Thanks to his talent, longevity and productivity, it is possible that Karl Lagerfeld did more than any other designer to shape the look of the late 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century. Across more than six decades, five different brands (three at the same time) and numerous collaborations, he flooded the area from Paris to Dallas to Shanghai, dressing Hollywood, the high and the main street.
But why say when you can show? Here are some of the most notable looks from nearly every stage of an extraordinary career.
In 1954, Mr. Lagerfeld, a young German with no formal training in fashion, won the coat category of the prestigious Woolmark Prize – a chance event that led to a job as an assistant to fashion designer Pierre Balmain, who was one of the judges . After just three years in that studio, while still in his twenties, Mr. Lagerfeld was appointed artistic director of Jean Patou, a brand founded in 1914, whose founder was known for liberating the female form and creating the Joy perfume.
There, Mr. Lagerfeld went on to create 10 couture collections over five years, laying the groundwork for his own ease in working with small hands and his ability to let off steam happily within the confines of an established aesthetic.
In 1966, Mr. Lagerfeld became the creator of Chloé, one of the first ready-to-wear brands in Paris, working first with its founder, Gaby Aghion (who first hired him as a freelancer in 1964) , before becoming sole designer in 1974. He remained with the brand until 1983, returning from 1992 to 1997.
The first works of Mr. Lagerfeld at Chloé, a name that has become synonymous with a certain eccentric femininity, may surprise many, playing with prints and surrealism. But it also reflected his ability to balance luxury eccentricity and portability, with an eye for commerce (he never saw “sales” as a dirty word). By his second stint, he had fully embraced bohemianism and set the tone for what was to come.
In 1965, the five Fendi sisters, who inherited their family fur business from their parents, Adele and Edoardo, called on Mr. Lagerfeld to design their ready-to-wear and fur collections.
They may have thought they had a smart designer, but what they actually got was a lifetime partnership. Silvia Venturini Fendi, the daughter of Anna Fendi, who grew up designing Fendi bags and menswear alongside Mr. Lagerfeld, recalled that even as a child, “when Karl arrived” it was clear “something something special was going on and I should be careful.”
Mr. Lagerfeld created the “FF” logo, which represented the concept of “fun fur” (as well as Fendi), then began shaving, dyeing, sculpting and otherwise transforming the material, as well as introducing skins such as high fashion mole, rabbit and squirrel.
His work on the runway was equally experimental, with a wide range of references including Roman roots and Fendi futurism. When LVMH bought the brand in 1999, Mr. Lagerfeld followed suit, eventually creating a “high fur” line (who had even heard of it before?) to accompany ready-to-wear, remaining staunchly pro-fur even as the public mood changed and other brands turned against the idea of wearing animal skins.
In 1982, Mr. Lagerfeld obtained the job that would propel him into the fashion stratosphere: artistic director of Chanel, at the time a brand known mainly for perfumes and bourgeois handbags. Taking an approach he summed up in highly questionable terms (“Chanel is an institution, and you have to treat an institution like a bitch – and then you get something out of it”), he revives a moribund brand, offering a model for the industry that is still in place today.
Taking classic Chanel iconography – the camellia, the pearls, the Maltese cross, the curly suit – with a heavy dose of irony and irreverence, he succeeded in making the brand a pop culture phenomenon, a symbol of classicism and a financial juggernaut. He helped create and popularize the traveling fashion show, taking his runway to Salzburg, Edinburgh, Shanghai and Havana; imagined sets of viral tracks like an iceberg (sculpted from parts of a Swedish glacier), a supermarket and a rocket (which actually took off); made mini-movies with Nicole Kidman and Kristen Stewart; and ultimately helped lift the brand’s annual sales to $11 billion.
Perhaps tired of working in style vernaculars established by others, in 1984 Mr. Lagerfeld founded his own namesake line. Although she would never attain the size or fame of Chanel or Fendi, and although she underwent many ownership changes, Lagerfeld, the brand, reflected her personal style more closely than any of her other brands. Imagine rock ‘n’ roll couture with a Teutonic twist, filtered through a monochromatic lens, and you’ll get the idea.
In 2004, Mr. Lagerfeld became the first couture designer to collaborate with a mainstream brand when he signed on to create an H&M collection. The fashion world was first shocked, then intrigued, and after the range of black suits, portrait t-shirts and Karl-style LBDs sold out in seconds, a whole new genre and approach were born.
Anna Grace Lee And Callie Holterman contributed report.