Obituary: Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel’s iconic fashion designer


There is a reason why Karl Lagerfeld, who has died at the age of 85, was called the “Kaiser” by fashion insiders.

After all, he was one of the world’s most iconic fashion designers, at the heart of not one, not two, but three fashion houses.

The man who steered Chanel for more than 30 years combined artistic flair with business acumen which would see the Parisian label’s sales reach $10bn (£7.7bn) in 2017.

But Lagerfeld’s brand reached beyond his business ventures and into every aspect of his life.

He was instantly recognisable, thanks to his powdered white ponytail, dark glasses and high-collared white shirts. But then, what else would you expect of a man who once noted “anyone who wears jogging pants has lost control of their life”.

“I’m a walking label,” he told CNN in 2011. “My name is Labelfeld not Lagerfeld.”

A star is born

Karl Lagerfeld’s exact date of birth has been a contentious issue for some time. According to his eponymous website, he was born in 1938. However, others have settled on September 1933 as a more likely date of birth

Either way, he was born in Hamburg to a German mother and Swedish father, Otto, who imported condensed milk. Within a few years, they had moved to the town of Bad Bremstedt, where he would spend the war years.

However, it seems a young Lagerfeld had no intention of staying in the country of his birth, having already got a taste for fashion – and a sense he may be destined for big things.

“As a child, a very young person, I had the feeling: ‘It doesn’t matter what you do – you’re compelling!’ I thought I was sacrosanct – wasted on dismal post-war Germany,” Lagerfeld told German media.

In 1952, a teenage Lagerfeld moved to Paris.

His big break came in 1954, when he won first prize for a sketch of a coat which was then made by Pierre Balmain. The designer, impressed, offered him a job as his assistant.

Just three years later, he was named Jean Patou’s art director.

Then, in 1965, he would begin a collaboration that was last to the end of his life, with Italian fashion house Fendi.

But it would be his role as Chanel’s artistic director, beginning in 1983, which would truly thrust him into the limelight and create the fashion icon known for the next three decades.

He still did not sit on his laurels. His appointment at Chanel was followed the next year by the creation of his own brand, Karl Lagerfeld.

Not happy with simply designing clothes, however, in 1987 he started to photograph his own campaigns.

But in 1989 tragedy struck: his partner of almost two decades, the French aristocrat Jacques de Bascher died of an Aids-related illness.

According to his biographer, Alicia Drake, the death of de Bascher – who cheated on Lagerfeld with his long-term rival Yves Saint Laurent – was followed by a period of weight gain and becoming infatuated with several young men.

The turn of the century saw Lagerfeld enter a new market: that of the diet industry. He proudly shed some 43kg (93lb) and turned his experience into a book, The 3D Diet, which would go on to sell thousands.

“I suddenly wanted to wear clothes designed by Hedi Slimane, who used to work for Saint Laurent and now creates the Dior Homme collections,” he explained in The Telegraph in 2004.

That same year, he became the first fashion designer to collaborate with high street clothes store H&M.

But it doesn’t seem he thought any of it should be particularly memorable in the end.

Two months before his death, the octogenarian dismissed rumours he was writing his memoirs.

“I have nothing to say,” he said. “I’m actually trying to make sure that I won’t be remembered.”

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