The Life and Legacy of Karl Lagerfeld (1933-2019)

Karl Lagerfeld passed away on the 19th February 2019, aged 85, in Paris. Famous as a designer, director, artist, photographer and caricaturist, Lagerfeld was one of the most respected and renowned faces within the fashion industry.

Lagerfeld was discovered in 1955 after winning a competition with his sketch of a coat. The coat was then created by Pierre Balmain and Lagerfeld became his assistant. Over his 65-year career, Lagerfeld would go on to design for Chloe as well as be creative director of Fendi, Chanel and his own eponymous label. This powerhouse of a designer was openly gay and was in a relationship with the socialite Jacques de Bascher before the latter’s demise from AIDS in 1989.

In later years Lagerfeld became known for his white hair sleekly tied back in a ponytail and a pair of black sunglasses covering his eyes.

He loved tradition. This can be seen in some of his more traditional views on weight, modelling and, until recently, fur, but it can also be seen in the way Lagerfeld never changed the brand image away from that of his predecessor, Coco Chanel. Even though Lagerfeld modernised and innovated the brand with every runway, they continued to exude a 1950’s fashion and feel with quilted leather fabrics, pearls and gold chains.

Despite this love of tradition, Lagerfeld’s mark on fashion has been revolutionary and he has left a legacy of iconic and jaw-dropping moments that history will forever remember:

Famous Faces

Lagerfeld brought some famous faces to the Chanel brand. He designed outfits for Madonna’s re-invention tour and more recently, Kylie Minogue’s Showgirl tour. He also photographed Mariah Carey for V Magazine.

Lagerfeld also shot and directed a lot of the brands promotional content and various artistic films. The most famous of these films is the motor-bike riding, leather wearing Keira Knightly advertising the Chanel Coco Mademoiselle perfume.

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Keira Knightly in the advertising campaign film for Coco Mademoiselle

Lagerfeld kept his celebrity friends close and picked just the right people to continue Chanel’s brand image of the classy, 1950’s dream. Re-Incarnation was a film featuring a song sung by Cara Delevingne and Pharrell Williams as they become pictures that come to life and dance together. Geraldine Chaplin was often hired to play the brands founder Coco Chanel. And ‘it’ girl Blake Lively was featured in the Mademoiselle handbag advertising campaign.

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Cara Delevingne and Pharrell Williams dancing to their song CC the World in the Karl Lagerfeld directed film Re-Incarnation

However famous faces were not just used in the advertising, they also walked the runways.

The Chanel bride is a tradition at the end of each Chanel Haute Couture shows where a model walks the runway in a bridal gown, sometimes alongside Lagerfeld, sometimes alone.

The role has been a coveted one filled by common Lagerfeld muses such as Claudia Schiffer and Devon Aoki, as well as Linda Evangelista, Alek Weck, Kendall Jenner, Lily-Rose Depp, Adut Akech and Lily Cole. Lagerfeld knew how to utilise his famous friends and the ‘it’ girls of the times to draw attention to his creations.

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Claudia Schiffer at the Chanel Haute Couture SS95 show

Strippers, Porn Stars and Robots on the Runway

However, brides were not the only things coming down Lagerfeld’s runways. In 1993 Lagerfeld caused a stir when he had strippers and adult-film star Moana Pozzi model his black and white collection at Milan Fashion Week. The decision proved so controversial that Vogue Editor-in-Chief, Anna Wintour, walked out half way through the show.

More recently, in 2017, Lagerfeld made the considerably less controversial, yet still revolutionary decision to have AI technology walk the runway alongside the human models.

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AI walking the runway of Chanel’s SS17 show

This was not the first time Lagerfeld brought technology into fashion. In 2014, Fendi announced they would be using drones to film their runway shows.

AI Technology was the perfect way for Chanel to continue their legacy of stepping into the future while holding on to tradition. The robots each wore the signature tweed Chanel suits made famous by Lagerfeld’s predecessor Coco Chanel. This allowed him to modernise the brand whilst also celebrate its past.

Lagerfeld was smart. He knew how to stir up controversy and spectacle to market his clothing and bring in the interest.

Rockets, Trees and Computers also on the Runway

In recent years Chanel shows have all been set in the same location at the Grand Palais in Paris. However, you wouldn’t think that was the case from the photos of each show.

Each year the building was intricately and beautifully transformed, taking its audience into another world. One year it was a computer data centre another it was a cruise and another it was a tropical island beach. Chanel’s SS15 show presented a protest for female equality.

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Chanel SS15 Show

Lagerfeld’s shows have re-imagined what it means to put on a runway show.

For his SS17 collection, Lagerfeld staged a Chanel-branded rocket launch as his models wore space-age influenced clothing complete with hand-bags shaped like rockets.

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Chanel SS17 Show

However the most magical show of all was the one for his AW18 collection. Lagerfeld transformed the Grand Palais into a forest. The floor was carpeted in autumnal leaves whilst models walked around trees and a backdrop that made the forest feel like it went on forever.

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Chanel AW18

The Hula Hoop Bag

If there was one moment we had to finish on it’s the Hula Hoop Bag of Chanel’s 2012 SS13 show. This piece is one of Lagerfeld’s most well-known and iconic designs. Made from two hula hoops connected with Chanel’s quilted leather, the piece became a star in its own right.

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Chanel Hula Hoop Bag SS13

“It’s for the beach, “Lagerfeld explained to the Daily Telegraph after the show. “You need space for the beach towel. And then you can put it into the sand and hang things on it.”

The bag was later purchased by Kris Jenner and a replica was carried by RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 6 contestant Gia Gunn for her entrance into the workroom. With its high fashion, outlandish and larger-than-life design, it was no wonder the bag entered the world of Drag.

In a statement regarding his death, the Chanel brand said: “one cannot refer to Karl Lagerfeld without mentioning his innate sense of repartee and self-mockery”. It is this beautifully-crafted outlandishness, this reverence for the past whilst also making it the butt of the joke, that categorised Lagerfeld’s reign as the ‘Kaiser’ of fashion.

He will be missed.

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