The Complex Legacy of Karl Lagerfeld

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In the wake of Karl Lagerfeld’s death, Kieran Ahuja examines the reaction to the polarising designer’s passing and the effect that he had on Fashion.

Last week, Karl Lagerfeld, the creative director of Chanel, Fendi and his eponymous label, died from complications of pancreatic cancer. Speculation of the 85 year old’s ill health had been flying around for some time, after his uncharacteristic absences from Chanel’s last few shows, at which he had been present for decades.

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It is with deep sadness that the House of CHANEL announces the passing of Karl Lagerfeld, the Creative Director for the CHANEL Fashion House since 1983. An extraordinary creative individual, Karl Lagerfeld reinvented the brand’s codes created by Gabrielle Chanel: the CHANEL jacket and suit, the little black dress, the precious tweeds, the two-tone shoes, the quilted handbags, the pearls and costume jewelry. Regarding Gabrielle Chanel, he said, “My job is not to do what she did, but what she would have done. The good thing about Chanel is it is an idea you can adapt to many things.” A prolific creative mind with endless imagination, Karl Lagerfeld explored many artistic horizons, including photography and short films. The House of CHANEL benefited from his talent for all the branding campaigns related to Fashion since 1987. Finally, one cannot refer to Karl Lagerfeld without mentioning his innate sense of repartee and self-mockery. Alain Wertheimer, CEO of CHANEL, said: “Thanks to his creative genius, generosity and exceptional intuition, Karl Lagerfeld was ahead of his time, which widely contributed to the House of CHANEL’s success throughout the world. Today, not only have I lost a friend, but we have all lost an extraordinary creative mind to whom I gave carte blanche in the early 1980s to reinvent the brand.” Bruno Pavlovsky, President of Fashion at CHANEL, said: “Fashion show after fashion show, collection after collection, Karl Lagerfeld left his mark on the legend of Gabrielle Chanel and the history of the House of CHANEL. He steadfastly promoted the talent and expertise of CHANEL’s ateliers and Métiers d’Art, allowing this exceptional know-how to shine throughout the world. The greatest tribute we can pay today is to continue to follow the path he traced by – to quote Karl – ‘continuing to embrace the present and invent the future’.” Virginie Viard, Director of CHANEL’s Fashion Creation Studio and Karl Lagerfeld’s closest collaborator for more than 30 years, has been entrusted by Alain Wertheimer with the creative work for the collections, so that the legacy of Gabrielle Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld can live on.

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Predictably, the fashion world, of which he was a key figure, were quick to give their condolences. Anna Wintour called him a ‘standard unto himself’. Andre Leon Talley, Wintour’s predecessor at Vogue, called Lagerfeld his ‘surrogate brother’… ‘extravagant, generous, and very, very kind to his friends.’

But many people pointed out that the designer left behind him a trail of hurtful views and offensive remarks. Jameela Jamil tweeted that, ‘A ruthless, fat-phobic misogynist shouldn’t be posed all over the internet as a saint-gone-too-soon’. Linked in her tweet was an article by Editor-in-Chief of Wear Your Voice magazine, Lara Witt. This article was a scathing ‘anti-condolence’ which accused him of being everything from an Islamophobe to a rape apologist.

Cara Delevingne, one of Lagerfeld’s supermodel Posse, reacted to Jamil’s tweets.

Jamils’ point was that we should not deify someone who had such a toxic history, especially towards women and minorities. To which Delevigne countered by stating that we should not tarnish the memory of someone the day after they’ve died, instead we should talk about the people who are still perpetuating these toxic ideologies.

And neither of them are wrong. Thus is the issue of writing an article about Karl Lagerfeld.

In so many ways he was antiquated – he leaves behind him a catalogue of offensive remarks about various women including Adele, Pippa Middleton and Heidi Klum. Although he made women look powerful on the runway, to call him a feminist would be amiss. He once said, whilst trying to emulate Coco Chanel for a piece in Harper’s Bazaar, that Chanel’s enigmatic founder was “never ugly enough to be a feminist”. His later remarks which compared German immigration to the Holocaust were nothing short of racist.

