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Karl Lagerfeld and Chanel
Some of the biggest names in fashion prevail from the legacy of the visions of creatives who lived in the 20th century. Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Halston. The founders are no longer with us and the creative direction was taken by new creatives.
Karl Lagerfeld used to say that if Coco Chanel saw his work, she “would have hated it.” Chanel had a very clear vision of what she wanted to represent in the clothes. She grew up in poverty, so she wanted people to feel luxurious. She grew up with so many restrictions that she wanted her clients to feel free when they walked.
The way the founder of the French fashion house represented these ideas was very successful during the first half of the twentieth century. However, after she died, the team led by Yvonne Dudel, Jean Cazaubon, and Philippe Guibourge led the business. It was the beginning of the 70s, and Chanel’s designs started to feel obsolete. Chanel’s black and white suits were shadowed by colorful bell-shaped pants and tops. People and fashion were changing, and the creative team wanted to continue Chanel’s legacy but struggled to keep it current with the fashion world.
This was when Karl Lagerfeld stepped in. Lagerfeld brought to the House of Chanel a sense of youth and playfulness to the sophistication that Chanel ambitioned in her designs. But Karl Lagerfeld’s dresses and designs didn’t just walk on the runways of Chanel. He spent several decades working for Fendi, and on top of that, he had his own brand.
Let’s go over some of the fashion legacies that Karl Lagerfeld left in the fashion world. Some of them are extraordinary, some of them are regrettable, and some others may be so controversial that the reader will decide how to label them.
Karl Lagerfeld and Fendi
Karl Lagerfeld’s name is probably more associated with Chanel than with Fendi. However, Lagerfeld spent over 50 years in the House of Fendi and 36 working in Chanel. It’s mind-blowing to think that one person was simultaneously in charge of the creative direction of two internationally known fashion houses. Both houses carry so much history and legacy, and Lagerfeld was able to maintain these fashion houses relevant.
Lagerfeld’s Fendi was very focused on tailoring details in pants, shirts, blazers, and jackets. Fendi was more dynamic and masculine than Chanel’s soft and feminine aesthetic. There were earthy tones, bold design elements, and references to the German background of the designer.
Karl Lagerfeld and his brand
There are few people whose looks become identifiable. Vogue’s editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour, has her classic bob haircut with sunglasses and jewelry as her signature look. There’s also Iris Apfel, whose colorful fashion aesthetic, round glasses, and red lips have been interpreted in pop culture, art, and, most recently, in her collection for H&M.
Karl Lagerfeld started building his own signature look: his white hair in a ponytail, his black sunglasses, and his leather gloves. The German name was so inspirational and aspirational for emerging talent in the fashion industry and also for those who got inspired by the fashion that Lagerfeld was creating for Fendi and for Chanel.
This is how the brand Karl Lagerfeld was created. There was a strong desire from consumers to have an aspirational way to connect with this fashion icon. Karl Lagerfeld became a “living logo.” The brand has lots of visual graphics referencing Lagerfeld’s signature hairstyle and sunglasses. As the fingerless gloves have also become a key element of Lagerfeld’s clothing, there are also several iterations of this accessory with the designer’s signature.
Lagerfeld is not the first nor the last designer to create a brand that aims for “accessible” designer fashion. Donna Karan established her brand DKNY under this premise. Giorgio Armani has Emporio Armani and Armani Exchange to satisfy these markets. Most recently, Hugo Boss created a very graphic and logo-based brand called Hugo that serves the same purpose.
The interesting phenomenon with Lagerfeld is that he began his work under the name of other fashion houses, such as Chanel and Fendi, and gained global recognition for his name and his look, which stimulated the desire to create an aspirational brand. Lagerfeld was able to gain recognition even though he was working for fashion houses that didn’t carry his name. This is probably why several fashion critics and journalists refer to Lagerfeld as “larger than life.” He started working at Chanel when people around him told him the fashion house was dead. And even with the strong legacy that Coco Chanel represents for fashion history, Lagerfeld also made space for himself to be part of fashion history.
Karl Lagerfeld and Chanel Haute Couture
Lagerfeld was very involved in the whole creative process in Chanel. He sketched his designs with detail, ambitioning the textures, imagining the movements, thinking of silhouettes, tailoring, and proportions. Then, he worked closely with the seamstresses who brought these designs to life.
Chanel has four haute couture ateliers; each atelier is overseen by a head seamstress, also known as a premiere. Premieres worked very closely with Lagerfeld to make sure every detail from his vision was accurately represented in the drawings he created. Premieres are in charge of leading and supervising the couture ateliers.
