During the ’90s there was barely a glossy magazine that didn’t feature Karl Lagerfeld draped in supermodels. His death this week offers a chance to reflect on the fashion powerhouse’s influence on design, style and feminine sophistication.By Miriam Cosic.
The legacy of Karl Lagerfeld
One Sunday afternoon in 2012, I was in the 5th arrondissement in Paris trying to walk off writer’s block. It was cold and wet and the streets were deserted. I was pondering the opening of the new Islamic wing at the Louvre, an important geopolitical event as well as a museological coup.
The major single donor was Prince Alwaleed bin Talal al-Saud, though a consortium of Arab states donated even more than he did. Conceived under President Chirac, brought to fruition under President Sarkozy and opened by President Hollande, the gallery was a dazzling example of France’s historic use of soft power. The Middle East was going up in flames, France had a controversial colonial history there and its troops were deployed as part of the coalition of the willing, plus it was battling Islamic terrorism at home, but this grandiloquent statement was about the intellectual meeting, rather than the clash, of civilisations.
It was a lot to chew over and I was glad to be alone. Part-way down chic Rue Saint-Augustin, however, I felt the air shift. No sound but a strange disruption in perspective, like something in a sci-fi film. I looked up. About 20 metres away, a familiar figure was window-shopping: slim, dressed in black, with a luxurious mane of powdered white hair tied back,18th-century style.
It was the fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, immaculately dressed, accompanied by two people, a young man and woman, who looked like models and who were also perfectly dressed. “To be sloppy after 25 is a problem,” Lagerfeld once said. “You have to be really fresh to wear stuff that doesn’t look fresh.” Wearing sweatpants, he also said, is a sign of defeat.
Karl Lagerfeld’s death at 85 on Tuesday marked the end of an era. The designer had failed to take the customary accolades at the end of his couture show for Chanel last month and rumours about his health were spreading. Nonetheless, a world without him seemed – seems – inconceivable.
Chanel has epitomised elegance for me. I have always worn Chanel scent and love Chanel shoes; the clothing is a little beyond a journalist’s means. Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel died before I was old enough to think about such things, but I found out about her through pictures in magazines and in biographies that decreased in hagiography as researchers learnt more about her behaviour in occupied Paris during World War II. Most alluring, perhaps, was learning about the way she liberated women’s bodies in the years just before World War I, when she opened her first shop in the fashionable seaside town of Deauville. She threw out the corset and made boyish striped sailor tops in comfortable jersey to wear over pants. A feminist avant la lettre. Lagerfeld has carried on her legacy of wearable, comfortable clothing that respect the physical freedom, as well as the femininity, of women.
I was a fashion editor in the 1990s when fashion was at a pop cultural zenith and newspapers covered in detail everything from fashion design to flagrant gossip about models (“I don’t get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day”) to fashion business. The latter was burgeoning and consolidating and the commercial figures were astonishing. Karl Lagerfeld was one of the men – and they were all men – at the top who were still couturiers, guildsmen, and not, as the rising young gun Tom Ford admitted to being, glorified marketers.
And so I have always viewed the power of Chanel through the eyes of Lagerfeld, the creative powerhouse who has designed the label since 1983 – as well as heading design at Fendi since 1965 and inventing his own-name label in 1984 with the aim of creating clothes that were “intellectually sexy”.
He was best known, though, for his revival of Chanel. An ironist by nature, he managed to quote the elegant tailoring and the unique mix of luxurious fabrics, oversized accessories and down-to-earth comfort of the original, while making the label absolutely of its time. At times he went a bit crazy with the oversized CC logos, the flamboyant sunglasses and the gold chains, but there was always the core of the founder’s essential chic to be had.
Many of the old-school designers ransacked history and geography for inspiration, remaining more erudite than deconstructionist. The seasonal demands for the new in haute couture are relentless: that’s what makes it fashion, of course, and not just clothing. But Lagerfeld was somehow able to roam from Persia to Alaska while always remaining true to Chanel’s signature style and never making his models appear ridiculous on stage. He was a master deconstructionist, but never lost sight of the beauty to which women aspired.
