In February, the fashion world lost one of its most beloved figures as Karl Lagerfeld passed away at the age of 85. Lagerfeld had served as creative director of Chanel since 1983, and up until his death he was still churning out around 14 collections per year, in addition to pursuing his career as a photographer and maintaining his role as the creative director of Fendi, which he first took on back in 1965. (Not to mention running his own namesake label.) During that time, Lagerfeld amassed a devoted following that included everyone from Rihanna to Cindy Crawford (and her daughter Kaia Gerber, for that matter). Here, six of his muses from over the years pay tribute to the late, great designer.
Few people get to know one legendary designer, let alone two in quick succession—but Ellie Bamber did just that, walking in Chanel’s Métiers d’Art show in Paris shortly after her role in Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals put her on everyone’s rising-talents list. Both Ford and Karl Lagerfeld, Bamber observes, treated clothes in an extremely exacting way, using them to tell a story. “I also try to reflect my moods when I get dressed,” she says. “I wear a Chanel item almost every day, whether it’s just a bag or earrings, even with trainers. Karl was very good at updating tradition with a buzz of youth.” And yet, when it came time for her to hit the runway, Bamber found herself shaking with nerves. “Karl came to me and said I should just think of it as playing a role,” she says. “The show was at the Ritz hotel, where I had never been, but it was such a grand space that I thought of it as a set. And then I let the dress transform me like a costume would. All of a sudden I was a Parisian lady waltzing in for lunch.”
“Karl was a great artist, but I believe that in the process of creation there is always suffering and loneliness,” says the actress Monica Bellucci. “He could be very sarcastic. Of course, that’s because when you’re very intelligent you see things others don’t. Sarcasm and humor become a way of dealing with the difficulty of life.” That doesn’t mean she and Lagerfeld never traded more than barbed bons mots. She remembers the designer often alluding to the troubled, yet reverential, relationship he had with his imperiously exacting mother, and how he would occasionally offer decidedly down-to-earth advice. “The last time I saw him, not too long ago, he asked about my two kids,” Bellucci recalls. “My older daughter is at an age where she’s very impressed by cinema and fashion, which is understandable. Karl told me to be very careful in the way I exposed her to the world. I thought that was very touching—he obviously understood that this business can be the greatest, but also dangerous.”
“Because he was such an imposing figure, many people assumed that Karl was egotistical, but, in fact, he was the opposite,” says the actress Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, who thought of Lagerfeld as a sort of modern day saloniste, bringing together creative personalities from different fields. “He was at a place in his career that was beyond reproach, and didn’t need to compete in order to prove himself, so he would try to elevate those around him. He always asked about your projects and gave you very precise and honest feedback, even suggesting books to look at or read. The challenge was to find something to share with him in return, because he knew so much about everything.” Bergès-Frisbey was also impressed by how, even in his 80s, the designer was fully engaged and connected with the world around him, working every day as though retirement wasn’t even a remote option. “There were two things he definitely didn’t like,” she says. “Laziness and mediocrity.”
Naomi Diaz and her twin sister, Lisa-Kaindé Diaz, make up Ibeyi, a musical duo based in Paris that combines French, Yoruba, and Afro-Cuban influences. The siblings caught Lagerfeld’s eye in 2016, when he was staging Chanel’s 2017 cruise collection in Cuba—a momentous occasion in which Havana’s Paseo del Prado, the main artery of the city’s historic center, became a catwalk. “We opened the show, then all the models walked around us as we performed,” Diaz says. “Afterward, we stayed in touch. For a big concert in Paris, Karl gave us gold and silver jumpsuits, representing the sun and the moon.” The sets Lagerfeld created for his shows were famously over-the-top, but Diaz was pleased that he restrained himself in Havana. “All he really did was light up the Prado,” she says. “It’s such a beautiful location, it didn’t need anything else. And Karl worked with lots of locals and cast Cubans as models, which was very important for me because my sister and I are part Cuban. Many of them were my friends—lots of women of color.”
Clémence Poésy met Lagerfeld shortly after appearing in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, in 2005. While attending Lagerfeld’s final presentation, staged just two weeks after his death, the actress was struck by the many public displays of emotion in the usually impassive front row. “It was moving to see together so many women who had collaborated with him and been part of his life for a very long time,” she says. Working with Lagerfeld over the years, Poésy observed that the designer had developed faithful, long-standing relationships not just with Chanel VIPs like herself but also with the workers of the house’s famed ateliers, many of whom had been with him for decades. “Karl created something at Chanel that went beyond the clothes,” Poésy says. “There is a sense of family there that I really hope survives without him.”
The model, actress, and philanthropist Elisa Sednaoui met Lagerfeld in 2010, when he tapped her to star in a short film he made for his Chanel 2011 resort collection. “I was so intimidated by the idea of him, but as soon as you met him he had this way of making you feel just right,” she says. “He had no pretensions; he was always unapologetically himself.” Indeed, Lagerfeld was known for never holding back—a quality that some appreciated more than others. “That same year he invited me to the Met Gala,” Sednaoui continues. “I was so nervous, walking around all these famous people, and at some point I accidentally stepped really, really hard, with my heel, on a woman’s foot. She was furious.” It turns out that the hobbled lady was a top-ranking Chanel executive who, as fate would have it, was not exactly in Lagerfeld’s good graces. “The entire night Karl kept repeating, ‘I love it!’ Not just to me, but to everyone around, he would say, ‘Can you believe it? La Sednaoui even managed to step on her foot! Isn’t it incredible?’ ”