How Legendary Designer Karl Lagerfeld Reshaped the World of Fashion?
There are few in the fashion industry who can match the vision and fervour for fashion that Karl Lagerfeld brought to the ‘haute couture’ table. Assuming the helm of Chanel after the death of its founder and fashion icon Coco Chanel is no easy feat, especially when Chanel was in desperate need of revival. Staying true to the brand’s essence while incorporating his own identity into the brand was not all that Lagerfeld did. He also collaborated with Chloe, Fendi and photographed many of his own fashion campaigns. The industry is still reeling after the death of Lagerfeld and his artistic but problematic vision.
On the 19th of February 2019, the problematic pioneer of Chanel breathed his last, drawing to an end a career in fashion that matched few and spanned more than six decades.
Karl Otto Lagerfeld removed the ‘t’ from his family name, early on in his fashion career, to make his name sound ‘more commercial’. There couldn’t be a more accurate encapsulation of Lagerfeld’s attitude. He brought back Chanel from a brand at the brink of oblivion to relevance by a ready to wear fashion line. There is no better example of Lagerfeld and his love-hate relationship with commercialism than his disdain for Hollywood celebrities. To quote Lagerfeld directly, ‘Don’t use actors and don’t let them use you’.
Born in Hamburg (Germany), he realised early on that he was meant to be in Paris. At the age of fourteen he relocated to Paris, the epicentre of the fashion industry.
His first foot in fashion was in 1954. He won first prize for his sketch of a coat in a contest organised by the Secrétariat International de la Laine (International Wool Association). This sketch was then produced by Pierre Balmain, who also offered Lagerfeld a position in Balmain as his assistant.
The late 1950’s saw him become the art director of Jean Patou and in the early 60s he was working from France, Italy, England and Germany, making him one of the first freelancers in the fashion industry.
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In the two consecutive years of 1964 and 1965, he began working with Chloe and Fendi, both collaborations that he continued till the end of his career. Recently, Fendi showcased the last collection Lagerfeld designed for them and paid tribute to the man and his insight. In 1983, he was named as the Art Director of Chanel. At Chane he initiated a wave of innovation and aesthetic that made the fashion industry ridicule, critique, question and ultimately admire his genius.
Lagerfeld joined Chanel when it was on the edge of being forgotten and dismissed, as yet another effort that had been swallowed up whole by the megalomaniac that is the fashion industry. To make everyone sit up and notice Lagerfeld had to take risks and raise eyebrows, after all there is no such thing as bad publicity.
The big bad box of ‘ugly’ was opened by Lagerfeld as he mixed ‘bad taste’ with high fashion, creating a completely new aesthetic for the House of Chanel. He was the first to introduce fur as everyday wear and use tweed to create grunge looks. The iconic monogram of the brand (two interlocked Cs for Coco Chanel) was introduced by him in the 80s and emblazoned on flashy bags and belt, to create statement pieces.
The reason for Chanel’s success after the death of it’s founder was Lagerfeld’s ability to adapt with the times while staying true to Coco’s vision. He continued her concept of a ‘total look’ in which individual items of clothing were less important than how they were worn and accessorised, while fusing it with modernity.
In the 80s when money and power spoke like no other, Chanel introduced its interlocked monogram. After the 90s when people became increasingly mobile the brand moved towards focussing on functionality. Under Lagerfeld, Chanel moved with the times while maintaining its renowned aesthetic causing the brand to carve out an identity for itself and the man behind it all.
It will be interesting to see how the House of Chanel progresses after the death of Karl Lagerfeld. Although his death leads to one less fashion visionary, it also leads to the end of a ‘white man’s world’ era in fashion.
Lagerfeld was infamous for his fat-shaming, racism and misogynistic comments that the fashion industry continually ignored and excused for his artistic genius. Lagerfeld was the last of such in the fashion industry and the appointment of Virginie Vard as the Creative Director as his successor is a welcome change. Under Vard, one can hope that Chanel keeps up to its reputation of imbibing the spirit of current times and realise that fashion and the diverse intersectional world is not mutually exclusive.