Far too many obituaries of the designer have implied that his unapologetic and habitual cruelty was part of the charm that defined the designer. People have displayed a penchant to pardon some of Lagerfeld’s comments by euphemistically calling him ‘wicked’ or ‘outrageous’, or pointing out that he was born in 1933.

This is a negligent thing to imply. The uncomfortable fact remains that if Lagerfeld was not so important or talented, within an industry that often seem happy to ignore problematic behaviour, many people would have written about him very differently.

His flaws were just that – flaws. Everyone is both good and bad and to imply that the bad somehow added to the good is reckless and nonchalantly accepts that the bad parts of Karl Lagerfeld are ‘just the way the industry is’.

The truth is, the industry is ‘the way it is’, in both its good parts and bad, because of people like Karl Lagerfeld .

His attitude of being “fed up” of the #metoo movement and his opinion that “no one wants to see curvy women”, perpetuated ideas that continue to hamper true progress towards equality, both in fashion and in the wider world.

Anna Wintour, perhaps fashion’s most respected journalist, called Lagerfeld ‘voraciously attentive to our changing culture’.

Karl Lagerfeld was many good things, but attentive to the changes in our culture, he was not.

Christian Christenson, Professor of Journalism and Guardian contributor, expressed his contempt for the ‘saint like’ obituaries which appeared shortly after Lagerfelds’ death.

But we should not ignore the capability that Lagerfeld had to produce powerful positive emotion with his work. His capability for churning out one Herculean collection after another, constantly reinventing the same tropes, is unmatched. There were Fendi Shows staged on the Great Wall of China, and models floating over the Trevi fountain. There were Chanel shows in Edinburgh, Havana, The Palace of Versailles and a drive-in in Texas. There were shopping centres, enchanted forests, beaches and Rajasthani palaces. All of which were constructed under Lagerfeld’s spectacular vision.

Fendi’s now infamous Couture Fall Winter 2016/17 show

Take his final show for Fendi, the Fall 2019 collection presented in Milan on the 21st February. It was Lagerfeld at his best – walking the tightrope between elegance and pastiche with the calmness that only he could. There was the double F ‘Karligraphy’ fendi logo, which he designed himself back in 1981 and the ‘fun fur’, which is perhaps the most identifiable Fendi signature.

A part of him is woven into the identity of the brand that he did so much for. He transformed it from a small family owned company, into a contemporary fashion juggernaut in the 54 years he spent there which were described by Silvia Fendi as, “fashion’s longest love story”.

He made similar changes with Chanel. He took a lacklustre perfume and accessories brand, and restored it to its former glory as the epitome of luxury fashion. He described the house, as he found it, as a ‘sleeping beauty who snored.’

When Lagerfeld first took over there were fragments, whispers, of the house’s former glories. The Chanel tweed, the back-to-back double ‘C’ logo, the pearls, the chains, the gold, the quilting, the ‘little black dress’. Various aesthetic signifiers that needed a keen eye to be amalgamated into a unifying vision of elegance.

Lagerfeld demanded $1m per collection to do this, plus $100,000 worth of dresses to bestow upon his friends. Chanel duly paid. Most see this as a bargain as Chanel is now worth an estimated $8bn, according to Forbes.

Lagerfelds’ final collection for Chanel

The various iterations of his eponymous brand were never quite as successful as the successes of his contemporaries. Most famously his friend, and rival, Yves Saint Laurent. But his talent to switch between aesthetic identities, as well as his awe-inspiring work ethic – he was creative director of three houses at the time of his death – was unparalleled. He was perhaps a true microcosm for fashion: persistently choleric and hurtful, but capable of producing happiness, beauty and kindness.

It’s important to remember that an article can only paint so much of a picture, broad brushstrokes, where sometimes pointille is needed. Karl Lagerfeld is a prime example of writing’s incapability to capture the nuance of an individual. Various articles of which he has been the of subject since his death have portrayed him as either true fashion’s last bastion, the final remaining link to a glorious Parisian heyday; or a pantomime villain, with his starched collars, dark sunglasses and white cat.

The truth is that Karl Lagerfeld was both. He was larger than life in both his attributes and his flaws. He was capable of both savage cruelty and astounding beauty, and for both of these things he will long be remembered.

Words by Kieran Ahuja

Edited by Holly Harper

Flora and Katie are your fashion editors

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