Chanel was a faded fashion empire when Karl Lagerfeld arrived to see if he could pump life back into the tired brand. He figured he had nothing to lose by shaking things up.
So, in Lagerfeld’s hands, a traditional Chanel suit with cardigan jacket and straight skirt suddenly had an untraditional miniskirt, or hot pants. The long strands of pearls mixed with gold chains that were a Chanel signature grew into five times as many layers. The quilted-leather Chanel bag became a backpack. Two-tone beige and black pumps got platform heels. Evening dresses were paired with Chanel biker boots.
“If you want to ruin a business, be respectful,” Lagerfeld told Vogue magazine in 2004. “Fashion is not about respect. It’s about fashion.”
Lagerfeld, one of the era’s most respected and daring designers who transformed the French luxury brand into a world power of style, died Tuesday. He was 85.
While leading designers of his generation, notably his contemporary Yves Saint Laurent, created a fashion look that became identified with their name. Lagerfeld designed clothes as different as the companies he worked with — but nowhere more successfully than at Chanel. On Tuesday, Chanel announced that Virginie Viard — Lagerfeld’s closest collaborator for decades — would be his successor.
Lagerfeld was appointed chief designer of the house in 1982 and quickly worked out a blueprint for change. He kept the essential ingredients that Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel had put in place soon after she opened her Paris salon in the 1920s but rearranged them in startling new ways.
The modern dress style that Chanel created for women had hardly changed when she died in 1971. Lagerfeld reshaped her ideas according to current fashion tastes and added details plucked from the constantly changing trends of the moment.
“When Lagerfeld took over the Chanel collections, they had one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel,” said former fashion editor Marian McEvoy, in a 1992 profile of Lagerfeld for Vanity Fair magazine.
Admirers encouraged him. Writing in the International Herald Tribune in 1992, then-fashion editor Suzy Menkes said:
“He’s got to destroy Chanel in a way, otherwise he just becomes a caricature of her.”
Critics scoffed at such irreverent combinations as a $3,000 Chanel suit worn with sporty white socks and sneakers, a look of the moment in the early 1990s. But Lagerfeld’s youthful details helped attract a new clientele including Princess Diana and Vogue magazine editor Anna Wintour.
“What do I stand for?” he asked in a 1982 interview with W magazine. “The reflection of the spirit of the time. Or, more simply, fashion opportunism.”
Every season he translated street styles, social trends and the mood of the moment into Chanel clothes — sequined “wetsuit” evening jackets when Body Glove surf wear was the rage, leggings to wear with Chanel jackets when women began dressing in gym clothes all day, chains as thick as snow tires after hip-hop music launched, quilted-leather clogs as environmental issues surged.
The accessories were like flamboyant frosting on an otherwise classic cake.
A walk through a Chanel boutique made the same point. Although Lagerfeld’s runway shows were made for photo opportunities, the collections themselves were filled with feminine suits, dresses and evening clothes that even a grandmother could wear.
Five years after Lagerfeld joined Chanel, his shows were the hottest ticket in Paris fashion week. His salary rose from a reported $1 million for two Chanel couture collections a year to $1 million for each collection.
His success launched a revolution as one luxury fashion company after another, from Dior and Givenchy in Paris to Gucci in Milan, hired talented younger designers to update their image.
Lagerfeld’s position at Chanel made him one of the biggest names in fashion, but he had been known in the business for some time before that. Starting in the 1950s, he worked as a freelance designer, styling shoes for Charles Jourdan, leather goods for Mario Valentino, sportswear for Krizia, along with hair combs, pens, furniture and other items.
While others, including Sonya Rykiel and Kenzo as well as Saint Laurent, opened their own companies with their own name on the label, Lagerfeld said he didn’t want the worries of owning a business.
He caught his first big wave of attention as a staff designer at Chloé, a French ready-to-wear company for women, in 1963. By the early 1970s, he was the chief designer and had crafted a romantic, vintage-flavored image for Chloé by picking through flea markets, buying old couture dresses by Poiret, Madame Vionnet and other past couturiers, re-creating them his way. In 1975, he launched a sweet, light Chloé fragrance that became one of the most successful of the decade. He left the company in 1984, returned for five years in the 1990s and then left again.
Lagerfeld had proved his versatility and his talent for commercial success when he received an offer from Fendi, the Italian fashion giant, to update its fur collection.
“I like the idea of doing things you’re not supposed to do,” Lagerfeld told Vanity Fair in 1992. At Fendi that involved dyeing furs green, shredding them and painting them with gold arabesques at a time when a black mink coat was considered the standard.
From his first Fendi collection in 1966, his inventions seemed boundless. Audiences squealed in delight.
He had more than proved his talent by the time he went to Chanel. Still, his appointment there set tongues wagging. He was a ready-to-wear designer, but Chanel was primarily a couture house. He was German, born in Hamburg. Paris couture was created by and for French designers, in the minds of fashion purists. Few non-French managed to break into the circle.
Some loyalists said the Chanel job should have gone to Saint Laurent, the established prince of French fashion, whose couture and ready-to-wear designs had a ladylike sophistication that suited the Chanel image.
Lagerfeld, however, was known for adapting his skills to existing name brands. At Chloé and Fendi, and in his years of anonymous work elsewhere, he had made his reputation by showing that “he could change his creative persona as others might change their suit,” wrote Alicia Drake in her book about Paris fashion, “The Beautiful Fall.”
