In the deep, all-knowing German voice that could belong to no other, Karl Lagerfeld declared in 1984, “I would like to be a one-man multinational fashion phenomenon.” In this—as in so many things—he was, if perhaps not self-effacing, extremely prescient. Today, the influence of his designs is rivaled only by the infamy of his ever-present dark sunglasses (“They’re my burka,”he has professed), his magnetic pull towards controversy, and his tendency to say things like, “Vanity is the healthiest thing in life.”
Lagerfeld has become far more than just a fashion phenomenon. With runway conquests at the houses of Chloé, Fendi, and Chanel, and as a remarkable barometer of the twenty-first-century zeitgeist, he is an industry unto himself. In a business that tosses the word “icon” about with reckless abandon, he is genuinely iconic, wielding his trademark fan and his repertoire of witticisms—sometimes provocative, often amusing, and always Karl. Old enough to be the grandfather of some of his Parisian competitors, he is a modern Oscar Wilde, a black-leather dandy with a rock-and-roll pout.
The success of Karl Lagerfeld—who can reportedly turn out 200 original lightning-speed sketches in a twelve-hour stretch—is founded on a high level of technical skill, honed from an early age. After moving to Paris as a young man, he competed in a design contest sponsored by the International Wool Secretariat. His winning garment, a wool coat, led him to an apprenticeship with Pierre Balmain. (The dress category in the same competition was won by Yves Saint Laurent.) Despite his victory, Lagerfeld admitted that he didn’t much like designing coats; what he really loved doing, he told a reporter, was little black dresses. He went on, of course, to become the crown-bearer of the timeless empire whose founder was herself the progenitor of said little black dress: Chanel.
Fifty-seven years after Vogue first showed readers Coco Chanel’s innovative LBD in 1926, the company was placed in Lagerfeld’s studded, fingerless-gloved hands, and neither the LBD nor Chanel were ever the same. “My job,” Lagerfeld has said, “is to bring out in people what they wouldn’t dare do themselves.”In a way, this is what he did for the Chanel image, as well: Its elegance and dignity had lost their clout among the sixties generation of jeans-and-miniskirts-wearers, but Lagerfeld was able to transform the house into the ultimate purveyor of bad-girl chic (wealthy bad girl, that is). He was, it turned out, the perfect designer to bring the nodding camellias back to life. “Tradition is something you have to handle carefully, because it can kill you,” he told Vogue in 1984. “Respect was never creative.”
In his first years as creative director, Lagerfeld was accused by some critics of going too far—so far as to desecrate their hallowed memories of Chanel. He threw so much leather and chains into his early collections that his old friend Yves Saint Laurent balked: Chanel, he said, had become “frightening, sadomasochistic.” “Who can say what is good taste and what is bad taste?” the designer has countered. “Sometimes bad taste is more creative than good taste.”
Lagerfeld fights a fear of boredom by channeling his intense energy and curiosity into a variety of activities, any of which could be a separate career. Besides designing his many fashion lines, this multilingual hyphenate is a photographer, director, illustrator, costume designer, and diet guru. He has filled numerous homes with extraordinary decorative arts—and delighted auction houses when he’s put many of these objets under the gavel. His public appearances have superstar overtones; more than three quarters of a million people follow him on Twitter. His attendance at the 2005 Tokyo opening of the world’s largest Chanel store drew tears from fans in the crowd. “I witnessed not just one but many grown women weeping as Lagerfeld took to the thoroughfare,” reported André Leon Talley in Vogue.
Although he has a love of the eighteenth century—he views it as both the most polite and the most modern period, a time when “no one was young; no one was old. Everyone had white hair”—Lagerfeld is firmly planted in the now. “Fuck the good old days,” he told Vogue in 2004. “Today has to be okay, too. If not you make something second-rate out of the present.” With an edge of subversion as his perennial leitmotif, Lagerfeld reinvented and revivified one of the most important and historic brands in the world. And he has brought this same fearlessness into less heady markets, designing wildly successful capsule collections for H & M and Macy’s. When asked why he would lower himself—from designing $3,000 shorts for Chanel to entire dresses for a sliver of the price—he answered in typical fashion: “Because it amuses me.”
Karl Lagerfeld : Timeline
Karl Otto Lagerfeldt born in Hamburg to a Swedish father and German mother (once a lingerie saleswoman). After World War I, his father had dominated the condensed-milk market in Europe. Karl will later change his last name to Lagerfeld, claiming that the new variation sounds more commercial. He will also later claim 1938 as his birth year, though in 2003 the German press will produce a baptismal record dated 1933.
