Karl Lagerfeld, fashion icon, dead at 85

by Kim Boateng Posted on February 19th, 2019

Karl Lagerfeld, the eccentric German designer who blended fashion and art, who favored white hair, black sunglasses and 19th-century-style shirt collars, and simultaneously was creative director of French (Chanel), Italian (Fendi) and eponymous international fashion labels, has died. He was in his 80s.

One of the most celebrated, if controversial, fashion icons of the 20th and 21st centuries, Lagerfeld passed away early Tuesday, according to AP.

Fendi’s chairman and CEO Serge Brunschwig lauded Lagerfeld’s “immense culture, his ability to rejuvenate at all times, to taste all the arts, to not overlook any style” in a press release issued to USA TODAY Tuesday.

“He leaves us an enormous heritage, an inexhaustible source of inspiration to continue. Karl will be immensely missed by myself and all the FENDI people,” Brunschwig said.

Silvia Venturini Fendi, the luxury label’s creative director for menswear, accessories and kidswear called Lagerfeld “an unrivalled designer.”

“Karl Lagerfeld has been my mentor and my point of reference. A blink of an eye was enough to understand each other,” she said. “For FENDI and myself, the creative genius of Karl has been and will always be our guiding light, moulding the Maison’s DNA. I will miss him deeply and always carry with me the memories of our days together.”

On Jan. 22, 2019, Lagerfeld worried fans when he did not come out to take a bow at Chanel’s couture show in Paris, which the company attributed to fatigue. It was the first time in recent memory that Lagerfeld, who has designed for the house since 1983, did not come out to receive applause at the end of one of his shows.

His studio director, Virginie Viard, appeared in his place, emerging from the door of a lavish Italian “villa” that was the set painstakingly created by the house to showcase its spring-summer designs. Chanel told The Associated Press that Lagerfeld asked Viard to represent him because he “was feeling tired,” but did not provide any further details.

Never shy about his own genius, Lagerfeld considered himself world renowned for his “cutting-edge, aspirational and relevant approach to style,” with a fashion sensibility “rooted in a DNA that’s accessible-luxe and cool,” and a “signature aesthetic combining timeless classics with a modern, rock-chic edge,” according to his website.

“His visionary creativity expands beyond fashion to include illustration, photography, styling and publishing.”

“Edgy” might be a better one-word summary of Lagerfeld – the man, his fashion and his art. He designed clothes that made people gasp with delight; he said things that made people gasp with shock.

At one point in 2013, he said he wanted to marry his closest companion – his cat, a white Siamese named Choupette, who has nearly 50,000 Twitter followers and an Instagram account where she frequently snarks about this and that.

But that was only one of the headlines chronicling outre conduct over the years: He once used strippers and a porn star as models, thus annoying Anna Wintour who walked out of one of his shows in 1993.

An unapologetic supporter of fur in fashion (even though he doesn’t wear it himself), he invited the wrath of People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, which tried to throw a pie at him at a New York event in 2001. They missed and hit Calvin Klein.

“A fashion dinosaur who is as out of step as his furs are out of style,” sneered PETA of Lagerfeld.

Then there were the uproars after he called supermodel Heidi Klum “insignificant” in the fashion world because she was “too glamorous” in 2009; criticized singer Adele as “a little too fat” in 2012; and later that year dissed Pippa Middleton’s face, suggesting she only show her backside.

From the 1950s, Lagerfeld exchanged frequent public barbs with rival French designer Yves Saint Laurent until the latter died in 2008. He even got into a fracas with Oscar queen Meryl Streep when he claimed in 2017 that she dropped out of wearing a Chanel dress to that year’s Oscars in favor of a brand that would pay her.

“He lied,” Streep snapped indignantly.

Such was the enigma surrounding the designer that even his age was a point of mystery for decades, with reports he had two birth certificates, one dated 1933 and the other 1938.

In 2013, Lagerfeld told French magazine “Paris Match” he was born in 1935, but as of 2019, even his own assistant still didn’t know the truth. They told the Associated Press he liked “to scramble the tracks on his year of birth – that’s part of the character.”

Born in Hamburg to a father whose company made evaporated milk and the daughter of a local politician, Lagerfeld migrated to Paris, where he finished his education at Lycée Montaigne.

He started his career in 1954 when he won first prize in a contest to design a wool coat, a design subsequently produced by designer Pierre Balmain who offered Lagerfeld, then 17, a job as his assistant. By 1957, he was an art director for designer Jean Patou.

Lagerfeld also started his own label, Karl Lagerfeld, which though less commercially successful than his other ventures, was widely seen as a sort of a sketchpad where the designer worked through his audacious ideas.

In 1982, he took over at over Chanel, which had been dormant since the death of its founder, Coco Chanel, more than a decade earlier.

“When I took on Chanel, it was a sleeping beauty – not even a beautiful one,” he said in the 2007 documentary “Lagerfeld Confidential.” ”She snored.”

Lagerfeld was open about his homosexuality — he once said he announced it to his parents at age 13 – but kept his private life under wraps. Following his widely known relationship with a French aristocrat who died of AIDS in 1989, Lagerfeld insisted he prized his solitude above all.

“I hate when people say I’m ‘solitaire’ (or solitary.) Yes, mI’m solitaire in the sense of a stone from Cartier, a big solitaire,” Lagerfeld told The New York Times in an interview. “I have to be alone to do what I do. I like to be alone. I’m happy to be with people, but I’m sorry to say I like to be alone, because there’s so much to do, to read, to think.”

As much as he loved the spotlight, Lagerfeld was careful to obscure his real self.

“It’s not that I lie, it’s that I don’t owe the truth to anyone,” he told French Vogue in an interview.

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