Style Icon Karl Lagerfeld Dies at Age 85

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By Jennifer Pattison Tuohy
The prolific German designer was the creative director of Chanel, Fendi, and several eponymous lines. He passed away this week in Paris.

Karl Lagerfeld was the busiest man in fashion, and his death on February 18, 2019, leaves a void at both Chanel and Fendi, where he was creative director with lifetime contracts. He also oversaw several eponymous fashion lines and reportedly had an unlimited reservoir of energy packed into his small, wiry frame.

The man who once said "Sweatpants are a sign of defeat," was born in Hamburg, Germany to Christian and Elizabeth, probably in 1933 (he was notoriously cagey about his age). In his teenage years, he moved to Paris where he met Yves Saint Laurent when they both won a fashion competition. Despite his lack of formal training, Lagerfeld was apprenticed by Pierre Balmain and soon became artistic director for Jean Patou, both famous French designers. 

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"Karl Lagerfeld in a Library," by Stefan Strumbel, a contemporary German artist whom Lagerfeld admired.

"Karl Lagerfeld in a Library," by Stefan Strumbel, a contemporary German artist whom Lagerfeld admired.

He also designed for Chloé, Charles Jourdan, Krizia, and Valentino, and was hired by Fendi in 1965, where he brought the use of mole, rabbit, and squirrel pelts into fashion. In 1983, he was hired by Chanel to revive the brand following the death of its founder Coco Chanel. He is credited with revamping the then-staid brand, which now has revenues of $10 billion annually.

Karl Lagerfeld at a Fendi store opening in 2014.

Karl Lagerfeld at a Fendi store opening in 2014.

A polarizing figure in fashion due to his views on fur and women's bodies, Lagerfeld was lauded as a transformer more than an innovator. He had a knack for tapping into the zeitgeist of now, even hopping on the Instagram train just two years after it launched. Constantly courting controversy, he employed strippers for a Fendi show, used a verse from the Koran in a Chanel collection, and made a bad habit of criticizing women for their shape. However, his defenders say it was all for show, and he claimed: "I am like a caricature of myself, and I like that."

Not averse to designing outside of high fashion, he collaborated with Diesel on denim, launched a K Karl Lagerfeld line of t-shirts and jeans, and designed a line for high street fashion brand H&M, which sold out in hours. While the term renaissance man is bandied about quite freely, his accomplishments do the title fit: author (of a book based on his infamous diet), exhibited photographer, publisher (he founded Edition 7L, an imprint of Steidl), film director, artist, and even "architect" (he collaborated with Miami–based Oppenheim Architecture to design a collection of homes on the island of Isla Moda).

Karl Lagerfeld was a professional photographer as well as a designer. Here, he's pictured shooting Zig Zag chairs for a photo series on iconic designs. "To visually reinterpret examples of perfect design is completely new for me, and therefore stimulating, exciting even," he said. 

Karl Lagerfeld was a professional photographer as well as a designer. Here, he's pictured shooting Zig Zag chairs for a photo series on iconic designs. "To visually reinterpret examples of perfect design is completely new for me, and therefore stimulating, exciting even," he said. 

His signature look—a high-collared Hilditch & Key starched shirt (he owned more than 1,000), tailored black jacket, black jeans, black boots, fingerless gloves, and white hair in a ponytail—will be one thing many people remember about this unique figure in fashion. 

It's hard to know what Lagerfeld wanted his legacy to be; he refused to dwell on the past or speculate much on the future in interviews. But one quote from a 2011 interview gives a small glimpse: "I'm a very down-to-earth person, but it is my job to make that earth more pleasant."