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Fashion meets fantasy

At the helm of his eponymous brand, Fendi and Chanel, the late Karl Lagerfeld became as iconic as the French house’s bouclé tweeds and quilted bags

It’s hard to imagine a time when Chanel wasn’t thriving as the essence of luxury and logomania, with the latest it-girl as its face. After Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel died in 1971 at the age of 87, the house suffered a slump, that was until billionaire brothers Alain and Gérard Wertheimer enlisted the late Karl Lagerfeld to revive it. Since taking charge in 1983, the “Kaiser” had become arguably more iconic than Chanel itself. On February 19, in the midst of Fashion Week, the world was shocked to hear that the designer who seemed like he would live and create forever had died at age 85, due to complications from pancreatic cancer. During his 50-plus years in fashion, Lagerfeld had cemented himself as one of the greatest designers of the 20th and 21st centuries, and easily, the most inimitable.

Much like Gabrielle Chanel, Lagerfeld was known to fabricate his birth year, as well as certain details about his parents and childhood. Consistent, however, is that he was born in Hamburg, Germany and moved to Paris as a teen. In 1954, Lagerfeld’s sketch of a coat won first place in a contest organised by the Secrétariat International de la Laine. Pierre Balmain then brought the design to life and offered the promising talent a job as his assistant. A few years later, Lagerfeld became the art director for another famed couturier, Jean Patou. In 1964, Lagerfeld began working with Chloé, and one year later, he entered what would become a lifelong collaboration with Fendi.

Then enters Chanel. After 12 years of the once illustrious French fashion house fading into insignificance, Lagerfeld came to its rescue in 1983 as the new art director. One year later, he produced his eponymous line. In 1987, Lagerfeld began shooting his own campaigns, which would develop into a passion for film and photography – his images have been exhibited at renowned institutions around the globe and published in books by Steidl. Lagerfeld opened his Parisian bookshop 7L in 1999, and in 2000, he launched the EDITIONS 7L arts and culture publishing house. In 2004, Lagerfeld became the first designer to collaborate with fast fashion powerhouse H&M on a capsule collection.

Over the years, Lagerfeld perfected his public persona. His distinct ponytailed profile and uniform of sunglasses, starched collars and fingerless gloves, rendered him as instantly recognisable as Chanel’s bouclé tweeds, pearls and two-toned ballet flats. Combined with his beloved cat Choupette, who alone has 300,000 Instagram followers, Lagerfeld became a symbol of fashion itself. As his likeness grew, being reproduced in everything from The Simpsons to Tokidoki toys, so did the theatrics of his creative endeavours.

Lagerfeld’s work for Chanel is a masterclass in artistic freedom. Taking the Grand Palais as his blank canvas, he has transformed the Paris institution into an Italian villa, ancient Greece, a casino, airport terminal, enchanted forest, inside of a computer and even a rocket launchpad. For Chanel’s Spring-Summer 2012 Ready-to-Wear show, award-winning vocalist Florence Welch emerged as Venus from her shell, singing in an under-the-sea-themed set. For Spring-Summer 2014 Ready-to-Wear, Lagerfeld turned the Grand Palais into a gallery, where 75 artworks of his own creation were on display. Just when you thought his Fall-Winter 2010/11 Ready-to-Wear show, which centered around a gargantuan iceberg, could not be topped, Lagerfeld brought the elements indoors again for his Spring-Summer 2019 Ready-to-Wear collection, where models walked barefoot across the shoreline of a sandy indoor beach.

Other collections embraced the banality of everyday life. For Chanel’s Fall-Winter 2014/15 Ready-to-Wear show, sneaker-clad models walked down the aisles of a supermarket where no detail was left unturned, whether it be “lait de Coco” milk cartons, leather and chain grocery baskets, or bags covered in plastic wrap, as if fresh from the butcher’s. Many shows read like love letters to France and Chanel’s history: a quintessential Parisian brasserie was the backdrop for Chanel’s Fall-Winter 2015/16 Ready-to-Wear collection; a 46-ton Eiffel Tower was recreated in the Grand Palais for the house’s Fall-Winter 2017/18 Haute Couture show; for Chanel’s Spring-Summer 2018 Haute Couture collection, which also stars in the first episode of the 2018 Netflix documentary 7 Days Out, Lagerfeld imagined a French garden worthy of a fairytale, with pergolas and an 18th-century fountain; and for his Spring-Summer 2017 Haute Couture runway, Lagerfeld recalled the iconic Art Deco mirrors of Coco Chanel’s staircase at her Rue Cambon apartment.

Nowhere is Lagerfeld’s vision clearer than in Chanel’s Métiers d’Art shows, which he introduced in 2002 to promote France’s sartorial heritage and spotlight the workmanship of the Couture ateliers. Chanel began to acquire these artisans under its Paraffection subsidiary, established in 1997. There are currently 26 specialised maisons, including Lesage for embroidery, Lemarié for feathers and Maison Michel for millinery. With their assistance, Lagerfeld presented his Métiers d’Art shows at international locations, ranging from Dallas to Havana and Rome, reinterpreting the city’s aesthetic. Lagerfeld’s final Métiers d’Art show in December 2018 was situated at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Dressed in golden Egyptian-inspired garb, models walked throughout the Temple of Dendur, arguably The Met’s most awe-inspiring attraction.

As Gabrielle Chanel once said, “Fashion is in the air, born upon the wind. One intuits it. It is in the sky and on the road.” While his wit and brutal honesty often spiraled into full-fledged controversies, there is no denying that Karl Lagerfeld embodied Coco’s philosophy on la mode. Although a master of reinvention, Lagerfeld never lost sight of Chanel’s core identity. It is for these reasons that among countless achievements, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award on behalf of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, France’s Légion d’Honneur, the British Fashion Awards’ Outstanding Achievement Award and Women’s Wear Daily’s John B. Fairchild Award. While the word “couture” is far too readily misattributed these days, Lagerfeld’s unparalleled legacy as a man who made his wildest


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