Karl Lagerfeld: Prolific designer of infinite variety

24 February 2019 - 00:00 By The Daily Telegraph

Karl Lagerfeld was a spectacularly successful fashion designer. He transformed the once-moribund house of Chanel into the world's most successful fashion label and constantly reinvented himself, rendering himself relevant to style aficionados decade after decade until his death.
Presciently sensing fashion's radical change of mood in the early 1960s, Lagerfeld, who moved from his native Germany to Paris as a precocious teenager, turned his back on haute couture and embraced ready-to-wear. He helped pioneer the idea, little heard of then, of the freelance designer, simultaneously working for several fashion houses.
He flitted effortlessly between very different labels - the high-end ready-to-wear house of Chloé, say, or the Italian fur company Fendi - subjugating any desire to cultivate a signature style to satisfying the needs of each client.
Indeed, he made a virtue of anonymity, once stating: "I have no personality or I have three, depending on how you look at it. I love that there's no overlap."
He met and was a fan of the similarly deadpan Andy Warhol, starring in the artist's 1973 film L'Amour. "Karl learnt a lot from Andy," said Lagerfeld's close friend, the interior designer Andre Putman, and certainly the designer's flair for self-mythologising and his manipulation of his image were Warholian, including his inscrutable shades and sleekly coiffed, snow-white ponytail.
Unlike his biggest rival, Yves Saint Laurent, Lagerfeld gave short shrift to the romantic notion of inspiration, attributing his success to discipline and professionalism. A workhorse, he continually asserted, in his staccato, guttural voice, that he was a doer, not a thinker: "I sketch everything in my head first. When I do fashion collections, I don't fuss about. I make decisions. Then I do them."
At the same time, though, Lagerfeld liked to trumpet his passion for culture, having been smitten at the age of seven by a painting by the 19th-century artist, Adolph Menzel, depicting Frederick the Great with Voltaire. He saw himself as an autodidact: as a child, he eschewed school but devoured books by Tolstoy and Thomas Mann. He claimed that, aged six, he spoke fluent German, English and French.
His cultural interests fed into his designs. His early 1970s work for Chloé was influenced by the 1920s and Art Deco revivals. And, inspired by an 18th-century chateau in Brittany that he bought in 1975, as well as by the penchant of his friend, the journalist Anna Piaggi, for antique clothing, he turned his attention to French 18th-century fashions, creating exquisitely romantic, shepherdess-inspired collections.
But he never grew too attached to any one style and went through phases of obsessively mining a particular era for inspiration (including collecting antiques from that period), then moving on to a radically different one.
Lagerfeld was one of fashion's great survivors. His chameleon-like ability to reinvent himself guaranteed his enduring appeal and credibility - as did his engagement with popular and youth culture and the latest technology.
In 2004 he created a collection for the high street store H&M. He designed stage costumes for Madonna and Kylie Minogue, and as a photographer and filmmaker shot fashion stories for Vogue and ad campaigns for Chanel.
Karl-Otto Lagerfeld was born in Hamburg on September 10 1933, though in later life he sometimes misrepresented his birth year, claiming to be younger than he was. His father, Otto, was MD of a condensed milk company, his mother, Elisabeth, a lingerie saleswoman-turned-housewife, though Lagerfeld referred to her as a gifted violinist and a pilot of light aircraft.
As Hitler rose to power the family moved to the comparative safety of the countryside. Lagerfeld was given to embroidering his past with tales of sumptuous family luncheons and battalions of servants, while glossing over the grim reality: after the war, the British Army requisitioned the Lagerfelds' house, forcing them to live for a year in a cowshed.
As a boy, Lagerfeld was besotted with fashion, cutting out pictures of beautifully dressed women from magazines and dressing immaculately himself. He could not get out of Germany quickly enough, arriving in Paris in his teens to study couture.
