Karl Lagerfeld – a fashion designer, someone who loved to polarize, an “icon”.
Before I started the research for my Fashion Talk with Madame Faction about Karl Lagerfeld (video at the end of this article), I my view of him was very different. I mainly associated him with certain statements, especially about beauty ideals. I remember the day when I walked into H&M and I saw his line. This was in the early 2000s, he was the first ever designer to kickstart the now famous collaborations of the Swedish fast fashion retailer. T-shirts with sketches of Lagerfeld, a perfume, black satin tops with thin straps and lace. Frankly, I was not convinced. It was all black and white and I did not like the quality and feel of the garments. When I came home and read the newspaper coverage about the collection, I was shocked: Lagerfeld complained that H&M had produced the garments in “big sizes” against his will – 36 and 38 (US 6 and 8). I was a size 38 – Lagerfeld called women like me fat?! Seriously? From then on, I watched his collections with a frown – women in cages, overly sexy outfits, fake supermarkets as backdrops for his collections. I was kind of over him.
Until this year, when the Metropolitan Museum in New York opened their exhibition “Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty”. For the first time, I saw Lagerfeld’s sketches. I was intrigued. Was there more to Lagerfeld than his provocative comments?
The sketches were very detailed and looked artistic in a way. Who was this illustrator? I dove deeper into Lagerfeld, his persona and design aesthetics: I read various books, the exhibition catalogue among them, watched countless documentaries and interviews with and about him. Anything I could find about Lagerfeld over the past weeks, I was soaking up like a sponge. The more I learned about him, the more I saw that my view was slightly changing.
Have I been converted and am I know a part of the “Lagerfel-cult”? I do not think so. But the exhibition and the related research opened up aspects of the many different facets of Karl Lagerfeld. Speaking of facets, when researching the designer, there are many labels for him – writer, publisher, photographer, interior designer, theatrical designer, collector-connoisseur as well as fashion designer. Lagerfeld, a publisher? A photographer? What had I missed?
But let’s start from the beginning. In order to understand what I learned about Karl Lagerfeld, we need to take a closer look at his biography (if you know the details, you can scroll down to point 2 “Things I Learned about Karl Lagerfeld in the Course of My Research”):
1. Who was Karl Lagerfeld?
1.1 Early Years
Karl Lagerfeld was born in Hamburg in 1933, the same year when Hitler’s National Socialist Party came into power in Germany. His father Otto owned a canned milk factory. Later on, Karl’s talent for branding would be attributed to his father who turned “Glücksklee”, the canned milk, into a household name with smart branding strategies. His mother Elisabeth was very strict and Karl was an atypical child. He spent a lot of time in their attic sketching. He already wore a kind of uniform, just like in later stages of his life: a suit and tie and even a ponytail. Karl had a sister with whom he did not have any relationship and who is rarely mentioned in the media or publications about him.
At the age of six, Karl started to teach himself French to be able to understand his parents who used it as a secret language. According to Stern (FN), both parents were members of the National Socialist Party – Otto because of business-reasons, Elisabeth because she believed in it. However, there was a letter after the war written by Elisabeth that she regretted it.
The family first lived in Blankenese, an affluent neighbourhood in Hamburg, but when the war came closer and Hamburg was bombed in 1943, they moved to their summer estate in Bad Bramstedt, outside of Hamburg. In 1944, refugees arrived at the Lagerfeld’s estate “Gut Bissenmoor” and when the British came, the family had to move into the barn. Lagerfeld never talked about his parents’ potential past with the Nazis but many experts think he made himself five years younger to also remove himself from the discussion about the regime. If he had been born in 1938 instead of 1933, he would have been too young to remember anything and people may not ask him questions about it. Furthermore, as a homosexual man he may have wanted any type of association even less.
1.2 Move to Paris
In 1952, Karl moved to Paris. His parents, especially his mother encouraged it: “Hamburg is the gateway to the world, but that’s it, you have to leave”, said his mother. FN His father obviously never expected his son to take over the company. He probably knew that Karl was not interested in it – when he once went to a local festival and was asked if he wanted a beer, Karl answered that he only drank champagne. He would have clearly not fit in with the people of the industry. Of course, Karl could afford this move at the age of 19 because of the financial support of his parents.
In 1954, he won the Woolmark competition – his sketch won in the coat category. This was also his first encounter with fellow designer Yves Saint Laurent, who won in the dress category. The house of Balmain brought Karl’s coat design to life and also offered him his first full-time position. From Balmain, he moved on to Patou and in the 1960s, he joined Chloé and Fendi as creative director. Karl was not interested in the Haute Couture houses who he considered old-fashioned. He was ready for something knew. Later on, he would become famous for paving the way for Pret-à-Porter.
