Karl Lagerfeld, Fashion Icon and "Master of Reinvention," Dies at 85

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Karl Lagerfeld

The creative director of Chanel, Fendi and his own eponymous brand once said, "I design like I breathe. You don’t ask to breathe — it just happens."

Legendary fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, the creative director of Chanel and Fendi who was known for his evolving creativity, modern influences and personal style and wit, has died. He was 85.

Lagerfeld had been in ill health. He was noticeably absent from Chanel’s spring 2019 haute couture show, held Jan. 22 at the Grand Palais in Paris; an announcement was made after the models' final walk that Lagerfeld had been feeling tired and was unable to attend.

Chanel confirmed to the Associated Press that Lagerfeld died early Tuesday in Paris after various French media outlets and The Guardian reported the same. A cause of death wasn't immediately announced.

"An extraordinary creative individual, 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," the brand said in a statement.

Chanel head Alain Wertheimer added, "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."

Chanel said Virginie Viard, director of Chanel's fashion creation studio and Lagerfeld's closest collaborator for more than 30 years, will create upcoming collections. It's not clear whether that move is permanent.

Lagerfeld's verified Instagram and Twitter accounts also confirmed his death, posting a black-and-white photo of the designer, accompanied by the following caption on Instagram: "He was one of the most influential and celebrated designers of the 21st century and an iconic, universal symbol of style. Driven by a phenomenal sense of creativity, Karl was passionate, powerful and intensely curious. He leaves behind an extraordinary legacy as one of the greatest designers of our time, and there are no words to express how much he will be missed."

And Fendi mourned Lagerfeld in a series of statements, calling the late designer "pioneering" and someone who, from his start with the company in 1965, "would soon revolutionize the very essence of fur and lead Fendi through five decades of pure, unwavering innovation, giving life to creations that have stretched the boundaries of fashion."

"From his first days at Fendi, the longest relationship in the fashion world between a designer and a fashion house, Karl Lagerfeld was a true visionary in everything he conjured up, from the advertising campaigns to his ready-to-wear and couture collections," the brand said in a statement. "He dared to push boundaries, a modern day genius with a unique sense of aesthetic fearlessness, who influenced a whole generation of designers. Thanks to the unparalleled creativity of Karl Lagerfeld, in collaboration with Silvia Venturini Fendi, Fendi is today synonymous with timeless quality, strong tradition, relentless experimentation and daring creativity. His passing marks an unimaginable loss at Fendi."

The designer and photographer — recognizable for his signature style of a white-collared shirt, white ponytail, fingerless gloves and black sunglasses — joined Fendi in 1967 (when he collaborated with Silvia Fendi on women’s ready-to-wear) and became artistic director of Chanel in 1983 (overseeing haute couture and ready-to-wear). The next year, Lagerfeld started his own eponymous fashion brand to sell Parisian and rock-themed ready-to-wear pieces for men and women while continuing his work with Fendi and Chanel until his death.

The Germany-born designer has been hailed as "the master of reinvention" by Vogue and as "an ever-changing French Renaissance Man." Lagerfeld "endlessly" reinvented the tweed jackets, quilted bags and pearls made popular by Coco Chanel, the founder of the French house, to such an extent that WWD wrote, "Karl Lagerfeld is almost as synonymous with Chanel as Coco Chanel herself."

In 2017, he was awarded Paris’ highest honor, La Medaille Grand Vermeil de la Ville, on top of many other accolades, including the Outstanding Achievement Award at the British Fashion Awards in 2015 and the Couture Council Fashion Visionary Award in 2010.

"I design like I breathe,” Lagerfeld said. “You don’t ask to breathe — it just happens.”

Lagerfeld photographed the cover of The Hollywood Reporter's stylist issue in 2015, a glamorous portrait of stylist-turned-designer Brandon Maxwell with then-client Lady Gaga, who said at the shoot, "We don't make a move today without Karl." Lagerfeld personally selected Gaga's cover look from the house's archives — a blush-hued gown and quilted leather motorcycle jacket from Peter Lindbergh's iconic 1991 Wild at Heart Vogue shoot. Carine Roitfeld, Stephen Gan and Ingrid Sischy (editor of Andy Warhol's Interview magazine), all trusted Lagerfeld confidants, stopped by the shoot.  

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Regram from @vmagazine! Thank you @karllagerfeld

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Fendi chairman and CEO Serge Brunschwig said on Tuesday, “Working with Karl Lagerfeld at Fendi allowed me to catch a glimpse of the secret of the continuous renewal of the house. I profoundly admire Karl’s immense culture, his ability to rejuvenate at all times, to taste all the arts, to not overlook any style, along with a persistent refusal to turn to his past, to look at his work in a mirror. He was restless and his exigent nature would never leave him. The show was just ending that Karl would always say, 'And now number next!' He leaves us an enormous heritage, an inexhaustible source of inspiration to continue. Karl will be immensely missed by myself and all the Fendi people."

Silvia Venturini Fendi, