PARIS – Fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, best known for being the creative mastermind behind the iconic French powerhouse Chanel for over three decades, has died at the age of 85, sources close to Chanel said on Monday.
Lagerfeld, a ubiquitous name in the world of fashion who took the helm at Chanel – one the world’s most renowned fashion houses – in 1983, passed away at a Paris hospital, the sources said.
“Rest in peace, Karl,” said English stylist and fashion journalist Katie Grand on Instagram, joining many others in the world of fashion who paid their respects to the legend on social media. “There are too many great stories and fun times to detail, you are incredibly special and talented and I was very lucky to have known you.”
Throughout a productive and acclaimed career, Lagerfeld also supervised creative designs for the Italian leather and fur goods brand Fendi, in addition to creating a signature label that bore his own name.
He had been notably absent at Chanel’s Haute Couture show during the Paris Fashion Week in January, which sparked concerns over his health, as he sent his right-hand woman Virginie Viard instead.
The German designer, who also dabbled in photography and art, cut a striking figure with his iconic uniform of a monochrome tailored black suit often paired with a flamboyant white shirt with fingerless gloves, dark sunglasses and his long white locks of hair tied back in a ponytail.
Born on Sept. 10, 1933, in the northern port city of Hamburg, he first stepped into the glamorous world of fashion when Pierre Balmain hired him as an assistant after a young Lagerfeld won a coat-designing competition in 1955.
He designed his first haute couture collection in 1958 after joining the Jean Patou house, where he stayed for five years as head designer.
In 1960 – ever the pioneer – he presented the shortest skirts for the Paris Fashion Week in a collection that was labeled more ready-to-wear than haute couture.
The fashion behemoth found his first high-profile client in Elizabeth Taylor, who started purchasing his designs in 1966 at a time he was joint creative director of the Italian brand Tiziani, alongside founder Evan Richards.
Lagerfeld joined Fendi as a collaborator in 1965 and by the late 1960s, he had become the main designer for French house Chloe.
However, the “Kaiser” – as he was affectionately known – only became a household name once he took the reins of the Chanel luxury label and started branding fabrics with the now-iconic interlocking Coco Chanel logo.
He was a breath of fresh air, reinterpreting classics that had become somewhat stale – such as tweed skirts, boxy jackets or quilted bags – and transforming them with pop culture elements, often drawing inspiration from contemporary music such as hip-hop, and bringing the decidedly drab garments up to date to appeal to younger, trendy audiences.
The strategy certainly paid off, and his vision saw Chanel’s sails soar until his very last day as head of the house.
While business was booming, in 1989 Lagerfeld tragically lost the love of his life to HIV, Jacques Bascher, whom he had met in 1971.
In stark contrast to his late decadence-loving partner, Lagerfeld pursued a healthy lifestyle; he never smoked nor drank and indulged in an intensive and expensive beauty regime.
By the early noughts, Lagerfeld enjoyed a resurgence with several collaborations with high-street giants H&M, Coca Cola, Volkswagen and Sephora.
A prolific designer, he was spurning out 12 yearly collections for three brands, a rhythm most young creative directors would struggle to cope with, something he admitted in an interview with French Magazine Paris Match in July 2018.
“I can’t see who could do this instead of me, although there are many who would like to,” he said.
For Lagerfeld, nothing was off limits and his most recent haute couture shows were atmospheric, immersive and evocative experiences with vast bespoke set designs.
Perhaps the most iconic was his 2010 Fall show, for which an iceberg was shipped in from Scandinavia, as well as a recreation of the French Riviera with rippling waves and a sandy beach for his Spring/Summer 2019 show, his last public appearance on a catwalk.
Since his passing, the Chanel House has announced that Viard will take over the helm and proceed with the task of continuing Gabrielle Chanel’s and Lagerfeld’s legacy, Alain Wertheimer, the president of the house, said in a statement.
The Kaiser, who by all accounts had a reputation for being serious and no-nonsense, would travel in his private plane with an entourage of assistants.
However, he was happiest in the company of his much-loved cat, Choupette, whom he has left a part of his fortune.
“I am very much against memory and such things,” Lagerfeld said in the same interview. “One has to disappear.”
“I admire the animals of the forest who aren’t seen when they die,” the designer concluded.
His enduring legacy, though, is bound to live on for some time.