On the 19th of February, everyone’s eyes were on Neuilly- sur- Seine, Paris. It was around noon when the French media reported that Karl Lagerfeld had passed away due to pancreatic cancer.
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There was a slight calm before the storm, and then the cyclone of articles, blog posts, tweets and commemorative videos took the fashion world by storm. The “Kaiser” of fashion was no more. 31 Rue Cambon became the collection point for all the flowers and tributes that people could find.
No matter where you come from, how old you are, or whether you care about luxury fashion or not, you will have heard of Lagerfeld. Or, if you haven’t heard of him, you will have seen the picture of a stoic faced man in sunglasses and a stiff, starchy collar holding a white cat. Lagerfeld, much like the brands he represented, had a signature style. Even if you happened to experience it once, it was hard to forget.
Articles published since his passing called him a revolutionary who, at the time of his death, was the creative director for three major fashion houses: Fendi, his own brand Karl and, perhaps the one he is most remembered for, Chanel.
Lagerfeld was hired by Chanel in the 1980s, a couple decades after fellow fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent had been hired and fired by, interestingly enough, Dior.That perhaps should have been a sign that the two would embark on a rivalry that is still remembered to this day. It was, after all, Christian Dior’s “New Look” that prompted Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel to come out of retirement after World War 2.
Chanel, when founded, was known as the brand that did not uphold fashion norms. Coco Chanel was best known for promoting a more practical silhouette when it came to female fashion- a move that was a direct contrast to the frills and flowers that other Parisian couturiers and fashion houses produced. Lagerfeld joint Chanel after designing at Fendi. His work with fur had already made him a force to be reckoned with- much like Coco when she was alive. It was only natural for him to be hired as creative director. Several credit him with redefining the Chanel brand, for making it what it is today. Even designing the brand’s iconic logo.
He was a revolutionary to stir up dying revolutions, apparently. But, by definition and by nature, revolutionaries are complex and controversial- Lagerfeld was no exception.
Model Claudia Schiffer, in her tribute after his death, said, “What Warhol was to art, he was to fashion; he is irreplaceable. He is the only person who could make black and white colorful”. Drawing contrasts to Warhol seems fitting. Both had events in their childhood that made them slightly eccentric (or troubled) individuals when they grew up.
Warhol was scared of hospitals due to witnessing death and disease at small intervals as a child. Lagerfeld chose to use gloves to hid his hands because his mother had once told him that they were ugly. In his most recent interview with French magazine Numéro in April 2018, the interviewer called him a genius. He responded with, “When I was young, my mother always said to me that I was stupid, she called me “Mule”. I’ve probably just been overcompensating ever since”.
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By the time he was nearing 70, Lagerfeld began developing what he could only call “a caricature” of himself. He wore powdered wigs, dark sunglasses (indoors), finger- less gloves and carried around a fan and a cat named Choupette. After his death, Choupette will also inherit a part of his fortune. He also never revealed his actual age, although many estimate that he was 85 when he passed.
A caricature tends to be an exaggerated version of one’s personality. Lagerfeld had a tendency to exaggerate or explicitly sound out his opinion. Opinions that did not show him in a flattering light. In that same interview with Numéro, he stated that he was “fed up” with the #MeToo movement. In reference to models speaking up about sexual harassment by designers, he claimed, ” If you don’t want to have your pants pulled down, don’t become a model! Join a nunnery, there’ll always be a place for you in the convent. They’re recruiting even!”
In October 2013, he was sued for defamation by a women’s organization, Belle, Ronde, Sexy et Je M’assume, for derogatory remarks that he made about plus-sized women. Harper’s Bazaar, when reporting on it, rounded off the article with a list of some of the most controversial things that he had said in the past. They ranged from fat-shaming to stating that he would have found it hard to have an “ugly daughter”.
Creatively, he was a mastermind. Coco’s successor. But what was a seemingly natural progression when it came to designer succeeding designer, was also mismatched when it came to ideology. Chanel (the founder, not the brand) was seen as a designer who wished to empower through female fashion, creating pant suits (among other things) for women in an era that actively used corsets. To have such a fashion house then be led by a man who thought “respect is not creative” is somewhat of a conundrum.
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Lagerfeld once said of his designs for Chanel, “What I do Coco would have hated”. Perhaps. But maybe she would have been more confused by his statements than his silhouettes. Or maybe, she would been willing to overlook that because of his creative genius.
In the immediate aftermath of his death, many were quick to only focus on his contributions to fashion. But an artist’s creations cannot be viewed in isolation from himself as a human being.
Iris van Herpen’s designs showcase her fascination with technology. Warhol and McQueen’s troubled selves were represented in their work. Saint Laurent had an obsession with Morroco. So much so that when he wasn’t there, he would design collections inspired by the beauty of Marakech. Van Gogh’s Starry Night is how he saw the world from his room at an asylum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.
An artist’s creations are how they wish to see the world around them. And how they wish to see the world around them depends on their ideology. At the end of the day, Lagerfeld was a creative genius who may have represented the talent and creativity of Chanel but it would be a stretch to say that he also did the same for its core ideology.