1954, wins the Woolmark prize
An overachiever and proud of it
Karl Lagerfeld moved to Paris from his native Hamburg as a teenager and, although he had no formal fashion or art school education, soon made his mark. At the second Woolmark prize, in 1954, he won the best coat category at the age of 21. While this achievement showed Lagerfeld’s precocious talent, his rival – Yves Saint Laurent – was already on the scene, winning best dress design at just 18. Throughout their lives, the two men were great friends and rivals in both work and love. Saint Laurent was the subject of one of Lagerfeld’s famous put-downs. “He is very middle-of-the-road French, very pied-noir, very provincial,” he said in 1984.
1965, joins Fendi
A designer with staying power
Lagerfeld spent an astonishing, world-record-breaking 54 years at Italian house Fendi, producing more than 100 collections for it. This is a lifetime in an industry where designers, like football managers, are ditched after only months in charge. The young designer was, at the time, a freelancer working for Krizia and Charles Jourdan. The Fendi sisters hired him to bring some youth to the fur-centric Italian brand and he delivered, with tufted, dyed and shaved fur coats, the opposite of the grown-up floorlength minks seen at the time. In the process – and over the decades – he became enemy No 1 of animal rights groups. Peta’s UK director Mimi Bekhechi called him “an undertaker”. Silvia Venturini Fendi, meanwhile, described him as “my mentor and my point of reference.”
1973, features in Andy Warhol’s L’Amour
Quite the scene
By the 70s, Lagerfeld was part of the Le Sept set, a group of Parisian bohemians for whom work and life – and often night and day – were happily blurred at the tiny Parisian nightclub. The designer was friends with Saint Laurent, the model Donna Jordan and the illustrator Antonio Lopez, and he met his lover of 18 years, Jacques de Bascher, about this time. Warhol, who could sniff out a glamorous set across oceans, immortalised Lagerfeld and friends in his film L’Amour. Some of it was filmed in Lagerfeld’s apartment, where the drama unfolds. Lagerfeld played a version of himself and french-kisses with Jordan at one point.
1983, joins Chanel
After Mademoiselle comes Karl
Lagerfeld joined Chanel on a part-time basis in 1983, continuing to design for Chloe, Fendi and others. It was, however, his work for Chanel over 36 years that made him famous. His first show didn’t wow the critics and was notable for its concentration on 20s silhouettes rather than the pastel skirt suits Chanel was known for. Women’s Wear Daily wrote that Lagerfeld “committed too many Chanel Dont’s and not enough Do’s” in the collection. Over the next decades, the designer proved the critics wrong, as he reinvented the brand’s double Cs, tweed and pearls time and time again. “The good thing about Chanel is it is an idea you can adapt to many things,” he said.
1994, pop culture comes to Chanel
Baggy silhouettes on Parisian catwalk shock
“Fashion is about today,” said Lagerfeld in a 2007 New Yorker profile. The designer arguably owed his longevity to his ability to tap into the zeitgeist way beyond clothes. His collections have referenced everything from climate change to Amy Winehouse and modern feminism. This show is an early example of pop culture on Lagerfeld’s Chanel catwalk. It featured the supermodels Kate Moss, Carla Bruni and Naomi Campbell in bucket hats, baggy trousers and denim. One model wore overalls and roller-skates. It was a long way from Chanel pre-Lagerfeld, something the designer said was only worn by “Parisian doctors’ wives”.
2001, loses six-and-a-half stone
The Lagerfeld look develops
Lagerfeld was one of the most recognisable fashion designers in the world – thanks to his uniform of black suit, white shirt, fingerless gloves, pompadour and sunglasses. This look came together in the noughties, combined with drastic weight loss. “I suddenly wanted to wear clothes designed by Hedi Slimane,” he said, referring to the Dior Homme designer whose suiting is notoriously made in tiny sizes. Lagerfeld stuck to his diet – no sugar, cheese or bread, around 10 cans of Diet Coke a day – continuously, with no temptation. “I’m like the animals in the forest,” he said. “They don’t touch what they cannot eat.”
2004, designs H&M collection
Karl’s look comes to the high street
In 2004, the idea of a designer collaboration with a high-street brand – now commonplace – was a new concept. Lagerfeld – forever the multitasker – became the first designer to collaborate with H&M in its now yearly collection. Taking inspiration from his own monochrome look, he also appeared in the advertising campaign with models. The collection was a great success, selling out within minutes. This was a one-off, however. Lagerfeld criticised the limited quantities of the items produced by the brand. “It is snobbery created by anti-snobbery,” he said. His response wasn’t entirely inclusive, however; a newly svelte Lagerfeld was also displeased that the chain had produced the collection in larger sizes.
2007, Fendi comes to the Great Wall of China
Lagerfeld goes east
Western brands began to court Asian consumers in the noughties and Lagerfeld was ahead of the curve. He brought the Fendi show to the Great Wall of China in 2007, at a cost of more than $10m (£8.8m) and a year’s planning. It featured 88 looks – a number associated with prosperity in China – lots of red (for luck) and Chinese models. Asked where the brand’s show could go next, Silvia Fendi responded: “Maybe the moon.” You get the feeling Lagerfeld would have loved that idea.
2011, Choupette is born
Lagerfeld’s furry companion arrives
There can’t be many cats that boast a personal maid, travel by private jet, have their own book, an Instagram account, a Wikipedia page and a product line of their likeness. But Choupette is a special kind of feline. Given to Lagerfeld by the model Baptiste Giabiconi – who initially had Lagerfeld cat-sit Choupette while he was on holiday – she turned the designer into an alpha cat person. Lagerfeld told Numero magazine that Choupette stole his heart because “she is pretty to look at and has good poise, but her main quality is that she doesn’t talk”. In 2013, he proclaimed he would marry the cat if it was legal. Who will take over her care is as yet unknown.
2012, controversy over comments about Adele
Lagerfeld’s barbs get him into hot water
As his career developed, Lagerfeld’s reputation for put-downs grew, too. Stella McCartney’s appointment at Chloé prompted the industry-famous comment: “I think they should have taken a big name. They did – but in music, not fashion.” Pippa Middleton, Heidi Klum and Lana Del Rey were all subjects of his criticism. Later, body size became a focus. Asked of his opinion of Adele in 2012, he said: “She is a little too fat, but she has a beautiful face and a divine voice,” prompting an uproar online. Lagerfeld became so famous for his barbs that a book of his quotes was published in 2013.
2014, the Chanel supermarket show
The weekly shop gets chic
By the 2010s, Chanel’s fashion shows (of which there are a staggering seven annually) were known not just for clothes but for jaw-dropping sets. Taking the idea of experiential to the extreme, they somehow melded an art installation with a Disney-style theme park. These chimed perfectly with the social media age, when influencers attending fashion shows wanted way more than a snap of a model on the catwalk. Lagerfeld delivered – the Chanel supermarket, complete with double-C rubber gloves, cornflakes and cleaning products, is now the stuff of legend in fashion. It was only beaten by the Chanel rocket, three years later, which came with its own emoji.
2017, wins the Grand Vermeil medal
The city of Paris says thank you
German-born Lagerfeld spent most of his adult life in Paris, designing for the Frenchest of French brands. It could be said that his outsider view was his great strength – allowing him to use the tropes of French chic, from Breton stripes to the brasserie, without self-consciousness. Appropriately, he was awarded the Grand Vermeil, Paris’ highest honour, after a haute couture show that featured a 38-metre-high replica of the Eiffel Tower on the catwalk. Presenting the medal to Lagerfeld, mayor Anne Hidalgo said: “Paris loves you – you are Paris.”
Words and images from The Guardian.