This is a huge responsibility because there is a common misconception about what haute couture means. Although there may be designers who leverage this concept to introduce overpriced products, the true meaning of haute couture is creating handmade clothing. Hems, constructions, tailorings, embroideries, feathers, and beading are all sewn by human hands. The processes are very time-consuming, so there are several workers in each atelier. The time, care, skills, and materials behind each haute couture Chanel clothing make a piece worth anywhere between tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Karl Lagerfeld and Fashion Shows
The work that Karl Lagerfeld did for Chanel Haute Couture is particularly meaningful as it happened with the beginning of social media and fashion shows available on Youtube and via live stream services. Fashion shows transitioned from being very exclusive shows that almost no one could see to pictures that became instantly available as attendees tweeted and posted as soon as the first model hit the runway.
Throughout Lagerfeld’s work in Chanel, the production of the fashion shows was undisputedly breathtaking. Lagerfeld was able to make a whole event out of a fashion show. The Victoria’s Secret shows were musical and entertaining, but Lagerfeld was able to tell stories and build magnificent scenographies, transforming the Grand Palace in Paris entirely. An outstanding rocket that took off during the runway, a real-sized supermarket as the background of the runway, a real glacier that melted as the models walked by, a coffee shop, and a garden covered with hundreds of plants and flowers surrounding the models and the audience were some of the worlds Karl Lagerfeld brought to life in his shows. These are some of the narratives that Chanel has delivered under Lagerfeld’s direction.
Keeping a fashion house with so much history current can be challenging while respecting its origins and values. Lagerfeld has somehow managed to find a point in between, where perhaps the silhouettes and materials wouldn’t have been chosen by Coco Chanel herself, but the elegance and sophistication align with the vision of the fashion house.
Karl Lagerfeld and Controversies
But Lagerfeld wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Especially during the last years of his career when fashion started to move towards the path of inclusion, and Lagerfeld preferred to stay with the standard ideal of beauty, celebrating thinness and limiting the size range of the clothes to very specific slim fitted bodies. It also seemed that Lagerfeld checked diversity as a bullet point from a to-do list, but it didn’t seem like something he cared about when casting and choosing the models.
And although several people are making decisions on behalf of the house of Chanel, Lagerfeld was deeply involved in the whole creative and visual aspects of the fashion house. This includes photoshoots, backdrops, stylists, casting the models, choosing which model would wear which outfit, choosing makeup and hairstyles, and choosing trims and embellishments, among other carefully crafted visual aspects. Karl Lagerfeld was the main responsible for the lack of diversity of Chanel, Fendi, and Karl Lagerfeld during his time leading the creative side of these fashion houses.
Lagerfeld understood the influence he had on the fashion industry and emerging fashion talent. Elle Mexico’s editor-in-chief, Claudia Cándano, stated on the podcast of the fashion magazine that she believes Lagerfeld’s decisions to limit clothing to slim bodies may have also influenced new generations of designers, and those beginning their studies in fashion, because Lagerfeld was such an admired person that his followers see what he did as a form of inspiration.
One of the fashion inputs of Lagerfeld is that he is famously known for introducing squirrel, mole, and squirrel felts into high fashion. The use of these real furs was very profitable for Fendi. Lagerfeld used it in a variety of ways to create textures and volumes. As the animal rights movement has raised and is becoming less popular to use real fur, several fashion houses have made statements about going fur-free and avoiding the use of exotic animal skins. Lagerfeld didn’t respond to the concerns of animal cruelty.
Karl Lagerfeld and the Met
On Monday 1st, 2023, the Costume Exhibition will celebrate it’s annual Met Gala. This year, it will honor the legacy of Karl Lagerfeld. Dua Lipa, Roger Federer, Penélope Cruz, and Anna Wintour will co-chair the event. The expectations are high, and the questions are many. Is the curation objective to the work Lagerfeld did in fashion, or is it somehow biased since Wintour was his close friend? Is it true that this theme was originally planned for 2020 right before Lagerfeld passed away and postponed due to the pandemic, or were there hesitations about controversies and relevance to the fashion world?
Learn more about Karl Lagerfeld.
One of the episodes of the docuseries 7 Days Before, documents the whole process of Lagerfeld and the House of Chanel getting ready for the Haute Couture show Spring 2018. From knowing the ateliers, to the whole process of building the stage for the show, this episode on Netflix gives a general glance of the many talented workers needed to put together a fashion show.
Journalist Alfons Kaiser, the author of this biography, knew Karl Lagerfeld for many years. The book goes over the many eras of Lagerfed, how we applied these multiple skills on this job in the fashion industry, and so much more.