1.3 Jet Set & Jacques de Bascher
In the 1970s, Karl lead a lavish lifestyle – he was part of the jet set and had many famous and influential friends. He was known for financing a lot of the trips and parties – he was extremely generous. His apartments in Paris were often used as photo shoot locations for his designs; later on also for Chanel. Lagerfeld was again an atypical member of the jet set – he did not drink, he did not do drugs, he often left early to go home and sketch. But he said that he loved to surround himself with people who did things he would never do. At the beginning of the 1970s, Karl also met his life partner Jacques de Bascher – a bonvivant with an excessive lifestyle.
1982 is one of the years which is important in the global fashion calendar – Karl Lagerfeld becomes artistic director of Chanel. At this time, Chanel had little to do with what we associate with the brand now. It was a bit old-fashioned and said to be the brand for the wives of diplomats in Paris. “Chanel war ein alter Hut”, said Karl looking back at this time. He immediately starts reinventing the brand – at first, the fashion world is apprehensive. Some even called it tacky – as Lagerfeld focused a lot on accessories.
At the end of the 1980s, Jacques de Bascher died from HIV/AIDS. Lagerfeld was at his side until his last day, he also organized the funeral. (Lagerfeld neither participated in his father’s funeral nor his mother as it was the explicit wish of Elisabeth.) Lagerfeld never spoke much about death. He also often referred to de Bascher as “friend” – even though they were clearly more than just friends. In the book “Paradise Now”, the assumption is made that Lagerfeld turned himself into a friend because he did not want to be associated with HIV/AIDS as a gay man.
1.4 1990s, Worldwide Fame & Reinvention
After de Bascher’s death, Lagerfeld throws himself into work. He also eats enormous amounts of food and reaches over 120 kg. Some assume this may have been a period of grief for him – he was seen crying in his atelier which is something for someone who rarely shows emotions. But in the 1990s, he also becomes famous, he partners with supermodels like Claudia Schiffer. And as fast as he gained weight, he also lost it again – even faster actually. In the 2000s he starts a diet which he will keep until his death – he even sold it – and lost 42 kg in one year. He solidifies his “Rockstar”-like image by wearing chrome heart rings and he is only seen in his now famous uniform – the shirts, sunglasses and gloves. He also kickstarts the above-mentioned designer-collaborations with H&M. Lagerfeld himself called this phase “reinvention” – as fashion constantly reinvents itself, so does he.
Karl Lagerfeld died on 19 February 2019 and left behind a 65-year long career at four brands – Chanel, Chloé, Fendi and his eponymous label. He worked for Chanel for almost 40 years and released up to 17 collections per year for the four houses.
2. Things I Learned about Karl Lagerfeld
2.1 His Work
Lagerfeld was a Chameleon between Brands
Before my research, I mostly associated Karl Lagerfeld, like most of us, with Chanel. The more I dove into the collections in general but at Chloé and Fendi specifically, the more facets of Lagerfeld as a designer I discovered. Lagerfeld managed to move between the brands and created very different styles and aesthetics – as Andrew Bolton said, Chloé was a bit more romantic, while Fendi was more modernist. The Metropolian Museum calls him a “total designer” as he designed a wide range of products: from furs, to dresses, hats, makeup, interiors and even plays.
What I really appreciated about the exhibition is how clear the dualities and contradictions of Lagerfeld are shown. As mentioned before, he created romantic but also very modernist designs, he referenced historic garments and mixed haute couture with streetwear. Lagerfeld was also a risk taker – not only with his designs but also with his business acumen. When H&M called to enquire about a potential collaboration, the reason why he said yes is because he was the first designer they called. Nobody had dared to do it before him and this was what he found interesting.
In the 1980s, Lagerfeld discovers photography more and more and even starts publishing his photographs with German publisher Gerhard Steidl. Later on, he shot a lot of his fashion campaigns himself and also published the works of many other artists. In addition, he also worked on film projects, for example, a movie about Coco Chanel. Lagerfeld said that he always wanted to reinvent himself – just like fashion which also reinvented itself constantly.
His childhood dream was to become a caricaturist, which he turned into reality: he published his so-called “Karlikaturen” (caricatures about current events, politics and people) in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ). The last one was published in January 2019 shortly before his death.
