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Karl Lagerfeld didn’t have a signature design — but he invented a new kind of designer

Designer Karl Lagerfeld died in Paris on Feb. 19. (Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

Karl Lagerfeld was an extraordinary designer — as famous as many of the celebrities he dressed. But for a lot of people, he was a celebrity before he was anything else.

Lagerfeld, who died Tuesday in Paris, was a multitasking Renaissance man who kept the 109-year-old Paris-based Chanel vibrant, desirable and culturally relevant. He served as Chanel’s creative director for more than three decades, maintaining the brand’s stature and financial might in a fickle industry that always seems to be in the throes of generational upheaval. He also spent 54 years at Fendi, helping to transform it from a family-run Italian fur label into an international brand with a distinctive point of view. He also founded a signature collection — in various iterations, all of them with modest levels of success.

Lagerfeld dabbled in book publishing; he took up photography; he said mean things about others; he said self-deprecating things about himself; he hated fat; he venerated skinny. His work was widely admired by the fashion industry. His energy and endurance dismayed it.

Yet, he may best be known in the broader culture for his distinctive appearance — an Edwardian rock-and-roller suited up with high white collars, skinny black trousers, fingers full of rings and powdered white hair swept back into a ponytail. He didn’t so much walk as strut with a cocky toe-heel, toe-heel gait. He was German-born and spoke English with a thick accent, slingshotting words across a conversation. Often those words landed with a bruising sting. They never failed to fascinate.

Karl Lagerfeld, fashion designer who reinvented Chanel, dies

While other designers love to romp through a flea market or go on an archaeological dig through a vintage shop, Lagerfeld hated looking back. He despised retrospectives. His concern was the present.

“The greatest tribute we can pay today is to continue to follow the path he traced by — to quote Karl — ‘continuing to embrace the present and invent the future,’ ” Bruno Pavlovsky, president of Chanel fashion, said in a statement. Lagerfeld’s longtime studio director Virginie Viard will take the design helm.

When hip-hop style began to transform the way in which young people dressed, he incorporated that ideology — for better and, often, worse — into Chanel. He introduced athleisure into the Chanel vocabulary. He embraced technology as both a tool for making life better and as a stylistic opportunity. He was renowned for being an early aficionado of the iPod and he loved tossing sci-fi allusions into a collection.

His haute couture collections were a breathtaking display of artistry and precision. The couture show gave the atelier an opportunity to show off its skills, for the incomparable seamstresses — the petites mains — to shine. Chanel helped to save couture from extinction, in part by buying up many of the specialty studios that had for generations been responsible for the hand embroidery and featherwork that define these one-of-a-kind gowns and suits.

Couture serves as a reminder that Lagerfeld was part of a generation of designers who have mostly passed away or retired. He came of age in the 1950s alongside the greats such as Yves Saint Laurent. He studied and apprenticed for others. It was craft first, and then everything else. Lagerfeld might have hated looking back for inspiration, but couture was his connection to the foundation of fashion. It was also his enduring gift to a rarefied customer. The standard for couture, after all, is perfection.

His ready-to-wear shows were a torrent of ideas. Season after season, he would flood the runway with some 80 individual models, each wearing ensembles that were sometimes spectacularly appealing and at other times spectacularly not. He seemed equally at peace with both. The important thing was the constant striving toward something new and invigorating. Fashion, for him, was a constant evolution, an endless series of tweaks. He aimed for the best, but sometimes the only way to get there was through rocky and jarring terrain. If there was fear, it was of obsolescence.

“If there’s something I don’t like or don’t understand, I say it’s my problem, not the problem of the times. I have to adapt to it. I have to find my niche in the moment that’s going on,” he told The Washington Post in 2006. “Don’t compare your life to what happened before. Every day has to be different. Don’t compare. Don’t compete. Don’t think it was better before, because it was better before only if you think it was.”

