Fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, one of the most recognizable faces in fashion (and at times, one of the more controversial) has died. He was reported to be 85 years old.
The German-born designer was known within and outside of the fashion industry for his iconic monochrome uniform of sunglasses, a dark suit, fingerless gloves, and his silver hair, always pulled back in a ponytail. After rising in the industry as a contemporary of the late Yves Saint Laurent, the couture-trained Lagerfeld’s tremendous influence grew during stints at Jean Patou, Chloe and Balmain, as well as a long tenure as creative director of both Fendi and his eponymous label. However, he is most closely associated with luxury French fashion house Chanel, at which he assumed the role of creative director in 1983.
“We have lost a creative genius who helped to make Paris the fashion capital of the world, and Fendi one of the most innovative Italian houses,” said Bernard Arnault, chairman and CEO of LVMH (which owns Fendi) in a statement, as reported by CNN. “We owe him a great deal: his taste and talent were the most exceptional I have ever known.”
Lagerfeld is credited with reviving Chanel’s relevance for younger generations—and for keeping his finger on the pulse of what was new and next.
“Tradition is something that you have to handle carefully, because it can kill you. Respect was never creative. What I did, in a way, was to update the Chanel… it’s an exercice de style,” Lagerfeld told Vogue in 1984, soon after debuting his first successful collection for the house.
He was famously one of the first major European designers to incorporate political themes into his work, to collaborate with a fast fashion label like H&M, and to promote hip hop culture. In 1991, he presented a rap-themed Fall/Winter presentation that many stalwarts in the industry considered “distasteful,” as Vogue reports.
“Rappers tell the truth - that’s what’s needed now,” Lagerfeld said in a post-show interview. Current creative director of Louis Vuitton menswear Virgil Abloh noted how Lagerfeld’s implicit endorsement of hip hop culture opened the doors for designers like himself.
Lagerfeld was notoriously absent from Chanel’s most recent presentation in late January, which his team credited to “tiredness.” However, the label’s gorgeously gilded Egyptian-inspired walk through the Met Museum’s Temple of Dendur in December was due to Lagerfeld’s creation of a platform for the Metiers d’Art—that is, the many craftspeople who make couture-level fashion possible from head to toe.
As of late, Lagerfeld had been in collaboration with producer, performer and fashion junkie Pharrell Williams, and was also instrumental in elevating the career of model-of-the-moment Adut Akech Bior, whom he handpicked to open and close his cruise and couture presentations last year. And always in control of every aspect of his imagery, Lagerfeld also made a name for himself as a fashion photographer, most recently capturing Nicki Minaj for her first cover of Elle magazine in July 2018.
As many know and have documented, Lagerfeld could also be a deeply problematic figure. As recently as 2017, comments he made calling Muslim migrants an “affront to Holocaust victims” (as reported by the Times UK) rightly caught the attention of watchdog groups—and earned Lagerfeld the moniker “the Fashion Kaiser.” In 2018, amid the rise of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, Lagerfeld again came under fire for being dismissive of the rampant sexual abuse within the modeling and fashion industries and for body-shaming women in a Numero article. The fallout was chronicled by Women’s Wear Daily—and as 2013 reporting on the issue by Harper’s Bazaar indicates, it was far from the first time.
“No one wants to see curvy women on the runway,” was amongst a list of controversial quotes compiled by Sky News following the designer’s death.
Nevertheless, tributes to Lagerfeld continue to pour in as news of his death reaches the fashion world, marking the definitive end of an era in luxury fashion, as supermodel Iman noted in a tweet on Tuesday morning.
“I am deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Karl Lagerfeld,” British Vogue editor-in-chief Edward Enninful said in a statement to the magazine. “He has exerted an incredible influence over the fashion industry over the past six decades, and it goes without saying that the world has lost one of the greatest designers in the history of fashion. But it has also lost one of its greatest teachers.”
“I first met Karl in the late ’90s, at a Chanel party,” Enninful continued. “I was working for Franca Sozzani at Italian Vogue, and he was extremely welcoming to me. When I later became fashion director at W magazine, he was very supportive. He continued to offer support and friendship when I took the editor position at British Vogue. I remember sitting with him for an hour or so every season while he was preparing his latest show, and I was always struck by his intelligence and wit. He had a very no-nonsense approach to life. I frequently left our meetings feeling I had learnt so much about art, history, politics and fashion. The world has lost an icon.”