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Karl Lagerfeld, fashion designer who reinvented Chanel, dies at 85

Iconic fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld died Feb. 19 at age 85. Here’s a look at his influential career and eyebrow-raising moments. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

Karl Lagerfeld, a German-born couturier whose reinvention of the luxury fashion house Chanel made him one of the most well-known and influential fashion designers of the late-20th century, died Feb. 19 in Paris. He was 85.

Chanel confirmed his death. Other details were not immediately available.

With his crystal white ponytail and dark sunglasses, Mr. Lagerfeld was an instantly recognizable fixture in the orbit of fashion and popular culture.

Often called Kaiser Karl among peers and the fashion news media, he was the creative force behind some of his industry’s most recognizable and profitable luxury brands. Most recently, he served simultaneously as head designer of Chanel, the Italian fashion house Fendi and his own eponymous brand.

Despite being almost twice the age of his fashion competitors in recent decades, he continued to produce collection after collection for his various labels — sometimes more than 15 times annually. It was an exceedingly prodigious output, and he drew mostly favorable reviews.

A freelance designer for Parisian ateliers and fashion houses in the 1950s and 1960s, Mr. Lagerfeld was an early pioneer of the women’s ready-to-wear movement and built his reputation in the fashion industry with his mold-breaking designs as creative director of Fendi and the French label Chloé.

In 1983, he was hired by Chanel as chief designer to modernize the fashion house a dozen years after the death of its founder, Coco Chanel. When he took over, the house was floundering and barely surviving off its perfume sales. “Everybody said, ‘Don’t touch it. It’s dead,’ ” he told New York magazine. “But when people said it was dead and hopeless, I said it was interesting.”

Karl Lagerfeld, the creative force behind Chanel and other luxury fashion brands, dies

Nov. 29, 1973 | German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld poses with models after receiving an award in Krefeld, in western Germany. (Willi Bertram/AFP/Getty Images)

As head designer, Mr. Lagerfeld reinvigorated the luxury brand and grew it into a multi­billion-dollar fashion enterprise while maintaining Chanel’s tradition of craftsmanship and quality.

He was able to reinterpret the label’s signature pieces in flamboyant and fresh cuts and colors. He refashioned the house’s iconic quilted handbags in leather and its trademark tweed jacket in terry cloth and denim and candy-colored hues. He also broke Coco Chanel’s above-the-knee taboo, introducing shorter, more modern hemlines and Chanel’s first miniskirts. In doing so, he was able to recapture the brand’s youthfulness.

“I play with Chanel’s elements like a musician plays with notes. You don’t have to make the same music if you are a decent musician,” he told Vogue magazine in 2010.

He also made the fashion house accessible and desirable to younger buyers by introducing ready-to-wear clothing and revamping the brand’s accessory lines.

Fashion historian Valerie Steele said the average age of a Chanel customer during Mr. Lagerfeld’s tenure dropped from the mid-50s to the late 30s. “In effect, he performed emergency surgery and totally revivified the brand,” Steele told The Washington Post. “He made it completely relevant and contemporary again.”

Time and again, he was able to drum up excitement and demand for Chanel’s clothes despite recessions, bubbles and bursts. In 1997, Vogue crowned him the “unparalleled interpreter of the mood of the moment.”

His success inspired what former French Vogue editor Joan Juliet Buck deemed “the Lazarus movement” in fashion — a business model of hiring up-and-coming designers to make over age-old fashion houses. Examples include Gucci’s hiring of Tom Ford and Louis Vuitton’s hiring of Marc Jacobs.

Off the runway, Mr. Lagerfeld cultivated a distinctive look by applying Klorane dry shampoo to keep his snowy white mane as bright as possible, and he declined to remove his black shades at parties or during interviews. He rounded out his style with high-collared shirts and fingerless gloves.

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

His followers relished in his deadpan barbs and terse commentary about fashion and fame: “Chic is a kind of mayonnaise, either it tastes, or it doesn’t,” “Vanity is the most healthiest thing in life” and “Trendy is the last stage before tacky.”

Even his cat, a white Birman named Choupette, amassed a fan base; the feline appeared in fashion magazine spreads, inspired a makeup line by the Japanese cometic company Shu Uemura and garnered more than 48,000 followers on Twitter. The pampered pet — with two private maids to tend to her needs — brought in a hefty $3 million from modeling in 2014.

Mr. Lagerfeld’s controversial jabs about celebrities — including pop singer Adele (“a little too fat”), British socialite Pippa Middleton (“I don’t like the sister’s face — she should only show her back”) and even his late artist friend Andy Warhol (“physically he was quite repulsive”) — often made for tabloid fodder.

His theatrical personality often translated to the runway. He once employed strippers and the Italian adult-film star Moana Pozzi to model a black-and-white collection for Fendi (which provoked Vogue Editor Anna Wintour’s prompt departure from the event), and he once staged a runway show atop the Great Wall of China, costing Fendi a reported $1  million.

