Auf Wiedersehen Kaiser Karl

                    Karl Lagerfeld photographed by Helmut Newton. Paris 1979

 

Karl Lagerfeld 

09/10/1933 – 02/19/2019

The news of Karl Lagerfeld’s passing came on the heels of another project that occupied most of my time so I had promised my readers to give him a good send off in due time. Well, here it is and I hope it does him justice. Enjoy!

This is Karl Lagerfeld:

Early design for the House of Chanel (Coco meets Mae West?)

 

And this is Karl Lagerfeld:

“Lait au Bain” photograph by Karl Lagerfeld”

 

And this is Karl Lagerfeld:

Design for Tommy Hilfiger

 

And This Too, is Karl Lagerfeld:

Portrait of Harvey Weinstein by Karl Lagerfeld

And so was This:

Costume Design for cult film “Maitresse”, 1975

But He Will Ultimately Be Remembered For This:

From his final collection for Chanel

In the spring of 1982, I was in my final semester at the Fashion Institute of Technology, when it was announced in Women’s Wear Daily that Karl Lagerfeld had been appointed to take over as Design Director at the venerable House of Chanel. It echoed like a thunderclap throughout Seventh Avenue. The breaking news was also announced at the beginning of my Fashion Illustration class which was taught by another legend in the Industry: the late Harvey Boyd. 

Professor Boyd was quite an intense individual who never shied from sharing his opinion. After sharing the news, he began questioning us about what the implications would be, when this edgy designer commandeered this Fashion Warhorse. Keep in mind that first, Karl was not French (the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture was very xenophobic) and second many of the established Fashion Houses were still being run by their namesakes, ie: the House of Givenchy was still being run by Hubert and Saint Laurent by Yves, just to give an example. So it was a risky move to bring in an outsider who was already well established elsewhere.

Young Dilettante

So we young dilettantes bandied about speculating what his first collection would look like until finally Professor Boyd announced: “I want the class to create a series of illustrations of what Lagerfeld’s first collection for Chanel. The inspiration will be Chanel meets May West” with the caveat: “And if anyone shows me a picture of an hourglass figure in a tweed suit, they will be expelled from my class!” A tall order if there ever was one.

I’ll never know where he got the inspiration for this, maybe he had a back channel to old Karl and the design crew at Chanel (after all Professor Boyd was pretty well connected). Or perhaps this was something that he pulled out of his hat. But know this: I think he touched on the basic concept of Lagerfeld’s vision. It was his mutability. His ability to adapt and merge completely unrelated ideas to suit his client’s needs while making it totally his own.

Grand Theft Auto!

There are a lot of detractors who say that “There is no Lagerfeld Style”, well of course not! Lagerfeld spent most of his career freelancing for other fashion houses while occasionally stepping out with his own namesake collection. During the course of his profession he designed for the Houses of Fendi, Chloe, Tommy Hilfiger, Patou on and on. So much so that WWD labeled him “Fashion’s Busiest Freelancer”. But it was with the House of Chanel that he really took off. His innovations and presentations breathed new life into the dormant Couture Studio. His designs were so groundbreaking that WWD christened him with a new title: “Kaiser Karl’. And it stuck. Just like Howard Stern fancied himself the “King of All Media”, Kaiser Karl deserved this well earned nickname. He was not just a Fashion Designer, he was also a photographer, a painter, a writer, a video game character (Grand Theft Auto), a film director and a book publisher (yes, really). He truly was a Renaissance Man on the scale of David Bowie.

The “Death in Venice” Cruise Collection 2010 click on link below to watch

With great fame and accomplishments came great critics and detractors. He was accused of being a misogynist, of hating women, because of his remarks about singer Adele’s weight. Or his feud with Ines de la Fressange because she was chosen by the French government to be the new  “Marianne”. But I call out to those critics to answer this: It was Karl who hired supermodels like Stella Tennant and Jasmine Le Bon to work his runway shows when both women were well into there 50’s. Other designers would consider them to be one the hill, but not Karl; He knew the importance of catering to his bread and butter client: The well heeled middle aged woman. 

It was Karl who appointed his two successors shortly before his death: Virginie Viard for Chanel and Silvia Venturini for Fendi. Both women, women who had been his creative collaborators for over 30 years. Who is the misogynist now? OK, so maybe he said that Adele had a beautiful face and voice but that it was a pity she was overweight. I’m sure he’s not the only one who shared this opinion. Besides, two out of three is not bad!

With Model Stella Tennant Paris/Bombay Collection 2013
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qCuSN6Q30Ro

 

Although Karl Lagerfeld and Coco Chanel never met, they were creative soulmates. Both dabbled in costume design (Coco for “Le Train Bleu” and Karl for the cult classic “Maitresse”) and both where masterminds at taking the process of creating a couture collection to a whole new level. Coco Chanel liked to tie in her collections with a destination, Karl took it one step further and brought the fashion to the destination. Case in point his “Death in Venice” collection on the Lido Beach, the “Paris Bombay Collection” and my personal favorite: Chanel Resort in Havana, Cuba. All the time fusing the unique conceits of each culture while maintaining the integrity of the design concepts of the House of Chanel. 

Chanel Resort 2017 in Havana, Cuba. Notice the “Guayabera” embroidery on the Chanel Jacket and the “Spectator/Cuban” shoes. Fusing cultures. click on link below to watch:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o6PEVrQNk4w

 

Most importantly was Karl’s ability to laugh at himself. Case in point being Mick Jagger’s hilarious spoof of him on SNL. Rumor has it that Karl laughed last and loudest.

He who laughs last, laughs loudest. Jagger as Lagerfeld on SNL. Click to watch
https://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/versace-bathroom/2872711

Karl, worked tirelessly till the end, keeping his health problems to himself. His death came as a shock for most people because he was one of those larger than life figures who, like Bowie or Elizabeth Taylor, one thinks will live forever.

“Reincarnation” directed by Karl Lagerfeld, starring Pharrell and Geraldine Chaplin as Mlle Chanel.

 

So in closing we will not say “Goodbye” but instead “Auf Wiedersehen”.

Because the literal translation of “Auf Wiedersehen” from German is not goodbye, but “see you later”. And in truth you will never leave us Kaiser Karl, Your body of work and your legacy will live on forever to serve as an inspiration to us lesser mortals.

Jason Momoa at the 2019 Academy Awards wearing a final commission by Lagerfeld

 

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