More than Just Black and White
When we hear “Lagerfeld”, we mostly think of black and white on so many levels. When I look at Lagerfeld’s work now, after digging through his incredible amount of work, I feel very different about it: I think about colours. The media may have focused on the black and white – they still do, at the Met Gala, most of the outfits were indeed black and white. But his palette was so much broader and all I see know is a firework of colours. Furthermore, he experimented a lot with connecting fashion and art (see below); he was particularly interested in trompe-l’oeil (i.e. deceptive) designs.
I am currently preparing another article about Karl’s design language across the brands, stay tuned!
Lagerfeld and Art
Karl Lagerfeld never called himself an artist. He thought of fashion as applied art and also mentioned multiple times that fashion should be practical and it should be worn. (He also said fashion should not be made for the museum. It would be interesting to know his view of the exhibition about his works.) Nevertheless, his works were a successful marriage of art and business which later on became a model for contemporary fashion. Lagerfeld was interested in art, film, music, design, fashion and literature – he was a strange “mixture” of an old-fashioned man in a suit who listened to concerts by Mendelsohn but also knew a lot about popular culture.
His passion for art becomes very clear in the collections of Chloé and Fendi – with cubist tendencies reflected in his 1970s-designs for Chloé, for example, and direct references to artworks at Fendi, for example in 2016.
(I will also cover this in the above-mentioned article I am currently preparing.)
Karl Lageferld was famous for his work ethics. Most of the friends and business partners interviewed mentioned that he was always working and thinking about the next project. He had barely finished a collection, but he was already thinking about the next one. His discipline became clear very early on – Lagerfeld taught himself French at the age of six because he wanted to understand the conversations of his parents who used it as a secret language. Later on, he mentioned that to become really French one had to be a foreigner – many people were surprised to learn that someone with his command of French and who appeared “French” was actually German.
Lagerfeld also had a reputation for being curious and open-minded – two character traits which we would not assume if we only think of his persona in the media. But there is some truth to this – he was extremely well-read. He bought every book three times – one to read, one to cut up and one for his library (his private library was comprised of about 300,000 books). Even though he looked quite conservative and also was conservative in many ways, he always knew about the latest music, trends and movements. Lagerfeld was very interested in the past (even though he claimed he was not), especially in the 18th century and the Rococo era as well as the Vienna Secession and Art Déco. But despite these interests, he definitely wanted be relevant at the same time.
Lagerfeld Had a Close Bond with His Premières d’Atelier
Lagerfeld appreciated the work of his premières d’atelier – he saw them as the people bringing his vision to life, as the architects of his visions. They are the ones who were able to decode his two-dimensional sketches and turn them into 3-dimensional garments. I really appreciated that the Metropolitan Museum gave them a prominent voice in the exhibition – it is something Lagerfeld would have certainly appreciated.
2.2 Friendships and Relationships
There seem to have been two sides of Lagerfeld – the generous, long-lasting friendships and those with whom he broke completely. In some interviews the latter is described as a process of drawing an “iron curtain” – if Lagerfeld decided to stop the friendship, it really was over. One of the most famous examples was Yves Saint Laurent who used to be friends with Lagerfeld. However, Saint Laurent had a brief affair with Lagerfeld’s long-term partner Jacques de Bascher and Lagerfeld never forgave him for it. This fight moved beyond the two designers – it divided the fashion houses and even the industry. Lagerfeld was also famous for revenge – “I may pull the chair underneath you”, he said and also added that he would only feel like this way about people who did him wrong. This revenge may have come years later.
At the same time, he had long-lasting friendships with Anna Wintour or Caroline of Monaco which lasted for decades.
Lagerfeld & the Jet Set
Karl Lagerfeld was extremely well connected. Right after he arrived in Paris, he started his way of networking by frequenting the trendiest cafés and clubs. He also was known as very generous – he invited his friends to St. Tropez, he let people stay in his apartments. (Fashion journalist André Leon Tally stayed for a few months with Lagerfeld in Paris.) Often, he spent more than he could afford and had to wait for checks from his mother. There is also a story that his hairdresser told him that the salon she worked for closed down and that she did not know what to do – and just like that Lagerfeld bought her a salon. Among Lagerfeld’s friends were Marlene Dietrich, Helmut Newton and even Andy Warhol. Lagerfeld was even part of a movie directed by Warhol where he did an intense kissing scene. He was said to have been very proud of it. In the 1970s, he partied at the Parisian nightclub Le Palace which was the epitome of the 70s – freedom, joy, light-heartedness. Or, put differently: parties sex and drugs.
