It’s uncharacteristic of Karl Lagerfeld to die.
For nearly half of the 20th century and since the start of the 21st, he was one of fashion’s foremost figures and as much an icon as his work for some of the world’s legendary maisons. And for enthusiasts like me who were born and inducted to fashion within this era, it was as if Karl—Uncle Karl, I would often say—was this 300-year-old immovable pillar on which much of modern fashion stands. I was always under the assumption that he will live forever—literally.
But at age 85, he passed on. And all of fashion came together to commemorate his life and work. Anna Wintour in her note on Vogue.com said that Karl was a giant among men, a prolific designer whose creative genius was breathtaking. Muses from Vanessa Paradis to Lily Rose-Depp, and generations of supermodels including Linda Evangelista and the Hadid sisters all took to Instagram to express their heartbreak. Contemporaries Valentino Garavani and Ralph Lauren, as well as succeeding design superstars Donatella Versace, Marc Jacobs, and Victoria Beckham, all gave tribute to fashion’s one and only Kaiser.
We, too, at Preview pay our respects to a man whose thoughts and works have influenced and helped shape fashion as we know it today. May this list, a rundown of his eight finest moments in fashion, be a reminder of Kaiser Karl’s place in history and pop culture and his legacy of beauty and modernity.
1. Karl’s early years were spent in the company of legends.
On Instagram, Chloé wrote, “Karl brought a vision of femininity to Chloé that remains ever-present in our hearts today.
“We are forever grateful for his 25 years with the Maison.
“From his softly feminine, slightly irreverent designs, to his strong visual instinct, he has inspired every designer at Chloé.”
That ponytail, that high starched collar—they’re both unmistakably Karl.
Karl was discovered by Pierre Balmain, who eventually made him apprentice in the mid 1950s. He would join Jean Patou later on as its artistic director. But it was Karl’s turn as designer for Chloé beginning in 1964 that would serve as a precursor of his game changing tenure at two other esteemed French fashion houses.
2. He turned Fendi from a furrier into a design powerhouse.
Karl flanked by members of the Fendi family
Leather, fur, the double F logo, they are all truly Fendi.
Fendi turned to Karl to turn things around at their Rome headquarters in the late ‘60s. Under his creative direction, the formerly traditional fur and leather company began churning innovative designs and using unconventional hide for high fashion. Karl would launch his first women’s ready to wear collection for the house a decade later. Today, Fendi is one of the world’s most important labels carrying fur, leather, ready to wear, accessories, and so much more.
3. Karl revived and future-proofed the once crumbling House of Chanel.
Timeless pearls were given modern styling in 2018.
Same codes, different take.
And look at it now. Chanel’s overwhelming success today can be credited to Karl’s innovative and intuitive work since his first couture collection in the fall of 1983. Given “carte blanch to reinvent the brand” by CEO Alain Wertheimer, Karl reworked the brand’s codes—among them the LBD, the jacket, the two-tone shoes, the quilted handbags, and pearls—for a younger, more modern woman. Furthermore, he sold a Chanel lifestyle, one that merges fashion and beauty with art, music, film, travel, and even sports.
This look on Shalom Harlow from 1996 might get Karl in trouble with Coco. But a forward-thinking designer’s gotta do what he’s gotta do.
During Chanel’s S/S 2019 ready to wear show, the brand tackled logomania head on.
In 2011, he famously said, “What I do, Coco would have hated. The label has an image and it's up to me to update it. I do what she never did. I had to find my mark. I had to go from what Chanel was to what it should be, could be, what it had been to something else.”
4. He wore other creative hats throughout his career such as photographer, director, and editor.
Karl photographed Kaia Gerber inside Coco Chanel’s apartment in Paris.
An all-around creative. Karl brought to life his ideas beyond sketching, making clothes, or styling. He photographed his own campaigns, shot for and guest edited magazines, and have had some of photography work auctioned, exhibited, and compiled in art books. He also wrote and directed short films for Chanel.
“Once Upon A Time” told the story of milliner Coco Chanel (portrayed by Keira Knightley) during the years leading up to her success as a fashion designer.
5. Collection after collection, Karl proved to be the greatest showman.
No matter what the season or the label, whether it was haute couture or ready to wear, Karl always gave his 100% into a collection and its presentation.
Karl’s last haute couture bride for Chanel is unforgettable in every way.
Fabric and leather are given full attention at Fendi.
Karl’s sense of daring was palpable in the production design of his Chanel shows at the Grand Palais. His sets—among them a melting glacier, the Eiffel Tower, a grocery store, and a supersized version of Coco Chanel’s mirrored staircase—carried out the same vision that he founded his collections on. Fashion lovers, design nerds, retailers, marketers, communicators, and event professionals alike will find value in each show that Karl mounted.
He adapted a space theme and played Elton John’s Rocket Man for his Autumn/Winter Ready to Wear 2017 show.
For Fendi’s 90th anniversary show, Karl sent models down a floating runway right on Fontana di Trevi.
6. Karl’s work in the luxury market inspired shifts in market behavior.
There's no one more appropriate to wear the Fendi Baguette than fellow late ‘90s phenomenon Carrie Bradshaw of "Sex and the City."
Korean actor Lee Dong Wook was chosen as the face of Boy de Chanel.
From the way the Fendi Baguette jumpstarted the It bag movement in the late ‘90s to the launch of men’s makeup line Boy de Chanel last year, Karl’s work at Fendi and Chanel clearly served more than their respective core markets.
Until today, owning an It bag is a rite of passage for style-savvy women everywhere. After the reign of the Baguette, women aspired to have and even saved up for newer versions of eye candy including the Balenciaga Motorcycle City Bag, the Celine Luggage Tote, and the Mansur Gavriel Bucket Bag.
Chanel, on the other hand, tapped an excited niche market when it launched its first-ever cosmetic line for men—and in era where gender lines are blurring. In a statement to WWD, Chanel said, “Lines, colors, attitudes, gestures… There is no absolutely feminine or masculine prerequisite: Style alone defines the person we wish to be.”
7. He is a master of self-branding.
Karl (and Choupette) are iconic indeed.
Whether it’s his eponymous merchandise, collaborations with Vans and Diet Coke, that cat named Choupette, or that ponytail, Karl knows the value of self-branding and lived it out to the hilt.
Imagine the number of Karl Lagerfelds this coming Halloween.
While his mood boards at Fendi and Chanel changed with the seasons, he stayed consistent in such things as personal branding. Aside from Anna Wintour, who else rocked shades indoors the way he did? Or wore those Hedi Slimane ensembles—starched tuxedo shirts and slim suits—with aplomb? Who else would design Old Skool sneakers with textured bouclé uppers?
8. Karl Lagerfeld remained relevant to the end.
The Kaiser and the K-pop Star
He knew that the only way to go was forward. And so he did exactly that in Chanel, welcoming influential celebrities such as Kristen Stewart, G Dragon, Pharell Williams into the fold, inviting them to the shows, and even collaborating with some of them in various multimedia projects for the brand.
“No second options,” Karl said. “I know instantly what I want and what I don’t want. I have a tight, precise concept and I stage it.”
And speaking of relevance, how apt is it that one of Karl’s last appearances was in an episode of Netflix's 7 Days Out, documenting the preparations leading to Chanel’s Spring/Summer 2018 Haute Couture show? In light of what happened, the entire episode felt like a farewell note, and watching it feels like immersing with the Kaiser himself and soaking up his genius for one last time.
Fortunately, the show is available on demand for years to come—an assurance that fashion enthusiasts everywhere will have the opportunity to see his work and how he does it at any time.