If Yves Saint Laurent invented the concept of high-fashion ready-to-wear, Lagerfeld exploited it to the full. Many famous high-fashion brands in Europe have been hoovered up by Bernard Arnault’s LMVH behemoth, which employs 156,000 people and earned €46.8 billion ($A74 billion) in revenue last year. Chanel remains privately owned by brothers Alain and Gérard Wertheimer, descendants of the Jewish perfumier who went into business with Gabrielle Chanel in 1924 to create Parfums Chanel. The pair has refused to sully the Chanel name by franchising outside the core business of high-end fashion and beauty products.
Karl Lagerfeld was born in September 1933 in Hamburg, the youngest child of a bourgeois Catholic family. He had two sisters. The family was cushioned against the privations of war by his father’s business and, after attending a private school in Germany, Lagerfeld moved to a public school in Paris where he excelled at drawing and history.
In 1954, he was runner-up to 18-year-old Yves Saint Laurent in a design competition held by the International Wool Secretariat, in which wool-growing Australia was an active financial and strategic member. The boys’ friendship and friendly professional rivalry arose from the meeting – apart from a serious feud in the 1970s over the man, Jacques de Bascher, whom they both fell for. The pair would go on to dominate high fashion for decades to come.
Lagerfeld and de Bascher were together for 18 years, despite the contretemps that also led to a falling out with Saint Laurent’s business and life partner, Pierre Bergé. Lagerfeld always maintained that the relationship was platonic. By all accounts, he was attracted to de Bascher’s decadent, aristocratic elegance and the two shared a cultural cosmopolitanism. When de Bascher died of AIDS in 1989, Lagerfeld was at his bedside. Apparently, the designer has been celibate since.
“I’m a total puritan, but I found Jacques’ adventures amusing,” he told a French journalist in a rare discussion about his romantic life. “We couldn’t be further apart. I am a Calvinist toward myself, and totally indulgent toward others.”
It could not have been easy being a high-profile German in Paris in the immediate postwar years but that didn’t make Lagerfeld cautious. He has insulted people over the years with the kind of thoughtless abandon only Prince Philip could match. He disparaged Pippa Middleton’s looks: “She should only show her back,” he said. He thought Kim Kardashian vulgar with her flagrant display of money. Of Princess Diana he opined, “She was pretty and she was sweet, but she was stupid.”
He called François Hollande an imbecile for wanting to raise taxes on the rich, and earned himself an official complaint, and triggered a feminist demonstration, when he said no one wanted to see fat models on a runway. He also, more dangerously, said of Angela Merkel’s generous refugee policy, “One cannot – even if there are decades between them – kill millions of Jews so you can bring millions of their worst enemies in their place.”
But I’m a trained philosopher and, like all trained philosophers, I’m willing to use the good and ignore the evil in ways of thinking. Though unrepentant Nazis, Carl Schmitt and Martin Heidegger have influenced me. I’m not comparing Lagerfeld to them, of course, but there’s something in the Germanic culture – the aesthetic engagement, the intellectual depth, the certainties – that produced them all.
Lagerfeld had a sophisticated mind as well as manner and was widely read in four languages: German, French, English and Italian. A British journalist once described him as being just like the compliments he lavished on others: “grandiose, cultured, smart, silly and entirely on the money”. He was courteous to a fault and despised the informality of 21st-century life. Selfies, for example, don’t only distort one’s face unattractively, he believed, but, more hideously, are a form of “electronic masturbation”. And yet, his cat Choupette, a fluffy white Birman with liquid blue eyes, has her own Twitter account – and two maids. Lagerfeld watchers have long wondered if she will inherit his fortune.
Karl Lagerfeld was urbane, polished, an aristocrat manqué, though he was sufficiently self-aware to mock himself for it and even called his well-crafted persona a cliché. At his desk, however, with a clean sheet of paper in front of him and a pencil in hand, he managed to invent an incarnation of feminine sophistication that never aged.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 23, 2019 as "Changing Chanel". Subscribe here.