“Those social networks, there’s something sad about them. It’s like a talkative mirror where people talk to themselves.” So Karl Lagerfeld told Women’s Wear Daily in 2014. When the designer died in February, there was an outpouring of grief on social media from across the fashion industry for the self-styled pope of fashion.
Lagerfeld was known to hold contemptuous views of the same world he profited from. And social media was key to the promotion of both his businesses and highly recognisable personal image.
Though cultural inspiration played a large part in his work, he had no interest in modernising fashion, only monetising. "Fat" people were a favourite target. In 2009, he said: “No one wants to see curvy women. You’ve got fat mothers with their bags of chips sitting in front of the television and saying thin models are ugly. Fashion is about dreams and illusion.”
He spoke out against refugees from the Middle East being welcomed to Europe and argued that models who spoke out against sexual abuse should seek work in convents instead.
His work ethic is much publicised. Born in Hamburg in 1933, he won an apprenticeship with Balmain aged 21. He was made creative director at Jean Patou 1958-62; Chloé from 1963-83 and from 1992-97; Fendi in 1965; Chanel in 1983, and launched his own label in 1984.
By the time he died, he was designing 15 collections a year as well as shooting the campaigns for Chanel, Fendi and his eponymous label. But of course, this spotlights the individual and forgets the army of workers who actually make the goods. As Lagerfeld himself said: “I sketch everything myself. I don’t make the dresses myself. If I should make the dresses there would be no collection.”
His legacy is one of branding as much as of design, the double C on everything from biker boots to surf boards. His breath-taking Chanel shows saw the Grand Palais transformed into anything and everything; supermarket, airport, street protest.
As the rich grow richer, and a clutch of conglomerates own all but a few brands, Lagerfeld’s shows cemented Chanel’s reputation at the top of the food chain, an empire of goods from frocks to fragrances. Like Louis XIV, Lagerfeld understood fashion as a soft power to export French influence and cater for the increasing number of multimillionaires in China, Russia and the Middle East.