Among the industry’s most prolific designers, Karl Lagerfeld was a once in a generation icon. It is becoming increasingly rare to witness a figure so aware and steeped in their own legend as Karl was of his. Wrapped in a stoically aloof attitude, his acute dedication to his own instincts lead him in shaping the foundations of how the modern luxury industry runs today. Like many creators whose work defines their era, Lagerfeld was endlessly curious about the present, reflecting and subverting his surroundings into every design. “More than anyone I know, he represents the soul of fashion: restless, forward-looking, and voraciously attentive to our changing culture,” Anna Wintour noted of Lagerfeld in 2015.
With an inexhaustible work ethic, Lagerfeld simultaneously held the reigns at Fendi and Chanel for decades in addition to his own eponymous label. Lovingly referred to as the “sixth Fendi sister,” he was hired by Fendi in 1965, originally as a freelancer. It was Lagerfeld who designed the double F Zucca label in 1965 as a means to introduce monogramming to the brand while honoring it’s heritage (the FF stands for “fun fur”). His work with Fendi single handedly expanded the idea of a lady’s fur coat into a canvas for technical innovation and expressive design. Prior to Lagerfeld, furs were rather homogenous, shrouding the wearer in neutral, large, stiff silhouettes. Karl transformed the fur coat from a mere status symbol to fashion item through treating fur as any other fabric, manipulating it into fluid shapes and dying them outlandish colors, catapulting Fendi from heritage furrier to icon of Italian style in the process.
This uncanny ability to tap into a brand’s history while simultaneously designing for a purely modern clientele is precisely what lead to Lagerfeld’s tenure as Creative Director of Chanel, a position he held for almost four decades. At the time of Lagerfeld’s hire in 1983, Chanel had become a relic of the storied house it was at the beginning of the 20th century. The once elegant maison had become synonymous with stale, matronly suiting and a bygone era of Parisian couture. Nobody dared touch it, and as a result Chanel quickly declined in relevancy in the decade following the Mademoiselle’s death in 1971. It’s nearly impossible to imagine Chanel being described as “irrelevant” now, and that is solely due to Karl’s alchemic ability to capture the spirit of refined freedom established by Coco Chanel and channel it for the contemporary woman. He brought romance and excitement to the house by twisting Chanel’s well established motifs subverting them into emblematic icons. This was often done with cheeky humor, Chanel-ifying the mundane, bourgeois wardrobe in cartoonishly exaggerated logos and prints. With a healthy dose of attitude, Lagerfeld’s Chanel was one not of restrained minimalism, but of cultish status pieces and the pinnacle of theatrical, imaginative luxury.
The public’s fascination with Karl rivaled that of his predecessor, a woman whose biography was adapted into a Broadway musical starring Katherine Hepburn. With an instantly recognizable uniform of black suit, sunglasses, and powdered ponytail paired with an intellectual, quick witted disposition, he created a kind of caricature of what a influential designer should look and sound like. Endlessly quotable, he had an talent for making outrageous statements by the likes of “Sweatpants are a sign of defeat. You lost control so you bought some sweatpants.” and “I’m down to earth. Just, not this earth.” This self-awareness of his own image lent an air of something eternal around Lagerfeld, making his departure all the more shocking. He was forever timeless and thoroughly modern all at once, and in that he remains peerless.
In honor of Karl’s life and legacy we’ve curated a reverent collection of his key designs that have transformed the fashion scene.