You didn’t have to know anything about fashion to know about Karl Lagerfeld, the most instantly recognizable dandy of our time.
Chanel, the luxury fashion house Lagerfeld helmed for more than three decades, announced the designer’s death Tuesday.
As with his designs, his own image was carefully crafted by blending past and present: Snowy white mane and ponytail like a powdered 18th-century periwig; aviator sunglasses; a high, starched white collar; black, fingerless biker gloves worn with multiple silver rings.
Professionally, he was celebrated for saving the House of Chanel, but he was also a video game character (as a DJ in Grand Theft Auto IV), a limited-edition teddy bear ($1,400) and a diamanté-embellished doll ($190).
His Birman cat, Choupette — as snowy white as his hair — was the subject of her own coffee table book, and is reported to have generated $4 million in modeling fees in 2014.
Closely observing him at work in 1991, the Paris correspondent of the Los Angeles Times wondered: “Does Karl Lagerfeld ever sit still?” The short answer appeared to be no.
“I do my job like I breathe,” Lagerfeld told the New Yorker in 2007. And he did so with a staggering work ethic. “I only want to do what I have to do: fashion, photography, books. And that’s all.”
Lagerfeld was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1933. In later life, he would be coy about his date of birth, usually trimming at least five years off his age.
In the early 1950s, he saw his first fashion shows in Hamburg, including one by Christian Dior. With his mother’s encouragement, he decided to leave Hamburg for fashionable Paris.
In 1954, he won a womenswear design competition and joined the haute couture house of Pierre Balmain. Three years later, he moved to the House of Patou. After that, he began freelancing for Chloé, and by 1967 counted Fendi among his clients.
His decision to accept an offer to be artistic director at Chanel in 1983 elevated him to an infinitely higher fashion sphere, and transformed both their fortunes.
“When I took on Chanel, it was a sleeping beauty. Not even a beautiful one. She snored,” he said in “Lagerfeld Confidential,” a 2007 documentary. “So I was to revive a dead woman.”
Lagerfeld acknowledged the brand’s history but treated it irreverently. He became King Karl with a court of assistants; ruthless, unsentimental and constantly inventive. To survive “you have to cut the roots to make new roots,” he told the New Yorker.
“Because fashion is about today. You can take an idea from the past, but, if you do it the way it was, no one wants it.”
Lagerfeld was a celebrity for so long that we forget that he changed his image more than once. In a striking Helmut Newton portrait from the early 1970s, his hair is jet black, he has a thick, piratical beard and sports a rimless monocle. For almost 20 years, he was seldom seen without a Japanese fan, swiftly spread and fluttered for photographers. Like Warhol, Lagerfeld had an instinct about his own image.
He also took some delight in being politically incorrect. Adele was “a little too fat,”; and “in a meat-eating world, wearing leather for shoes and clothes and even handbags, the discussion of fur is childish,” he told the BBC in 2009.
His intellectual frame of reference was wide — Emily Dickinson, Sarah Bernhardt, Alfred Stieglitz, Isak Dinesen. If relaxed, his interviews could turn into monologues. He spoke quickly, words rolling off the tongue in a clipped German accent.
According to an interview with stylist Camille Bidault-Waddington, Lagerfeld was a voracious reader, “permanently filling himself with independent culture and establishment culture … like a sampling machine.”
There was a dread of being passé. As Lagerfeld knew, you always had to be absolutely au courant in fashion, even into your 80s, even when your competitors were half your age.