He had his muses and his obsessions, and they informed his vision. There was the male model Brad Kroenig and his then-elementary-school-age son Hudson, who is Lagerfeld’s godson. Both regularly appeared in Chanel shows wearing Lagerfeld’s curious version of menswear. For years, his model of choice was Ines de la Fressange, until he had a falling-out with her. He favored Claudia Schiffer, too. His front rows were filled with influencers and Academy Award winners, musicians and political spouses, devoted old-money clients and new-money arrivistes. Everyone wanted a piece of the Chanel world that Lagerfeld created.

The fashion shows were set against elaborate backdrops that were perfect for the era of Instagram and social media. He commissioned a faux Paris bistro, a supermarket with fully stocked shelves, an art gallery. One season there was a rocket that appeared to blast off during the finale. He shipped in a glacier. He constructed a beachfront with waves of water lapping across the sand.

In 2014, he staged a runway protest with models carrying signs reading, “Feminist but Feminine,” “Be Your Own Stylist” and “History Is Her Story.” He played the scene for a chuckle, however, miscalculating the seriousness of the moment and the months thereafter. He was taken to task by racial justice advocates for his lack of black models on the Chanel runway. And in recent years, his casting has become more diverse.

Chanel remains the same. It’s the customers who change.

He had other self-made controversies. In 2017, he sparked a public spat with actress Meryl Streep by claiming in an interview that she’d decided against wearing Chanel to the Oscars because another design house had paid her to wear its dress. The story was not true. He suggested that singer Adele was “a little too fat” and churned up social media outrage. In 2013, he was accused of cultural appropriation for his use of Native American headdresses on the runway. In the 1990s, he offended Muslims when verses from the Koran were embroidered on Chanel garments. During an interview, he referred to a Chanel publicist as “a stupid cow” because she’d allowed a dress to be repeated on the red carpet.

Chanel might have tried to avoid controversy, but it was part of the Lagerfeld brand.

No other fashion house has the visual resonance of Chanel — from its black and gold cosmetics packaging to its little black dresses, boucle jackets, quilted handbags, camellias and long strands of faux pearls. Even the casual fashion observer recognizes its logo of interlocking C’s. Lagerfeld didn’t invent that vocabulary. But he used it to speak to customers in ways that kept them engaged from one generation to the next.

Lagerfeld is not known for popularizing any silhouette or inventing any fashion item. Instead, he transformed the way in which fashion operates and the way in which people relate to it.

He recognized that most people aren’t looking for avant-garde notions. They are looking to be relevant, to fit in. They are searching for status and value. And wearing the right label — the one that is aglow with starlight, the one that holds out the possibility that you may gain access behind the velvet rope — can change everything. At least in the popular imagination.

Last year, the privately held company released its financials for the first time. It is a $10 billion entity, making it one of the largest luxury brands in the world.

Hot under the collar, always his own man, Karl Lagerfeld is now aiming to be his own brand

Lagerfeld invented a new kind of designer — one who applied his talents to a host of endeavors. Others tried to follow in his path; they tried to emulate his capacity to design for multiple brands simultaneously. Mostly, those other designers failed to distinguish one company from the other. Or they simply exhausted themselves. Lagerfeld mostly made it look easy, but even he sometimes fell short. Chanel was always where he shined brightest. Fendi sometimes felt like an afterthought, but just when it seemed he’d lost his footing there, he’d come roaring back with creative verve.

“I was only a child when I first saw Karl. Our relationship was very special, based on a deep and very genuine affection. We had a lot of mutual appreciation and endless respect. Karl Lagerfeld has been my mentor and my point of reference. A blink of an eye was enough to understand each other,” wrote Silvia Venturini Fendi, creative director for menswear, accessories and kidswear, in a statement. “For Fendi and myself, the creative genius of Karl has been and will always be our guiding light.”

His other endeavors — photography, his own brand — were lauded, in part, simply because his name was attached to them. He transformed himself into a walking sales pitch. He became the flamboyant, daunting, pronouncement-making designer envisioned in our fevered imagination.

“I see myself as a hard-working professional person,” he said in 2006. “But in another way I’m lucky that I can use myself as a kind of puppet.”