The Genius of Karl

The prolific designer remained fashion’s tour de force until the very end.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

By the time you read this, Karl Lagerfeld would have been laid to rest, his ashes scattered with his late mother’s and his former lover’s, the French dandy Jacques de Bascher. For a man whose very presence dominated the realm of fashion, it was a surprisingly low-key affair. But should we have expected anything less from Lagerfeld, who, over the course of a career spanning more than six decades, consistently eschewed sentimentality? He was pragmatic even when it came to his final send-off . “I arrived one day, and one day I will leave,” he explained in an interview, baulking at the idea of a traditional burial. “But let it be said, there is no urgency. I am like Madame Porgès, who lived during the Belle Epoque. When she died, people said she was the only survivor of a world she was not part of. Well, that’s it, this world, I was not really part of it…”

Even if he regarded himself as an outsider to this world, Lagerfeld certainly filled it with beauty when he was alive. Born in 1933 to Elisabeth and Otto Lagerfeld in Hamburg, Germany, Lagerfeld was destined to leave his mark in fashion the moment he learnt to sketch—the lines flowed and came alive under the tip of his pencil. Lagerfeld’s fate was sealed when a canary-yellow coat he designed earned him one of the top two honours at the 1954 International Wool Secretariat competition. Yves Saint Laurent, the other prodigy on the cusp of greatness, was the other winner.

From that moment on, the fates of the two designers became intertwined with that of French fashion, even though their eventual rivalry in the ’70s led them to walk different paths. If Saint Laurent popularised prêt-a-porter at his eponymous brand and brought haute couture to the streets, then Lagerfeld channelled the energy of the streets to suit his agenda at brands such as Jean Patou, Charles Jourdan and Chloé.

Lagerfeld’s remarkable ability to adapt to the codes of different Houses landed him his first long-standing appointment at Fendi in 1967. It was at this Roman House that Lagerfeld first displayed his brand of wizardry, treating fur in a variety of novel ways. He embarked on another lifelong partnership in 1983 when he took over the reins of Chanel, which had languished in the wake of the passing of its namesake founder. Sensing that fashion’s needle was tipping towards ready-to-wear, Lagerfeld gave his creations the couture treatment at Chanel, all the while re-establishing the Parisian brand’s standing in fashion’s system with all the visual cues Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel employed during her lifetime. “There was another world to build, I don’t know what... And I still found it quite fascinating, the character and everything [so that] when they asked me a second time, I accepted because everyone was saying to me: ‘Don’t do it, it won’t work’,” he said in a voice-over that was played at Chanel’s recent fall/winter 2019 show—Lagerfeld’s last collection for the House.

In his transformation of Chanel and Fendi into global powerhouses, Lagerfeld refused to allow nostalgia into his work. Instead, he kept his fingers firmly on the pulse of youth culture, surrounding himself with a rotating army of muses—actresses, models and musicians. They functioned as his eyes and link to contemporary culture. In his relentless march forward, Lagerfeld also recognised technology’s increasing role in disseminating fashion’s evolving image, so he had teams build grandiose sets at Chanel that became prime material for social media. “Mr Lagerfeld is always right,” said Bruno Pavlovsky, Chanel’s President of Fashion, in a previous interview with Harper’s BAZAAR. “There’s always a message and you see it in the decor of the show... it’s always meaningful. We believe it’s very important to have this capacity to be part of today and tomorrow.”

“I would like to be a one-man multinational fashion phenomenon,” he once said. Critics have observed that Lagerfeld’s most enduring legacy was that he built the archetype for a new type of designer, one adept at reinventing the wheel at a heritage House. He flitted effortlessly between tradition and modernity, pushing the boundaries of time-honoured craft for the future. Lagerfeld represented a connection to a bygone era of fashion and the illustrious couturiers who defi ned it. Now, he rests amongst them.