Fashion Industry Icon Karl Lagerfeld Dies at 85

Karl Lagerfeld, the creative director of Chanel, Fendi and his eponymous line Karl Lagerfeld, has died at 85.

There is no confirmed cause of death, multiple outlets have reported. However, the news come several weeks after Lagerfeld missed Chanel’s spring 2019 haute couture show in Paris on January 22, leading to reports that he was in poor health.

Lagerfeld was one of the most well-regarded designers in fashion thanks to his unparalleled talent to design for three brands at once. In addition to clothing design, he was also a well-regraded photographer and director, whose work has been featured in glossy magazines and advertising campaigns alike. He also became a bestselling author in 2005 thanks to the weight loss book, The Karl Lagerfeld Diet.

Born in Germany to Elisabeth Bahlmann and Otto Lagerfeld, a wealthy Hamburg businessman, he later emigrated to France where he graduated from Lycée Montaigne with a focus on drawing and history.

After winning the Woolmark Prize design competition he landed his first job in the industry under Pierre Balmain as his assistant in 1955. After three years he moved on to work for Maison Jean Patou, followed by Tiziano, Chloé and by 1965 he was designing for Fendi (and stayed for over 50 years until his death). But his most well-known accomplishment was when he took over the reigns at Chanel in 1983.

He notably told The New Yorker that he only accepted the job at Chanel once enough people urged him not to. “Everybody said, ‘Don’t touch it, it’s dead, it will never come back.’ But by then I thought it was a challenge.”

He’s credited for reviving the brand founded by Coco Chanel, which had lost its prominence in the years before Lagerfeld joined. As the designer told WWD, “Nobody cared about [Chanel] anymore. She was the most démodé thing in the world.”

But by giving the classic designs a fresh, modern feel, he revitalized the brand by creating mystical settings for his runway shows, booking the most charismatic supermodels and bringing somewhat controversial themes to his collections for the storied French brand (like his hip hop show in 1991 and feminist protesters of 2014).

Just a year after joining Chanel, he started his own line, Karl Lagerfeld, in 1984 and was one of the first designers to parlay high-end design into a fast fashion retail space when he designed and personally-fronted a collection for H&M in 2004. It was a success (despite Lagerfeld’s disappointment with the small quantities H&M manufactured) and championed all the high-low collaborations that continue to rule retail today.

In addition to fashion design, Lagerfeld was a photographer and video director, having created all the advertising campaigns for the brands he designed for. He photographed his muses and has worked with every top model and actress in the industry including Claudia Schiffer, Kristen Stewart, Keira Knightley and countless other A-list actresses.

He notably was one of the first designers to book models from celebrity dynasties. He tapped Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis’ daughter Lily Rose Depp, Sylvester Stallone’s daughter Sistine, Lionel Richie’s daughter Sofia Richie, and most recently, Cindy Crawford’s teenage daughter, Kaia Gerber, who has closed his iconic Chanel runways.

In a world where designers join storied brands and leave within a handful of years, his tenure at two of the leading design houses is unprecedented. But focusing on a legacy was never on his mind. In a 2017 interview with WWD he balked at the term “legacy” saying: “What a horrid word. It sounds like a funeral.”

When asked over the years in interviews what he attributed his success to, he always acknowledged the fact that he’s never focused on looking to the past. “This is one of the sicknesses of our period, to look back,” he told the New York Times. “No, forget about it. Fashion is now and tomorrow. Who cares about the past?”

A hallmark of his genius is the fact that he’s never been satisfied with his own work. “I am never pleased,” Lagerfeld told WWD in 2017. “I always think I could do better. I think I am lazy; I think I could make an effort. And that’s why I can go ahead. If you are pleased with what you did, that’s very, very bad.”

He added: “I am not paralyzed by success because I think in my own eyes, I am not a success, I still have to improve. That sounds ridiculous, but it’s true…  You know, like in show business, you are as good as your last show. I even say no, [as good as] your next show.”

In fitting with his “never good enough” attitude, he notably said that he would never stop working. In 2015 he told the New York Times he would “die on the spot” and recalled how Chanel died while working on her next collection.

Lagerfeld was noticeably absent from taking a bow at the end of his last Paris Haute Couture show that he designed in January 2018. At the time, the brand told WWD that the designer was “feeling tired” and “asked Virginie Viard, director of the creative studio of the house, to represent him and greet the guests alongside the bride.”

Just like his predecessor, he too, designed till the end.

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