Following the news of his passing, we explore the legendary designer’s legacy by way of some of his best quotes
People thought Karl Lagerfeld would live forever. It sounds like an over-sentimental cliché (which Lagerfeld would hate), but the reality is that he has been omnipresent throughout the history of modern fashion. For just about everyone working in the industry today, the designer has been a rare constant; a direct link to the legendary couturiers of the past, and a champion of historic artisans, while simultaneously establishing himself as a pioneer of new approaches – like being the first designer to collaborate on a high-street collection with H&M, back in 2004.
Eulogised as “The patriarch of Paris fashion” by Alicia Drake (a biographer he once tried to sue), Karl Lagerfeld’s story is at once well-known and surprising: he never formally studied fashion, for example. At 14, he moved alone from Hamburg to Paris. He secretly entered an International Wool Association amateur design competition, and had just turned 16 when his sketch of a belted boat-neck coat won first prize (alongside a young Yves Saint Laurent, who won the dress category). And then Lagerfeld worked. And worked, and worked, and never stopped working.
Lagerfeld’s prolific creativity is the stuff of legend, and he continued to design at least eight collections a year for Chanel, four for Fendi, more for his own-label, plus extra branded collaborations on the side – not to mention his work as a photographer – right up until he died. Described as “maddening and brilliant” in a 2015 New York Times interview, he was also infamous for his outrageous insults, accusations, and often highly offensive opinions. To look back at his life, here we remember Karl Lagerfeld in his own words.
“When I was four, I asked my mother for a valet for my birthday” – W Magazine, 1978
It’s unclear whether Lagerfeld was actually gifted a manservant while still a toddler, but his family could certainly have afforded it. Born in Hamburg, Germany (reportedly on 10 September 1933, though he always maintained that no-one, including himself, knew the real date), Karl was the son of Otto (Lagerfeldt), a wealthy businessman from a wine merchant family who made his own fortune introducing condensed milk to the German market, and Elisabeth Bahlmann, the daughter of a local politician who is thought to have been working as a lingerie salesperson in Berlin when she first met Otto.
“I would like to be a one-man multinational fashion phenomenon” – People, 1984
Lagerfeld was launching his namesake label, Karl Lagerfeld, when he gave this quote to People magazine in 1984. But, as journalist Harriet Shapiro noted at the time, he already was. After winning the wool prize for his coat design at 16, the designer was hired as an assistant by one of the judges, Pierre Balmain; and was later snapped up by couture house Jean Patou as an art director. Alongside Kenzo Takada and Sonia Rykiel, Lagerfeld then became one of the first freelancers in fashion, flying around Europe designing for Chloé, Fendi, Valentino, Max Mara, and more. Lagerfeld kept his contract with Fendi when he accepted the job of creative director at Chanel, a then-ailing legacy brand, in 1983.
“I’m very much down-to-earth, just not this earth” – The Telegraph, 1997
Though Lagerfeld spent 54 years designing for Fendi before he died, it is undoubtedly his (concurrent) 36-year tenure at Chanel for which he is best known. Not only did he resurrect the maison, which had been in decline ever since the death of Coco Chanel in 1971, he made the codes of Chanel synonymous with modern luxury, and staged some of the most extravagant catwalk shows in the history of fashion. With apparently no cap on his budget, Karl created show sets including a replica of the Eiffel Tower, a well-stocked supermarket, a rocket launch, a casino, an airport, a cruise ship, and even a sandy beach complete with a fake horizon and real lapping waves.
“It’s not being perfect. What one needs is a face that people can identify in a second. You have to be given what’s needed by nature, and what’s needed is to bring something new” – (on supermodel beauty) Interview Magazine, 2009
With hundreds, maybe even thousands, of catwalk shows and campaigns under his belt, Lagerfeld has worked with generation after generation of the world’s most famous and successful models. Loved by those he championed, Karl worked with a number of supermodel daughters, and latterly (belatedly, many would say) he cast a greater diversity of models, including recent campaign faces Adut Akech (who also starred as the Chanel couture bride for AW19) and Adesuwa Aighewi. However, his obsession with a very narrow set of beauty standards, and his fatphobic comments especially, are well documented; he even published a book on the crash diet he followed to lose over 90lbs in 13 months, in order to wear super-slim fit suiting by Hedi Slimane.
"I don't even think I'm that famous. Now, Choupette really is famous. She has become the most famous cat in the world” – Vogue, 2012
Lagerfeld’s cat Choupette hit the big time in 2012 when social media editor Ashley Tschudin set up @ChoupettesDiary: a parody Twitter and IG account written from the perspective of the pampered pussy. Tschudin launched the account after reading about real-life-Choupette’s staff of two maids – all part of a life of luxury facilitated by her doting owner. In fact, Lagerfeld loved Choupette so much, he actually stole her from model Baptiste Giabiconi, who asked him to cat-sit while he was away. “I found her so cute that when Baptiste came home I said to him, ‘Sorry but I’m keeping her!’,” he told Numéro.
“I don’t criticise (Azzedine Alaïa), even if at the end of his career all he did was make ballet slippers for menopausal fashion victims” – Numéro, 2018
In a particularly outrageous interview with French magazine Numéro last year, Karl let rip on “stupid” male models, dumped on the #MeToo movement in fashion and film, slighted Virgil Abloh, and slagged off both Azzedine Alaïa and Pierre Bergé (the lifelong companion of Yves Saint Laurent). Needless to say, Lagerfeld managed to offend just about everyone; but it was the concentration of cattiness that stood out, not the feuding – a pastime he had long indulged in. Though it is unlikely to appease the people he offended, friends would counter that Karl's dark sense of humour was often at play; as he said himself, “Everything I say is a joke. I myself am a joke.”
“Never use the word ‘cheap’. Today everybody can look chic in inexpensive clothes (the rich buy them too)” – The World According to Karl, 2013
Although he famously insulted Meryl Streep by calling her “cheap” – accusing her of ditching a custom Chanel couture gown, and switching to a brand willing to pay her to wear its design to the Oscars (a claim Streep furiously denied) – Lagerfeld was allergic to the word when it came to fashion. Alongside Yves Saint Laurent, he was a pioneer of ready-to-wear – a shift that earlier Couture designers saw as the death of Paris fashion. We can only imagine their reaction to him becoming the first designer to collaborate with H&M on a high-street collection, had they lived to see it.
“I couldn't care less. For nothing. Things start with me, they end with me. After that, the garbage can. I hate the idea of being heavily remembered” – to Suzy Menkes
Following the announcement that Lagerfeld had died, veteran fashion journalist Suzy Menkes posted a video clip on Instagram in which she asks the designer how he would like to be remembered. Never one to sentimentalise the past, or fawn over his achievements, the designer dismisses the idea. “I like the attitude of animals in the forest, you know – they disappear. I don't make Foundations,” he says – a thinly veiled dig at nemesis Pierre Bergé, who launched a foundation to promote Yves Saint Laurent after the designer shuttered his couture atelier in 2002. Still, even as we trace the threads of his complex and controversial legacy, the industry will remember Lagerfeld’s prolific creativity and private kindnesses with a heavy heart, and will continue to be awed by his monumental contribution to fashion, photography, and visual culture on a grand scale.