Words: Mitalee Deshpande

“I am like a caricature of myself, and I like that. It is like a mask. And for me the Carnival of Venice lasts all year long”


It’s the last day of Paris Fashion Week.
A beautiful brown deck, white sand and a wave pool transform the Grand Palais into a picturesque summer beach, complete with the sound of seagulls signalling the start of the show. The models walk bare feet along the white sandy beach in legendary Chanel tweed suits and windswept hair. The set decorators for the Chanel S/S 19 RTW show really outdid themselves by bringing the beach to the Grand Palais. At the end of the show, Karl – the man behind Chanel’s Ready-to-Wear and couture line – walks in on the deck in his signature white pony tail and dark sunglasses.

“I never go out without my trademark dark glasses, I like to watch not be watched,” said Karl in one of his interviews. The man today is synonymous with the crème de la crème of the brands, ranging from Chanel and Fendi to his own eponymous line, KARL LAGERFELD. Unlike most designers, Karl did not come in with humble beginnings. Born to a wealthy Hamburg businessman in Germany, Karl completed his education in history and drawing in France. With an accomplished violin player for a mother and a businessman for a father, Karl grew up in an atmosphere where intellectual discussions were a part of every meal.

Karl’s first claim to fame was working with Balmain, after winning a design competition where he secured first place in the coat category around 1955. At a young age of 17, Karl became an assistant designer to Pierre Balmain, with whom he worked tediously for three straight years before taking over Jean Patou as an art director in 1957. Vogue magazine once addressed him as the “unparalleled interpreter of the mood of the moment.” Karl is not known for permanence; he is rather recognised for his constant reinventions. In 1962, Karl made a bold decision to step out on his own, making him one of the first freelancers in the modern fashion industry. He began working with Chloé in 1964 as a freelancer, designing a few pieces for each season. Later on he started designing entire collections for the brand. After a design collaboration with Curiel, Karl started a collaboration with Fendi in 1965, and still collaborates with Silvia Fendi for the brand’s RTW collections.


After being a part of Chanel’s magnificent S/S19 show it would be hard to believe that this brand was once on the brink of fading away after mourning the loss of its Madame. When Gabrielle passed away in 1971, leaving behind a legacy whose weight few could carry on their shoulders, the brand had lost all meaning – floating around like a piece of wood waiting to be rescued before it rotted and disappeared without a trace. When Karl was brought in by the then chairman of Chanel in 1982, the brand was almost dead. In spite of being warned to not join Chanel, Karl jumped in with his usual zest and historical aesthetics to pull Chanel into the modern world.

For his first couture line for Fall 1983, Karl brought in his modernity to Chanel by moving away from the Fifties and the pastels and boxy suits – a risk that could’ve gone both ways. Most of the then fashion industry experts disagreed with Karl. “Lagerfeld committed too many Chanel Don’ts and not enough Do’s,” printed WWD. It was his first time, and like Marie-Hélène de Rothschild, French socialite, said, “No one could have done it on the first try. It will come.” After almost 36 years of hard work, a sluggish pace and innumerable plateaus, Chanel is a bigger success than anyone could’ve ever imagined.

In 2011, Karl was quoted saying, “What I do Coco would have hated. The label has an image and it’s up to me to update it. I do what she never did. I had to find my mark. I had to go from what Chanel was to what it should be, could be, what it had been to something else.” Karl brought in his modernity to the brand without disturbing the values and foundations laid by Gabrielle. Today, Karl is as much a part of Chanel as Chanel is of Karl. Without one, the other wouldn’t be where they are.


Karl may be the sole revivalist of Chanel, but he’s also so much more than what Chanel defines him to be. In 1984, he started his own fashion house, KARL LAGERFELD, while continuing his collaborations with Fendi and Chanel. This is where Karl’s real DNA came into view – accessible luxe, timeless classics paired with a modern, rock-chic edge. His RTW line contains everything from leather goods and accessories to jewellery, footwear, perfumes and watches for men, women and kids. His newest line, KARL LAGERFELD PARIS brings the chic Parisian vibe to North America.

In 1987, Karl added another feather to his cap. He started shooting his own campaigns, and is now well known as a photographer. Quite a few of his photographs have been transformed into works of art and published as books. Karl immersed himself into the world of art and visual knowledge by opening a bookstore, 7L, in Paris along with becoming a publisher of books that showcase photography and visual knowledge.

In 2000, Karl reinvented his look by losing 42 kg just to wear a collection by Slimane. He said, “Well, there came this new line from Hedi Slimane at Dior that you needed to be slim to wear. It said: ‘You want this? Go back to your bones.’ And so I lost it all. I lost 88 pounds and never got them back.” His self-imposed diet was turned into a book, The 3D Diet, that sold thousands of copies worldwide. In 2004, Karl turned another page when H&M approached him to create a capsule collection of 30 pieces for them. Since then, Karl has achieved tremendous success in terms of awards like the Couture Council Fashion Visionary Award from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York in 2010, and the “Outstanding Achievement Award” at the British Fashion Awards and the John B. Fairchild Award by WWD in 2017. He climbed another rung when his name was included to Le Petit Larousse Illustré, France’s most iconic dictionary.
Karl turned 85 this year but there’s no slowing down for him. From a freelance RTW designer to a creative director of various prestigious fashion houses, from being a photographer and a visual design master to a publisher of books and illustrations, Karl has his fingers in many pies and shows no sign of stopping. With the S/S 2019 Haute Couture Fashion Week coming up, all eyes are on Chanel’s sets. Where will Karl transport us this time? Let’s wait and watch.


The date is February 19th 2019. A series of Karl’s images flood the internet but not to announce a new collection or collaboration. The biggest designers and close friends he worked with, put up pictures with his popular quote, “To design is to breathe, so if I can’t breathe, I’m in trouble.” Grief struck the fashion world when the news of Karl’s death broke out. There were a lot of suspicions about Karl’s health when he missed two of Chanel’s haute couture shows. He always spoke to his fans after shows but last month’s show in Paris was the first time that he did not greet his audience or speak to his fans. He wasn’t keeping well since days and he had even asked Virginie Viard, the director of the creative studio of the house, to represent him as he was feeling tired. He never believed in the concept of retirement and wanted to continue working for as long as he could. But on 19th February, the fashion mogul finally breathed his last breath and dismissed himself from his work after a glorious run in the fashion industry. The world will forever be in awe of him and his work because the mark he left behind is far to big to be forgotten.

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