Image via CHANEL

Karl Lagerfeld: an Icon in Life and Death

There are very few people who leave a permanent mark in this world. Everybody knows the likes of Steve Jobs, Zaha Hadid, Christian Dior and Gabrielle Chanel. This past Tuesday, the world was shocked with the news of Karl Lagerfeld’s passing as a result of his battle with pancreatic cancer. Indeed, the maestro did not attend the last CHANEL Haute Couture show in January due to feeling fatigue; however, majority did not expect him to die anytime soon. The 85 year-old, Hamburg-born couturier was hospitalised in Paris on Monday and passed away the following morning. 

“I am like a caricature of myself, and I like that. It is like a mask. And for me the Carnival of Venice lasts all year long.”

So what can be said about Karl Lagerfeld that hasn’t been already mentioned? First and foremost, he was the one who brought the house of CHANEL back from the dead, while working at Fendi and later his own eponymous brand. He frequently clashed with PETA over his use of fur and leather, yet managing to eventually make peace with them. Lagerfeld shocked the world by losing over 40 kg in 13 months, just so he could wear clothes designed by Hedi Slimane. He had a witty tongue and never held back when delivering a message, be it in press or through his grandeur shows for CHANEL.

“When I was four I asked my mother for a valet for my birthday.”

Coming from a wealthy family in Hamburg, Karl Lagerfeld was a spoiled child, « I was like a male Shirley Temple, » he once said. His parents used to speak French and English when they didn’t want him to understand, so he learnt both languages as a child to know what they talked about. His big breakthrough came in 1954 when he drew a wool coat that won a prize and landed him an apprenticeship with Pierre Balmain.

He then worked at Chloé, Jean Patou before joining Fendi in 1967 and CHANEL in 1982. The latter endeavour would become one of the greatest fashion business cases to study. He once recalled, « When I took over at CHANEL, everybody said to me, ‘Don’t touch it. It’s dead. There’s nothing you can do. » Fast-forward to today and the brand has made $9.62 billion in revenue in 2017 alone – a first public announcement by CHANEL in its then 108-year history. 

Possibly, this success is a result of Lagerfeld having received complete freedom from the owners of CHANEL- the Wertheimer family- to take the legacy of Gabrielle Chanel and turn it into an image that was current and evolving.

He once said that, “You can take an idea from the past, but, if you do it the way it was, no one wants it.” The phenomenal transformation of CHANEL became an industry model for how to turn an ageing fashion house into a status symbol of today.

“What I do Coco would have hated. The label has an image and it’s up to me to update it… I had to go from what Chanel was to what it should be, could be, what it had been to something else.”- Karl Lagerfeld.

Every CHANEL show is an unmatchable experience. I remember going in to the Autumn/Winter 2017 prêt-à-porter show that had a giant rocket space ship set in the centre of Paris Grand Palais. I thought I were in a parallel universe. And parallel universe it was. Each season beat the other: a scaled-down version of Champs de Mars with the Eiffel Tower in the centre; a supermarket with thousands of custom-made CHANEL-branded products; a Versailles-inspired garden; a cruise ship; a beach with real sand and waves – nothing was impossible for Karl.

Karl Lagerfeld, indeed, was the man who’s changed the world of fashion and remained current his whole life. « I live for today, » he said, « Paradise now. Otherwise you can’t do a job like this. You can’t live off memories. » 

He worked all the time, because to him, « fashion was a train that waits for nobody. Get on it, or it’s gone. » Often he’d say that 24 hours was simply not enough, working at any time of day and night. He was often late and tried not to schedule appointments, precisely not to miss them.

His work was his life and it only got more elaborate with each day. Unlike other designers half his age, he did not complain about feeling burnt-out. He was present and worked on collections to the last season, while battling cancer in private. 

“Why should I stop working? If I do, I’ll die and it’ll all be finished. I’m lucky to work in the most perfect of conditions. I can do what I want in all kinds of areas. The expenses are not expenses. I would be stupid to stop that. Work is making a living out of being bored.”

He’s done numerous collaborations with other brands, and always found inspiration in the new and the different. One of his especially favourite inspirations is a Birman cat, Choupette, who he refused to give back to her then-owner – the French model and singer Baptiste Giabiconi. He asked Lagerfeld to look after the cat while he was away on a holiday. When Baptiste returned, the only reply he got from Karl was, “Sorry, but I’m keeping her!” She’s starred in shoots and inspired his collections for CHANEL as well as Karl Lagerfeld brand. In an interview he once said, «She’s helped me to become a nicer person. There’s something very touching about her. Even if she is spoiled beyond. » 

There has been a lot of talk that Choupette will inherit his fortune, but there is a little problem; while the French law does recognise that the animal is a sentient being, it does not allow for it to have a legal personality, nor be the beneficiary of an inheritance. Yet, taking into account Lagerfeld’s ability to plan ahead, there is no doubt Choupette will be taken care of the best way possible.  

Lagerfeld was cremated this past Friday in Nanterre – a community in the west of Paris. There was no funeral, no crowds, no ceremony. Only close friends, including Anna Wintour, and colleagues attended, notably Virginie Viard – who has been appointed as the new creative director of CHANEL. It is said that CHANEL stores have been instructed to place a single vase with locally-purchased white roses in the main window of the stores along with a message from the brand. He wished for his ashes to be scattered along with his mother’s and Jacques de Bascher – his French partner who died of AIDS in 1989. 

Karl Lagerfeld leaves us without a tomb or a grave to go to, but with the immense legacy that is impossible to match and is exceptional to study. He was an incredible individual who was unique and had endless imagination. After all, he did describe himself, “I’m very much down to earth. Just not this earth.”