I knew of Karl Lagerfeld long before I thought of him as a source of creative inspiration. Everyone knows his name, associating it with the House of Chanel, or the Fendi brand, or indeed his own eponymous brand with that idiosyncratic, monochrome silhouette plastered all over the garments in a way that, if anyone else did it, would seem entirely self-indulgent. But when Lagerfeld did things, you couldn’t measure them by the same standards. He knew this, and he knew why: “I’m very much down to Earth. Just not this Earth.”
I first heard Lagerfeld’s name at the exact moment when my interest in couture fashion began: during my first ever viewing of The Devil Wears Prada. Just before Andy gets her makeover, Nigel is explaining to her why fashion is more than a bunch of pretty people running around in expensive clothing. He talks about designers as some of the “greatest artists of this century”, and picks three examples out of the air: Halston, De La Renta, and Lagerfeld. As I was falling in love with the world of high fashion, I was also learning about its revolutionaries, of which he was undoubtedly one.
Lagerfeld’s death has torn through the fashion industry and beyond; social media feeds, news bulletins and online fashion journalism platforms are swamped with photographs and dedications to him. And, despite the fact he had been sick for a few weeks (and was eighty-five), it was news nobody was ever expecting to hear. Lagerfeld was surrounded by an illusion of immortality: he was woven into the fabrics he created; he was his name, which will live forever, and his human side was barely acknowledged because he rarely seemed human at all. He lied persistently about his age, his year of birth and his ancestry; he spoke almost exclusively in aphorisms; and he never shied away from brutal honesty. He was as far from ‘real’ as a human could get; he was an enigma. And he always will be.
Having majored in drawing and history at a secondary school in Paris, his career lifted off when he won at coat design competition through which he befriended Yves Saint Laurent. He went from strength to strength, designing freelance for brands such as Chloé and Valentino, until 1967 when he was hired by Fendi. He revolutionised the brand’s use of fur which, while ethically questionable, allowed him to prove his worth in the world of high fashion. Then, in 1983, he was hired by Chanel, a then faded, dated and dying brand, and before long he was a world-leading and internationally renowned designer, flourishing alongside a House of Chanel which was proudly glittering in its newness.
His ground-breaking career has seen its fair share of controversies. As well as gaining a reputation for severe female body-shaming, his injection of ‘sexiness’ into his brands pushed boundaries and buttons alike, to the point where US Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour walked out of his 1993 Fendi show at Milan Fashion Week, which saw porn-star Moana Pozzi and various strippers take to the runway alongside his models. He criticised Pippa Middleton’s looks, infamously advising that she should “only show her back”. He has been criticised vehemently by PETA and other animal rights organisations for his advocation of fur in the fashion industry, and he was also threatened with a potential court case when he used a verse from the Qur’an in his SS94 Haute Couture collection for Chanel.
But, throughout all this, he still kept the Lagerfeld essence alive. There was something unprecedented about his attitude towards his job; he was often labelled a workaholic, but that isn’t how I see it. His work was his life – he lived and breathed creativity, photography and fashion design. He would not have been Karl Lagerfeld without that unending passion. Nothing else mattered to him but the world of his profession, and the people directly related to that world. He was absolutely dedicated to his models: Freja Beha Ericson, Charlotte Free, Kaia Gerber and, most notably, Cara Delevingne. While he didn’t believe in the idea of ‘muses’, he cultivated relationships which were underpinned not by a contract but by friendship and genuine admiration. No matter how much fame he accumulated, he always gave and received admiration in equal measure, believing adamantly in the power of those around him as much as he believed in his own creative prowess. While his death has jolted us all into realising that he is not immortal, his legacy is that and more: it is infallible, and so it should be.