In 1954 he and Saint Laurent were joint winners of the International Wool Secretariat fashion design competition, Lagerfeld in the coat category. In a photograph of the prize-winners, Saint Laurent looks skinny and effete, Lagerfeld big-boned and swarthy. Although they later fell out, in the late 1950s and 1960s they were close friends, cutting a dash driving round Paris in Lagerfeld's cream open-top Mercedes (a gift from his father).
Meanwhile, in 1955, Lagerfeld had been hired as Pierre Balmain's assistant, moving after three years to Jean Patou, where he designed two haute couture collections a year for five years but earned generally negative reviews.
In 1963, however, he began designing for Tiziani, a newly established Roman couture house, which moved into ready-to-wear, winning customers including Elizabeth Taylor, Gina Lollobrigida and Princess Marcella Borghese.
By the mid-1960s Lagerfeld was working prolifically for a whole raft of ready-to-wear labels, his natural exhibitionism helping to keep him in the public eye.
In the early 1970s he turned up in swimsuits and heels at Paris's Piscine Deligny, and in floor-length furs, Art Deco jewellery and a monocle at Café de Flore or Le Sept nightclub.
He also bankrolled some of the era's most notorious parties, including an S&M-themed bash organised by his partner, Jacques de Bascher, and his friend, Xavier de Castella.
But he was more voyeur than participant, avoiding alcohol and drugs and maintaining a rigorous work ethic."I am a Calvinist towards myself, and totally indulgent toward others," Lagerfeld said.
The appointment of a German designer at the august French couture house in 1983 was controversial, yet the collaboration, which saw him update its bourgeois image with witty reinterpretations of Chanel classics, was phenomenally successful. By the time of his death after a record-breaking 36 years at the house, he was Chanel's artistic director.
By the time Lagerfeld opened an eponymous ready-to-wear fashion label in 1984, he was immensely wealthy.
Lagerfeld had something of a complex about his body, supposedly sparked by his mother's observation that he had "farmer's hands". After spending his youth bodybuilding, he later put on weight, before, in 2001-2002, shedding a massive 41kg in 13 months in order to fit into a super-tight Dior suit.
His stringent diet led to the publication of The Karl Lagerfeld Diet, which became a bestseller. Subsequently, Lagerfeld cultivated the look of a 19th- century dandy crossed with a rock star, in high-collared shirts, black leather fingerless gloves and knuckle-duster rings.
Lagerfeld's autocratic manner earned him the nickname Kaiser Karl - and he enjoyed a good feud.
The model Inès de la Fressange was his muse until 1989, when he fell out with her over her decision to pose for a bust of Marianne, the symbol of the French Republic, an icon Lagerfeld denounced as "boring, bourgeois and provincial". They were later reconciled.
His loathing for Saint Laurent dated from about 1974, when his rival embarked on an affair with the gorgeously good-looking Jacques de Bascher.
Until he died from an Aids-related illness in 1989, De Bascher was Lagerfeld's partner, though Lagerfeld told De Bascher's biographer, Marie Ottavi, that while he "infinitely loved that boy" they had never had sex.
When Saint Laurent's lover at the time, Pierre Bergé, found out about his affair with De Bascher, however, he accused Lagerfeld of engineering the liaison to destabilise the house of Saint Laurent at a time when the couturier's addictions were spiralling out of control. Subsequently the two designers presided over their own cliques; anyone who hung out with one was barred from the other.
In 2012 Lagerfeld caused outrage among British fans of the singer Adele by describing her as "a little too fat", compounding his offence by remarking of Kate Middleton's sister Pippa that she "should only show her back" because he disliked her face.
Lagerfeld owned a red point Birman cat named Choupette, which in 2013 he said he would marry if it were legal.

This article is reserved for Sunday Times subscribers.

A subscription gives you full digital access to all Sunday Times content.

Already subscribed? Simply sign in below.

Registered on the BusinessLIVE, Business Day, Financial Mail or Rand Daily Mail websites? Sign in with the same details.

Questions or problems? Email or call 0860 52 52 00.