Arguably the fashion industry’s most iconic designer, Karl Lagerfeld passed today in Paris at the age of 85. Known for his role as creative director at Chanel, Lagerfeld simultaneously created lines for Fendi and his eponymous label. His death comes just days before the Fall 2019 Fendi runway show in Milan.
“Thanks to his creative genius, generosity and exceptional intuition, Karl Lagerfeld was ahead of his time, which widely contributed to the House of Chanel’s success throughout the world,” said Chanel CEO Alain Wertheimer in a statement. “Today, not only have I lost a friend, but we have all lost an extraordinary creative mind to whom I gave carte blanche in the early 1980s to reinvent the brand.”
Lagerfeld took the helm at Chanel in 1983 and has been designing, seemingly without fatigue, for decades since. In an industry where designers burning out are a dime a dozen, his passion only seemed to grow more prolific with age—designing collections, creating million-dollar runway productions, and even shooting his own campaigns.
Alongside his own inimitable uniform—white ponytail, dark tinted glasses, and a black suit—Lagerfeld is credited with many an iconic look. Beyond that, he defined the aesthetics of wealth for a modern age by reinventing the essentials of Chanel—the tweeds, the two-tone shoes, the quilted bags—all with that double-C logo.
He revived a label that had been on the decline when Coco Chanel died in 1971. It’s hard to imagine now, but as the New Yorker reported, in 1982 Chanel was “little more than a perfume company with some clothing boutiques. The iconic Chanel suit—a tight-shouldered, boxy tweed jacket and matching knee-length skirt—was seen as a dowdy throwback…”
Just two years after Lagerfeld was named the head of Chanel, The New York Times wrote: “He has succeeded in bringing the Chanel image into the modern age. He has reshaped the suits, recolored the clothes and introduced knitted styles that are both pertinent and contemporary.”
He kept Chanel opulent but relevant, whether it was interviewing Justin Bieber, launching a gender-fluid handbag campaign with Pharrell and Kristen Stewart, or casting models like Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid, and Kaia Gerber. A man of the sharply-pointed barb (see: that comment about Michelle Obama’s fringe), Lagerfeld was never afraid to have some tongue-in-cheek fun, from his Spring 1993 collection with models wearing men’s underwear over black tights, to a makeup line inspired by his beloved cat Choupette. He made Diet Coke, a soda he told Harper’s Bazaar he drinks “from the minute I get up to the minute I go to bed,” fashionable again with a 2011 limited-edition redesign of the bottle.
Lagerfeld is also responsible for Chanel’s ‘Boy’ bag, named after Chanel’s first love Boy Capel, and Fendi’s ‘bugs,’ debuting at Milan Fashion Week in 2014. His ability to create seemed truly inexhaustible, designing a total of 17 collections per year, and once famously telling journalists, “To design is to breathe, so if I can’t breathe, I’m in trouble. ”
In 2002, he also created the Métiers d’Art collection, which highlights the craftsmanship of the artisans Chanel collaborates with. From a hay-scattered runway in Dallas to the Temple of Dendur at The Met, the show took us around the world.
Above all, Lagerfeld was a master of reinvention, something that so few designers could do the way he did. Never straying from the classic Chanel pieces, he made them impermeably cool—an instantly recognizable moneyed aesthetic that never deviated. One way that perhaps he achieved this was by maintaining a perpetual look ahead, once telling the New Yorker that “The most important piece of furniture in a house is the garbage can! I keep no archives of my own, no sketches, no photos, no clothes — nothing! I am supposed to do, I’m not supposed to remember!”
But today, just for a little while with face still forward, here’s to remembering Karl.