He often quipped, “I’m very much down to Earth, just not this Earth.”

A privileged upbringing

Karl Otto Lagerfeld was born in Hamburg on Sept. 10, 1933, according to a birth announcement in the Hamburger Nachtricthen newspaper two days later. His father made his fortune from introducing condensed milk to Europe and moved the family to a German countryside castle near the Danish border during World War II.

“I was born when my father was 60 and my mother 42,” he told Vice magazine in 2010. “I don’t think I know anything about [their] lives.”

His childhood was sheltered and privileged, filled with personal valets and private tutors. He told interviewers that he had little use for other children’s company and aspired from a young age to be around adults “to be taken seriously.”

He moved to France at 14 and finished secondary school in Paris, where he studied drawing and history alongside designer Yves Saint Laurent, who became his chief rival.

“I wanted to become an illustrator, so I studied every book of costume from any kind of period and tried to make illustrations,” he once said.

He was discovered in 1954 when he beat out 200,000 entrants in a design competition sponsored by the International Wool Secretariat; Saint Laurent took home the first prize in the dress portion of the competition.

French designer Pierre Balmain, a jury panelist, was so impressed by Mr. Lagerfeld’s coat design that he hired him as his assistant and put his coat into production.

After three years apprenticing under Balmain, Mr. Lagerfeld moved to another Paris couturier, Jean Patou, and, by 25, became the label’s chief designer. His first haute couture line, which he debuted under the pseudonym Roland Karl, was audibly booed in 1958. But he quickly rebounded, winning praise the next season for designs that a New York Times fashion critic described as “understated chic.”

Following a stint with Krizia, where he outfitted actresses such as Elizabeth Taylor and Gina Lollobrigida and heiress Doris Duke, he worked as a freelance designer at several fashion ­houses before joining Fendi in 1962.

He innovated the traditional Italian furrier by experimenting with new cuts, colors, textures and dyes. He also utilized and embraced cheaper furs, such as rabbit and squirrel, and conceived the company’s iconic ­double-F (“Fun Fur”) logo.

During his tenure at Fendi, he twice headed the fashion house Chloé, creating the first pret-a-porter line in the early 1960s and the brand’s first perfume in 1975. His most well-known designs included surrealist pieces, including glittering lightbulb, faucet and violin dresses, and a black-and-white art-deco-inspired collection.

In the early 1970s, Mr. Lagerfeld began a long friendship with Jacques de Bascher, a handsome Frenchman who became his fixation and protege; he said they were never lovers, but de Bascher’s affair with Saint Laurent further fueled the bitter rivalry between the two designers.

When de Bascher died of AIDS complications in 1989, while in his late 30s, Mr. Lagerfeld was inconsolable. He openly sobbed when discussing him with a Vanity Fair reporter in 1992.

“Happiness, in my sense, doesn’t say anything, you know. The only person I really cared for died, so — poof — I don’t care,” he told the magazine. “But it also gives you a kind of freedom — now I’m ready for everything because I’ve got nothing. . . . I like the idea of starting from nothing and going to nothing. What I leave behind, I don’t care — paradise now. . . . Finally, the purpose of life is life.”

Beyond fashion design, Mr. Lagerfeld cultivated a side career as a photographer, amassed museum-quality furniture collections, and designed costumes for the Metropolitan Opera and for movies including director Claude Chabrol’s “Wedding in Blood” (1973) and “Babette’s Feast” (1987). Fluent in four languages, he also managed a Parisian bookstore, a publishing house and wrote book reviews for French Vogue under the pen name ­Minouflet de Vermenou.

In 2002, he wrote the diet book “The Karl Lagerfeld Diet” with his personal dietitian, Jean-Claude Houdret. The weight-loss guide — a bestseller in Europe — was inspired after the fashion designer lost 92 pounds in 13 months. His motivation? To fit into designer clothes, of course.

He stated in the book’s foreword: “If you attach no importance to weight problems, if not being able to wear new, trendy, small-sized clothes does not cause you any regret, this book is not for you.”

Mr. Lagerfeld also was one of the first high-end designers to collaborate with mega-retailers on limited-edition collections, starting with the Swedish clothing company H&M in 2004 and Macy’s in 2011. His partnership paved the way for future H&M ventures with designers Stella McCartney and Donatella Versace, and similar chic and cheap collaborations seen at Target, Topshop and other stores.

He never married and had no children. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

Mr. Lagerfeld shunned nostalgia and sentiment about his legacy.

“I don’t even have archives,” he told the Times in 2015. “I keep nothing. What I like is to do — not the fact that I did. When people start to think that what they did in the past is perhaps even better than what they do now, they should stop. Lots of my colleagues, they have archives, they look at their dresses like they were Rembrandts! Please, forget about it.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Karl Lagerfeld’s name at birth was “Lagerfeldt.”

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