Moves to Paris, where he impresses fashion houses with his sketching abilities.
Wins the coats category in a design competition sponsored by the International Wool Secretariat; Yves Saint-Laurent wins for dresses. Lagerfeld becomes an assistant to Pierre Balmain.
Leaves Balmain, later saying, “I was not born to be an assistant.”Moves to Jean Patou, where he designs under the name Roland Karl. The Los Angeles Times reports, “Mr. Karl (whose real name is a trade secret) chose his own initial for what he calls the ‘K’ line of his first Patou collection.”He eventually will leave to become a freelancer.
Begins his tenure as head designer for Chloé, where he will remain until 1983—the brand’s headiest period. (He will reprise his Chloé success in the nineties.) Also starts collaboration with Fendi, an alliance that will last for decades. His friend, former French Vogue editor Joan Juliet Buck, later recalls, “They hired him to do the fur, and he throws out these unbelievable challenges: ‘Let’s line fur in fur, let’s knit fur, let’s tear fur up, let’s make holes in fur, let’s paint on fur, let’s paint on shearling.’
Asked by Alain Wertheimer, chairman of Chanel, to design for the label. Later recalls his friends’ advice to decline: “Everybody said, ‘Don’t touch it, it’s dead, it will never come back.‘ But by then I thought it was a challenge.”
Debuts first couture collection for Chanel. Carrie Donovan writes in The New York Times, “That Chanel has thrown down the gauntlet, challenging the supremacy of Saint Laurent, seems inescapable, as does the fact that some of the creaks are about to be taken out of that old dinosaur, couture.”
Launches a label under his own name. Tells Vogue, “I’ve not been dreaming all my life to have my name over a shop. Now, we’ll put it there because it’s the right moment to do it; and I made this name, why not use it?”
Starts photographing the Chanel press kits, launching his sideline work behind the camera.
Viciously criticized in The New Yorker by Holly Brubach for “desecrating the Chanel style with sight gags and overkill, with a tarty sex appeal and crass sensationalism.”
Returns to Chloé. Illustrates a new edition of children’s classic The Emperor’s New Clothes.
Infuriates global Islamic community when he embroiders phrases from the Koran onto dresses in his spring collection. Chanel hires a bodyguard for supermodel Claudia Schiffer, to protect against threats made by fundamentalists.
Leaves Chloé, and is unimpressed with his replacement, Stella McCartney. “I think they should have taken a big name,” he says. “They did—but in music, not fashion. Let’s hope she is as gifted as her father.”
Announces collaboration with H & M. “I was always quite fascinated by H & M,” he tells The New York Times. “Because people who buy Chanel and other expensive things buy there, too. For me, this is fashion today.”
Sells his brands Lagerfeld Gallery and Lagerfeld to Tommy Hilfiger. Lagerfeld and the 2004 Chanel collection are the subject of a documentary, Signe Chanel. After a public weight loss of more than 90 pounds, publishes The Karl Lagerfeld Diet, in which he states that “fashion is the healthiest motivation for losing weight.” Stages Spring Chanel show at Le Grand Palais. Vogue’s André Leon Talley reports that the “Elvis of fashion” told him, “It’s the highlight of my career to show at Le Grand Palais, because I was always made for this place when I came to Paris as a young man. I remember the date, November 19, 1952, the very first time I ever visited Le Grand Palais.”
Announces the launch of a new collection of denim and fitted tees for men and women dubbed K Karl Lagerfeld.
Lagerfeld Confidential, another documentary movie, premieres.
Immortalized as the host of fictional radio station “K109 —The Studio” in the video game Grand Theft Auto IV. “They had written a politically incorrect dialogue,” Lagerfeld says. “I loved it, in a time when everybody wants to be so politically correct.”
February: Walking the red carpet at Lincoln Center, is narrowly missed in a tofu-cream-pie attack by PETA supporters. (Instead, the protesters—shouting “fur pimp” and “fur kills”—peg an innocent, fur-free bystander, Calvin Klein, on the chin.) April: Celebrated as one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in the World.
Designs a specialty bottle that incorporates his own image for Coca Cola Light in France. Appears as himself in a commercial for Volkswagen.
Directs actress Rachel Bilson in three commercials for Magnum ice cream bars. Creates a capsule collection for Macy’s. “The collaboration is a kind of test how to do this kind of clothes in that price range,” he says. “As you know, I love occasional co-branding. Macy’s is the perfect department store in the U.S., where everybody can find what they’re looking for without ruining their budget.”