Jacques de Bascher
Lagerfeld’s longest romantic relationship was with Jacques de Bascher, the above-mentioned bonvivant who was the total opposite of Karl. While Lagerfeld worked relentlessly, de Bascher partied all night. It is not really known if it was a sexual relationship – Lagerfeld accepted de Bascher’s affairs and also was quoted with “I don’t sleep with people I love. After that everything becomes banal, you find mistakes, a certain level of abstraction is needed.” But they must have had a very strong bond, because Lagerfeld was the one taking care of de Bascher when he got terminally ill. While the world was changing after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, Lagerfeld did not notice it. He was grieving – he was even seen crying at his studio (which says a lot about a person who always carefully controlled his emotions).
Lagerfeld & His Mother
One of the strongest influences on the designer was his mother Elisabeth who had high expectations for her son. (“When you perform, I think you are great”.) Lagerfeld said she had even bigger expectations for him but for him, that she said he was not ambitious enough even though he himself thought he had achieved enough. The designer most likely adopted his work ethics from his parents. Maybe that was his way to make it up to his mother’s expectations.
After the death of his father, Elisabeth moved into his Paris apartment. She was a very important conversation partner for him, but also one of his biggest critics. Many parts of his public persona may have come about because of her. For example, she told him to talk faster, because of “all the nonsense” he had to say – Lagerfeld was famous for talking very fast, no matter the language he used. His body image and beauty ideals may have been influenced by her as well; she frequently commented on the size of his buttocks. She even told him to stop smoking when he started at the age of 14, because the cigarette would draw attention to his ugly hands. Maybe that was the reason for his obsession with gloves?
Lagerfeld’s attitude towards disease and death was definitely shaped by Elisabeth – she told him weeks later that his father had died and that he should not attend the funeral. Similarly, she did not want him to attend her funeral either.
When thinking about Lagerfeld, white shirts, black ties and sunglasses, fans and his infamous ponytail with powdered hair come to mind. Nothing was left to chance; his persona was meticulously constructed and his words carefully chosen. This process started very early on. Already in the 1960s, he sat and sketched in a particular spot at the Café de Flore where he would be the first person guests saw when entering.
Lagerfeld is the epitome of a dandy – physical appearance and refined language were really important to him. In the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, the curators refer to him as a “Brummellian dandy”, based on George Bryan “Beau” Brummel, a preeminent example of a dandy. Lagerfeld’s black and white clothing may refer to the French poet Charles Baudelaire who called the dandy a “Black Prince of Elegance”. Of course, he must have had some narcissistic traits – after losing 42 kg in one year, Lagerfeld put up mirrors everywhere to constantly be able to admire himself after his successful diet. “I haven’t done this work for nothing.”
This carefully constructed persona and his “uniform” may have even been some kind of protection – Lagerfeld could move on the global stage without anyone knowing what he really thought or felt. Especially the sunglasses were important to him, as he thought that they were the gateway to a person’s character. “The world does not need to see mine.” There is one scene in the documentary “Karl Confidentiel”, where he takes them off to read a magazine. When he notices he was being filmed, he quickly puts them on again and remarks that he had to be careful because cameras are around.
“The person which I present to the media is a puppet. One where I pull the strings myself. The only important thing is that every move is perfect.“Karl Lagerfeld
We could even take it one step further and say that he created his own brand – independent of the fashion houses he ran. His uniform, his provocative statements, the myth around his person – all of this may have been carefully executed branding and marketing. He had inherited this skill from his father Otto who called canned milk “Glücksklee” (lucky clover). Lagerfeld always stayed in his role and also turned it into merchandise – like with the “Karlito” dolls for Fendi. His quotes“I feel like Mickey Mouse” and “My name is not Lagerfeld but Logofeld.” illustrate how much he saw himself as a brand.
We could say that many people think they know Karl Lagerfeld or they judge him based on his presentation in the media. But in reality, what they know is the public persona he created. His uniform, behaviour and quotes may even have been a disguise or even a way to make fun of everyone else. “I always wanted to become a caricaturist. In the end, I have become a caricature myself.” This caricature and Lagerfeld’s self-representation could be even be seen as a “Warholian” experiment – a contradiction of art and consumerism.
2.4 Criticism & Contradictions
As mentioned above, Lagerfeld loved deceptions in his designs. The most successful one, however, may have been his own self-representation: the uniform, the dandy, the meticulously constructed image which became some sort of cloak of invisibility to hide in plain sight. Very few people polarize as much as the name Lagerfeld. During my research for this article, I found countless videos online criticizing the designer and also the Metropolitan Museum for this monographic exhibition. There are many outrageous quotes of the designer indeed but when I dug deeper, I realized that he frequently contradicted himself, like his comments about beauty:
One of the biggest criticisms of Lagerfeld is his view on beauty ideals and his preference for very thin models, which also was the general beauty ideal of the 1990s. At the same time, there is a quote where he said that “the world is not a beauty contest. Intelligence prevails while beauty fades.”
