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Karl Lagerfeld: king of fashion theatre who shaped Chanel legacy

Karl Lagerfeld, who has died aged 85, was a giant not just of fashion but of popular culture. He transformed high fashion from a niche interest into blockbuster entertainment.

That fashion is now widely acknowledged as one of the lenses through which we look at and process the world around us – a channel to which the world tunes in, alongside music and film – is due in no small part to Lagerfeld, who installed icebergs, waterfalls, space rockets and supermarket checkouts on his catwalks, and in doing so changed fashion’s place in the universe.

Lagerfeld with Chanel models at the 1993 autumn/winter show in Paris. Photograph: Lionel Cironneau/AP

Lagerfeld breathed fresh life into the tweed suit for generations of women who were born after Coco Chanel died, dressed movie stars for the Oscars and princesses for their weddings, but his most iconic look was that which he created for himself. He once said that, before he knew that the job of fashion designer existed, he wanted to be a cartoonist. In a way, he became both.

Cartoons, as every newspaper reader knows, have an illustrious history as a sharp and humorous way to comment on the world. Lagerfeld, with his white pompadour, sunglasses, and fingerless gloves, all fused into an exaggerated image as recognisable as Homer Simpson, did just that. In Choupette, his beloved white cat, he even gave himself a chic animal sidekick in the vein of Tintin and his dog Snowy.

But Lagerfeld was never a joke. He was the cleverest man in the fashion industry, with a deep love of culture and respect for learning. His apartment close to the Boulevard Saint-Germain houses a library of 300,000 volumes. A voracious reader in four languages, he would drop poetry into conversation – Emily Dickinson in English, Giacomo Leopardi in Italian, Rainer Maria Rilke in German and Catherine Pozzi in French – but wore his learning lightly.

His love of history was matched by his magpie appetite for the new. In 2011 he was joint publisher, with Gerhard Steidl, of the complete works of Nietzsche; the same year, he designed bottles in his role as an ambassador for his beloved Diet Coke. A gifted draughtsman, he could sketch like an angel either on paper or on an iPad.

Lagerfeld (left) adjusts a model’s outfit in 1983. Photograph: Pierre Guillaud/AFP/Getty Images

“Fashion,” said Lagerfeld, “is a game that has to be played seriously.” His greatest skills as a fashion designer were his unerring eye for an elegant line – a genius shared with Coco Chanel, the founder of the house he benevolently cuckooed – and a passion for the meticulous detail and sublime craftsmanship that elevates the most beautiful dresses in the world into an art form.

The house of Chanel, under his watch, became the patron and protector of the artistry of haute couture. Chanel has bought 11 specialist workshops since 1985, ensuring the survival of the ateliers of Lesage embroidery, Massaro shoemakers, creators of fabric flowers Guillet and goldsmiths Goossens.

The last time I saw Lagerfeld was in December, when he was well enough to travel to New York for a catwalk show staged in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “A pyramid is the greatest work of minimalist art,” he said that day, of a collection that referenced ancient Egypt and the French graffiti artist Cyril Kongo.

Lagerfeld recreated a supermarket for Chanel’s autumn/winter 2014 catwalk. Photograph: Stephane Mahe/Reuters

Looking frail, he took a catwalk bow flanked by Virginie Viard, his longstanding head of studio, and his young godson Hudson Kroenig. By last month, however, he was too unwell to attend the Chanel haute couture show at the Grand Palais in Paris, only a short distance from his home. A Chanel spokesperson played down his non-appearance that day, citing the cold and snowy weather.

Lagerfeld became a designer at Fendi in 1965 and founded his own brand in 1984, but it was his success at the house of Chanel, where he became designer in 1983, that is his unparalleled achievement. Other brands have followed Chanel’s formula for rejuvenation since, but none has equalled Lagerfeld’s sustained success in keeping Chanel at the pinnacle of fashion, suspended above the laws of fashion gravity, for over half a century.

Actors Kristen Stewart and Julianne Moore join the high rollers at a 2015 show. Photograph: Stephane Mahe/Reuters

Lagerfeld supersized the fashion show. He reimagined the catwalk as a theatre that could take many forms: the interior of a private jet, for which the audience were issued boarding passes and strapped into airline seats; a casino, in which the Oscar-winning actor Julianne Moore and a supporting cast of supermodels played out a vignette of late-night high rollers, dressed in Chanel’s finest.

Lagerfeld could be crass when commenting on the world outside fashion – he famously called Adele “a little too fat” and in November 2017 provoked outrage when he evoked the Holocaust in reference to Angela Merkel’s immigration policy – but the commentary he made through his catwalks was subtle. In March 2015, shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, he recreated an iconic Paris bistro on the catwalk, a celebration of cafe culture staged as a statement in support of the French way of life.

Lagerfeld at Chanel’s spring/summer 2019 show in Paris last October. Photograph: Christophe Ena/AP

The hypermarché-sized Chanel store which he installed in the Grand Palais, with models walking between aisles filled with double-C branded household goods, was a mischievous commentary on the power of branding, and a brilliant piece of the fashion theatre at which Lagerfeld excelled.

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