As if he had been expecting the call, Lagerfeld had amassed a personal archive of Chanel designs over the years that were more complete than the one the couture house owned.
For “Kaiser Karl,” as the press sometimes referred to Lagerfeld, to be at the tip of French fashion’s arrow was not so surprising. He had aimed for it years earlier.
Born Karl Otto Lagerfelt in Hamburg, Germany, on Sept. 10, 1933, he was the only son of a Swedish mother and German father who made a fortune in the condensed-milk business after World War I. He had two older sisters, one of them a half-sister from his father’s first marriage.
As a boy he played with paper dolls and kept hundreds of magazine photographs of dresses, accessories, furniture and gadgets that appealed to him. He also read voraciously, particularly about royalty in 18th century France and Germany, which he forever more considered the most refined and sophisticated era.
After high school, he moved to Paris with plans to start a career in fashion, and he changed his name to Lagerfeld.
“I was born with a pencil in my hand, and I can’t remember ever wanting to do something other than what I do today,” he said in 1992.
In 1954, when he was 21, he entered a fashion competition in Paris sponsored by the International Wool Secretariat. He won first prize in the coat category for his sketch of a yellow wool coat with a deep V at the back of the neckline.
It was a prestigious award, judged by French couture designers who produced the prize-winning sketches to encourage the young talents who created them. Lagerfeld’s coat was produced in the workroom of Pierre Balmain.
Lagerfeld enrolled in fashion school at the Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale but quit less than a year later to become an assistant at Balmain, in 1955. Four years after that, he was hired as a designer at the couture house of Jean Patou but left after three unremarkable years, by mutual agreement with the directors.
At that point, he recast himself as a freelancer for hire, drawing on his passion for European social history and his near obsession with the dress styles of the wealthy from the 18th century on to inspire him — that and a steady infusion of the latest fashion ideas he picked up in the streets, cafes and nightclubs of Paris.
He “translated this knowledge into his work, pairing historical references with contemporary trends,” wrote fashion critic John Colapinto in a 2007 article for the New Yorker magazine.
Hoping to understand what made Lagerfeld tick, journalists visited his 18,000-square-foot Paris house and came away with reports of a collision of time periods and tastes.
A staff of valets dressed in 18th century attire moved quietly through rooms awash in iPods, the latest magazines, CDs and books. One bedroom had a four-poster bed, the pillars covered by lightbulbs. Another contained furniture from his childhood bedroom in Germany, with Beidermeier chairs and German Romantic landscape paintings
His cultivated eccentricities, and his habit of talking as fast as a speeding train and his voracious appetite for learning new things made Lagerfeld something of a loner. He never married or lived with a lover. The only name associated with his as an intimate friendship was Jacques de Bascher, a French aristocrat some 20 years younger who died of AIDS in the late 1980s.
“I never fall in love,” Lagerfeld told Interview magazine in 1975. “I think it’s much more important to love your work.”
When he did socialize, he was surrounded by an entourage that sparkled with famous faces: Paloma Picasso in the ’70s, Princess Caroline of Monaco in the ’80s, supermodels and indie rock musicians through the changing seasons.
Although his fashion shows mirrored the cutting-edge trends, Lagerfeld’s personal dress style changed slowly. Photographs of him in the ’60s show a tan, muscled St. Tropez type in a tank-style swimsuit. He went through a Hamburg banker phase with dark three-piece suits in the ’70s and an Edwardian dandy phase when he wore white linen suits and two-tone wingtip shoes in the ’80s.
He gained weight and dressed in roomy black suits by young Japanese designers. He lost the weight and changed to tight jeans, fingerless gloves and massive silver rings. By then he was in his 70s, which seemed late for a disco-biker look.
A few details in his wardrobe stayed the same. He added them piece by piece after he appeared in “L’Amour,” a 1973 movie by Andy Warhol.
He began to carry a Japanese fan, a signature accessory. He wore black sunglasses, part of the Pop Glamour look, seemingly around the clock. And he kept his hair in a short, neat ponytail that he powdered as it turned gray, as Warhol had powdered his unchanging punk-country-boy ’do.
He also got interested in photography, and for some years he shot the Chanel press kits and catalog photographs himself.
Asked to explain his ideas about fashion or anything else that probed his inner world, Lagerfeld could be sarcastic.
“The worst is a fashion designer who talks all the time of his or her creativity,” he told Women’s Wear Daily in 1978. “Just do it and shut up.”
Other times he waxed philosophical. “The purpose of life is life,” he said in a 1992 interview.
“The purpose of fashion is fashion.”
In her book, Drake referred to Lagerfeld in other terms. “Beneath the ermine-edged gown, the powder and pout and the little finger that leapt into the air as he sipped Coca-Cola, there was the steel trap mind, hard work and stamina of a German industrialist with an enormous will,” she wrote.
After decades of crafting the most expensive clothes in the world, Lagerfeld designed a High Street collection for women and one for men sold exclusively at the discount chain store H&M in 2004. Prices ranged from around $25 to around $130.
“I have no idea of the future, never ever,” he said in a 2004 interview with Vogue. “That’s what I like about fashion. It’s paradise now.”
Rourke is a former Times staff writer.