Karl Lagerfeld, Designer Who Ruled Over Chanel for Decades, Dies

A photograph made available 19 February 2019 shows German designer Karl Lagerfeld looks on as models present creations from his Spring/Summer 2019 Women's collection for Chanel at the Grand Palais during the Paris Fashion Week, in Paris, France, 02 October 2018. According to media reports, Lagerfeld has died on 19 February 2019. He was 85. EPA-EFE/ANDRE PAIN

Karl Lagerfeld, the German fashion designer who helped set the industry standard for five decades with collections that dressed celebrities such as Princess Diana and supermodel Claudia Schiffer, has died. He was 85 years old.

Chanel announced Lagerfeld’s death Tuesday in a statement.

The creative director at closely held Chanel for more than 35 years, Lagerfeld was among the fashion trade’s most prolific couturiers, producing outfits for the Paris-based luxury-goods maker, for Italy’s Fendi SpA and for his own label — all at the same time. Recognizable for his high-collared shirts, white ponytail, dark sunglasses and black fingerless gloves, Lagerfeld had a client list that featured stars of the stage and screen, including actresses Nicole Kidman and Cate Blanchett as well as singers Jennifer Lopez, Madonna and Kylie Minogue.

“I must readily admit that Ms. Kidman is my favorite,” Lagerfeld said in a 2002 interview on “Larry King Live.” “If one is allowed to have a weakness for an actress, that is not a crime. I think she’s absolutely divine.”

‘Kaiser Karl’

The Paris-based fashion guru, who earned the nickname “Kaiser Karl” for an uncompromising approach to his work, joined Chanel in 1983, more than a decade after the death of founder Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. He set about reviving the French maker of perfume and accessories with a modern look on its ready-to-wear lines, helping it become one of the industry’s most successful companies.

To read more about Karl Lagerfeld, click here.

“What I do Coco would have hated,” Lagerfeld said in “The World According to Karl,” a 2013 book of his quotes. “I do what she never did. I had to find my mark. I had to go from what Chanel was to what it should be, could be, what it had been to something else.”

An accomplished photographer who counted Helmut Newton and Andy Warhol as friends, Lagerfeld was the No. 1 designer at Chanel, whose headquarters are two 18th-century buildings on Paris’s Rue Cambon. He considered the shirt the most important fashion item; defended Fendi’s use of fur against the protests of animal-rights activists; and said that wearing sweatpants is a sign “you lost control of your life.” Vogue crowned him the “unparalleled interpreter of the mood of the moment” in 1997.

Rigorous Diet

Lagerfeld, who shed 90 pounds so he could wear slimmer clothing in his 60s, was often portrayed as eccentric for his rigorous diet and unusual behavior. He once gave an entire interview to Harper’s Bazaar about his cat, Choupette, with whom he shared a special bond, and said he avoided having children because it “makes you look 100 years old” when they become adults. His public comments also betrayed a willingness to offend anyone, taking aim at German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s choice of pants, U.S. first lady Michelle Obama’s hairstyle and the body weight of English singer Adele.

Born Karl Lagerfeldt on Sept. 10, 1933, in Hamburg, he later dropped the final letter in his surname to make his fashion brand more marketable. Lagerfeld’s year of birth is sometimes given as 1938, a discrepancy that he refused to solve in interviews. His parents were Elisabeth Bahlmann, who was Swedish, and Otto Lagerfeldt, who made a fortune producing condensed milk in France and selling it in Germany. Lagerfeld had an older sister, Martha, and a half-sister, Thea.

Childhood Boredom

“My problem as a child was that I was bored to death because I wanted to be a grown-up person,” he said in a 2011 interview with the U.K.’s Independent newspaper. “My childhood was endless — from eight to 18 felt like hundreds of years.”

At 14, Lagerfeld moved to Paris, where he studied drawing and history, spending much of his time alone while his parents traveled. After developing an interest in drawing cartoons, Lagerfeld designed a coat that won a contest run by the International Wool Association.

Lagerfeld then worked for Pierre Balmain and Jean Patou, for whom he was artistic director until 1963, when he went to Italy for a job at Fendi. That relationship lasted more than 50 years. During the 1970s, he designed for Chloe and switched to Chanel in 1983. He began his own label the following year, describing it as “intellectual sexiness.”

Lagerfeld lived in Paris and had various residences over the years, including a chateau in Brittany, a palace in Monaco, a villa near Hamburg, apartments in Berlin and Rome, a villa in Biarritz, France, and a house in Vermont, according to the New York Times.

“I would like to be a one-man multinational fashion phenomenon,” he once said. DM


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Become a Maverick Insider

This could have been a paywall

On another site this would have been a paywall. Maverick Insider keeps our content free for all.

Become an Insider
Elections24 Newsletter Banner

On May 29 2024, South Africans will make their mark in another way.

Get your exclusive, in-depth Election 2024 newsletter curated by Ferial Haffajee delivered straight to your inbox.