Another example is that he claimed that he was not interested in marketing. However, it is not only clear that he was a marketing genius (regarding the brands he worked for and his very own persona) but also he said in the documentary “Karl Confidentiel” that if he had not become a fashion designer, he would have probably ended up in advertising. Another example is the contradiction that he “was not interested in the past”, yet, many of his designs (and even he himself) were clearly influenced by historic garments and events.
Lagerfeld was also in the media with his attitude to using fur. Fendi is one of the most famous fur brands in the world and Lagerfeld was criticised for the use of animal skins. Unsurprisingly, his answers were very provocative: “As long as people eat meat and wear leather, I don’t get the message” or “I am against the killing of animals, but I also do not like the killing of humans and obviously it is very common”.
Even though he worked for Fendi which is famous for furs, he also invested a lot of time and effort in exploring alternatives to fur. At Chanel there are multiple examples of attempts to recreate the effect of fur – such as a fake fur coat from 1996. Chanel banned fur in 2018. At the same time, Fendi has kept its fur business unchanged until today.
Maybe this attitude or “pragmatism” was related to his views on society. Changes in the world did not interest him. We should not forget, Lagerfeld came from an upper-class, conservative family and even though he frequented the trendiest places, he led a relatively conservative life. He was part of a very different social strata than the students who protested against capitalism in 1968. And later, he probably also could not relate to protesters for animal welfare or environmentalists. We will never know, maybe he did (he was interested in so many topics) but maybe he was just an old person with very different views from the younger generations.
I went into my research with a very clear view of Karl Lagerfeld – I did not like him. I did not appreciate what he said and I did not like the designs at Chanel which became popular and which were covered in the media.
Slowly I saw that the Lagerfeld I thought I know may be a deception. Firstly, I realized that his designs were much more than the ubiquitous interpretations of the Chanel bag. In the archives I found a designer who was able to have multiple aesthetics and who was strongly influenced by his many interests. The biggest surprise for me were his designs for the Fendi collections between 2015-2017 where the marriage between art and fashion becomes very clear. It is interesting that the media rarely covered these dimensions of the fashion designer.
Regarding his persona, I still do not appreciate many of quotes. They were not appropriate back then and they certainly are not today – no matter if he said them because he truly believed it or if he used them as marketing. Nevertheless, by finding the contradictions, I cannot help but think that he indeed saw himself as a caricaturist. Maybe these polarizing quotes were his caricatures?
Sometimes I think that the “Lagerfeld factor” is similar to the dynamics online, like clickbait. People tend to read the headlines only and then get upset about them. One thing changes the next. “Why should I be interested in something I have said yesterday?”, was how Lagerfeld justified his provocative statements and contradictions. Maybe he wanted to deliberately create a “clickbait”-like reaction. Maybe these statements were part of his marketing strategy or part of his cloak of invisibility. Was he really thinking what he was saying? We probably will never know for sure.
Unfortunately, I will not be able to see the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in person. If you can, I highly encourage you to visit it – irrespective of what you think of Lagerfeld as a designer. The team of the Costume Institute has put an incredible amount of work and thought into this project. A monographic exhibition about a designer who has recently passed away is in no way shape or form special. Think about the McQueen exhibition at the very same museum or the many other “blockbuster-exhibitions” about Gaultier and the likes. I appreciated that the team focused on “the works rather than the words”, because that way, I also saw the designer from a different perspective and discovered facets which are overshadowed by his in image in the media.
You can watch my Fashion Talk with Madame Faction here:
Video Exhibition Tour, Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty, Metropolitan Museum of Art New York
Information provided on the website the Metropolitan Museum of Art New York relating to the exhibition “Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty”
Documentary “Karl Lagerfeld – eine Legende”, Arte, 2019
Documentary “Karl Confidential”, Arte, 2019
William Middleton, Paradise Now – The Extraordinary Life of Karl Lagerfeld, New York, 2023
Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty, Exhibition Catalogue, Metropolitan Museum of Art New York, 2023
Jean-Christophe Napias/et al., Karl und wie er die Welt sah, London, 2020
Vogue Runway, Online Database for fashion shows
This article is based on the personal, views, experiences and research of Elisabeth Steiger, no fees were received by the organisations and people mentioned above.