On Tuesday morning, Chanel announced that Karl Lagerfeld, its creative director since 1983, had died at age 85. Despite his age, the news comes as a shock: Lagerfeld—as his many quips readily showed—was as alert as ever, 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.) Still, there were some signs that all might not be well chez Lagerfeld; less than a month ago, the designer failed to appear at both of Chanel’s couture shows.
Born in Germany in 1933, Lagerfeld moved to Paris as a teenager, where he began his career by assisting Pierre Balmain. And while he preferred to keep his personal life private—save for his love for his cat Choupette, a fashion personality in her own right and a multimillionaire—the outpouring of tributes to the designer following the announcement of his death on Tuesday proved that practically all of fashion was his family.
Above all, Lagerfeld’s talent lay in knowing how to develop a brand, as evidenced by his instantly recognizable appearance; in recent years, he was practically always outfitted in a black and white ensemble, fingerless gloves, oversize sunglasses, and a white ponytail. Increasingly, he also made his presence known via a seemingly endless stream of inflammatory quips, which ranged from shutdowns of Meryl Streep to edicts like “sweatpants are a sign of defeat.” As proven by another of his infamous quotes, “Chanel is an institution, and you have to treat an institution like a whore—and then you get something out of her,” not even his employer was safe from his critiques.
In one particularly unbelievable interview last year, Lagerfeld said that he would sooner “kill [him]self” than spend the rest of his life on an island with either of three of his buzziest designer contemporaries: Simon Porte Jacquemus, Jonathan Anderson, and Virgil Abloh. If the latter took that personally, he didn’t show it; he was one of the many, many designers who Instagrammed tributes to Lagerfeld on Tuesday, describing him as an inspiration. Marc Jacobs, Alexander Wang, Donatella Versace, Diane Von Furstenberg, Alber Elbaz, and Victoria Beckham, who lauded Lagerfeld as “a genius to me both personally and professionally,” also spoke of Lagerfeld’s influence on the app.
It’s no surprise that the tributes have spanned across industries; Lagerfeld was also instrumental in inviting celebrities into the world of fashion. His eye for young talent was perhaps best exemplified by his choice in one of the perennial stars of Chanel shows: Hudson Kroenig, who’s practically grown up on the house’s runway since he was born, in 2008. Lagerfeld’s unexpected choice in muses extended over to those typically rejected by the fashion industry, like Kim Kardashian West, hence Kris Jenner’s prompt appreciation of the designer along with a range of other A-listers, including David Beckham and Lindsay Lohan. (According to Diane Kruger’s tribute, it was just a few days ago that she visited Paris to see the designer and introduce him to her daughter, only to become “heartbroken” upon learning that she was “too late.”)
Lagerfeld’s connections in the fashion world also spanned generations. Over the decades he spent at the helm of two of the industry’s most esteemed houses, Lagerfeld worked closely not only with ’90s supermodels like Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell but also their contemporary counterparts. (He even recently designed a capsule collection with 17-year-old Kaia Gerber.) Gigi Hadid was one of the first to commemorate the designer, writing “I’m so heartbroken I almost don’t have words. There will never be another Karl Lagerfeld,” on her Instagram Stories. She was soon joined by her sister Bella Hadid and more models, like Joan Smalls:
Still, if you weren’t one of his legion of admirers, and aren’t afraid to admit it, Lagerfeld would likely understand. He was not, after all, afraid to stand out in stark contrast to those who mourned Pierre Bergé, the cofounder of Yves Saint Laurent; in an interview last year, he unabashedly summed up his reaction to the death of one of his “best enemies” by recalling how when it came time for Bergé’s funeral, his florist simply asked him, “Do you want us to send a cactus?”
A Look Back at Karl Lagerfeld’s Biggest Runway Controversies at Chanel
The ’90s marked the height of Lagerfeld’s experiments with many of the most storied Hallmarks of Chanel, including the house’s classic chains. It wasn’t Helena Christensen‘s belted waist or short shorts, though, that caught the eye during the house’s spring/summer 1996 show, but instead the proto-shutter shades she wore that came complete with a muzzle-like extension for her mouth.
Say what you will about Chanel’s fall/winter 1995 collection, but you can’t deny that Lagerfeld didn’t place emphasis on the house’s logo. The most striking example of which was an itsy bitsy bikini worn by Stella Tennant, whose nipples were just barely obscured by a pair of interlocking C’s.
To be fair, at least Lagerfeld made sure that Tennant had company.
Though Lagerfeld later protested that he “had no idea what the original meaning was,” that didn’t change the fact that his spring 1994 couture collection for Chanel featured three dresses printed with what turned out to be passages from the Koran, thereby sparking an international controversy. Eventually, Lagerfeld conceded to “apologize to Muslims” and Chanel destroyed the extant versions of the dress.
Chanel’s spring/summer 1993 couture show saw Naomi Campbell parade her nipple down the runway just as proudly as the crucifix around her neck.
While full of Chanel’s signature chains and pearls, Chanel’s spring/summer 1991 collection saw Lagerfeld take inspiration from hip-hop and rap. Needless to say, not everyone approved of his source of inspiration, and criticisms of cultural appropriation soon followed. As usual, though, Lagerfeld stuck to his guns: “Rappers tell the truth—that’s what’s needed now,” he said backstage after the show.
A few years later, Lagerfeld—who later appeared in a music video with Snoop Dogg—proved he wasn’t finished with referencing the “theme” of rap. His spring/summer 1994 collection for Chanel featured not only chains, but also bandanas that seemed to be a high-fashion (and tone-deaf) take on signifiers of gang affiliations.
Lagerfeld’s reimagining of the classic Chanel bouclé tweed suit reached new heights in his collection for spring/summer 1994, with hemlines that seem likely to have cut down the house’s costs on fabric that season.
Of all of Lagerfeld’s reinterpretations of the classic quilted Chanel leather bag, the most, um, singular was the hula hoop version that appeared during Chanel’s show for spring/summer 2013, which promptly became the talk of the season. The bag, Lagerfeld later explained, “is for the beach! You need space for the beach towel. Then you can put it into the sand and hang things on it.”
Several years before Fendi debuted the baguette bag, Lagerfeld showcased an early version of the oblong object, making the case for redubbing the Fendi version the demi-baguette.
To set the scene of what he intended as a “feminist” protest, Lagerfeld handed models signs emblazoned with slogans like “history is her story” and “ladies first.” However pure his sentiment may have been, the move did not go over well, prompting many to criticize Lagerfeld of attempting to co-opt a serious and timely political movement.
It wasn’t so much the clothes that caused a stir at Chanel’s fall 2010 show, but rather the enormous 265-ton, 30-foot tall iceberg that Lagerfeld took great pains to import from Sweden, as a symbol of sorts for global warming. (Never mind that it took six days and a careful maintenance of a temperature of 25 degrees Fahrenheit for it to make it all the way to Paris.)
Climate change apparently forgotten, Lagerfeld put the emphasis of Chanel’s spring 2018 show on clear plastic, which covered that season’s collection as if it were a squeaky couch.