's Bazaar.

"I drink Diet Coke from the minute I get up to the minute I go to bed. I can even drink it in the middle of the night, and I can sleep. I don't drink coffee, I don't drink tea, I drink nothing else," he said.

In the early 2000s, the couturier lost about 40kg, to fit into the razor-thin suits designed by Dior Homme's then-creative director Hedi Slimane.

He later wrote a book, The Karl Lagerfeld Diet, documenting his controversial weight loss process.


Correction note: This article has been edited for clarity.