Karl Lagerfeld

German-French designer of high fashion Karl Lagerfeld (born 1938) won international fame for his work with several Parisian style houses.

Fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld was born on September 10, 1938, in Hamburg, Germany. His father was Swedish, from a merchant banker's family, and made the family fortune by introducing powdered milk to Europe. His elegant and fashionable mother was younger than his father, and she adored fragrances; all qualities that would strongly influence Lagerfeld's life and career.

Lagerfeld led a sheltered childhood, learning early to speak fluent French, English, and Italian as well as his native German. As a child he was always interested in fashion and pored over history books more for the costume etchings and descriptions than for the battlefield tales. Designing and sketching dresses, he reported, was his favorite childhood pastime.

When he was just 14, Lagerfeld was sent to Paris to study, but with the underlying intention of getting involved in the world of French haute couture. This world was then quite sumptuous, as postwar parties were an excuse for women to dress up in the most fanciful finery. Parties, balls, nightclubs, and the like were packed with women wearing the latest fashions. Wealthy women from many countries filled the couture salons, all vying for the reputation of best-dressed.

In 1954 Lagerfeld sent one of his sketches to the International Wool Secretariat Competition, open to any young nonprofessional designer. That year there were thousands of entrants. Designers Pierre Balmain, Jacques Fath, and Hubert Givenchy were among the judges. Lagerfeld, just 16, received the award for best coat sketch.

Pierre Balmain then offered the young Lagerfeld a job working in his couture house. He took the coveted position, staying there three years, secretly learning all the tricks of the "rag" trade. In 1958, at 20 years old, he became chief designer for the house of Jean Patou, where he worked until 1963, designing two collections each year. But he grew bored and needed more challenges for his frenzied fashion creativity.

The idea of working for several houses appealed to him. So in 1963, as a freelancer, he began working for French and Italian design houses, designing fur collections and ready-to-wear for the Fendi sisters. In 1970 he also began designing for the French House of Chloe and in 1975 created their first fragrance, "Chloe." In this time he also launched his own fragrance, "Lagerfeld for Men," followed by "KL" and "KL Homme."

In 1983 Lagerfeld, his reputation firmly established as a fashion force, became the creative director and head designer for Chanel, where it was hoped he would breathe new life into the once important but now staid and stagnant house. Coco Chanel had died in 1971, and the name had fallen from fashion favor in the following years. Only a year after joining Chanel, Lagerfeld startled the fashion world by again branching out and creating his own ready-to-wear line called "Karl Lagerfeld" and a lower-priced sporty line, "KL." That year he shocked the world with his press release for his spring Fendi collection, self-described as "shaped to be raped." In USA Today he countered the resultant criticism, saying he was misquoted and misunderstood: "Rape is an abstract word to me. In the kind of atmosphere I live in, nobody rapes anybody." Overcoming the criticism, in 1987 he received France's Golden Thimble award for his Chanel haute couture collection. In 1992 Lagerfeld was drawn back to the House of Chloe, and his first collection was a huge critical success. The self-described "fashion chameleon" said: "When I do Fendi, I am another person from when I do Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld, or KL. It's like being four people in one. Perhaps I have no personality at all, or perhaps I have more than one."

However, after the initial spark created in 1992, Chloe struggled to regain its position among fashion houses since Lagerfeld's original reign. In 1997 Lagerfeld stepped down from his position as chief designer at Chloe in order to concentrate more on his own signature line.

Like a style shark, Lagerfeld, it seems, never rests. As well as overseeing all of his houses and creating collections for each several times a year, he found time for creative hobbies. A lover of opera, theater, and films, he created costumes for La Scala in Milan, for the Schnitzler plays, and for many films, including The Sun Also Rises, Babette's Feast, Viva le Vie, and Le General de L'Armee Morte. His other hobbies included decorating and restoring old mansions. He was a bachelor and traversed Europe collecting antique furniture and acquiring paintings from the 18th century as well as many forms of modern art. For 12 years he worked on restoring an historic 18th-century French castle in Brittany, right down to the doorknobs. He owned an 18th-century townhouse in Paris, a 200-year-old workshop in Rome, and a summer villa in Monte Carlo that he redid in Louis XVI style. He was renowned for his vast library of fashion and costume history books. Yet the man was nothing if not keenly attuned to modern times; he decorated another Monte Carlo home with furniture and art by the colorfully avant-garde modernistic Memphis design group.

He is also an accomplished photographer, shooting all the fashion advertisements for both Chanel and for his House of Lagerfeld. He held gallery photo shows in Paris for his hordes of admirers and fans. His personal style statement is a long ponytail. He maintained: "My father died reading the newspaper when he was over 90. His parents lived to be 98. I'm looking forward to growing old. Ponytails look good with white hair."

Further Reading on Karl Lagerfeld

For additional information on Karl Lagerfeld and the world of fashion see Couture: The Great Designers by Caroline Rennolds Milbank (1985), Fairchild Dictionary of Fashion (1988), McDowell's Directory of 20th Century Fashion (1987), and Contemporary Designers, edited by Ann Lee Morgan (2nd ed. 1990).

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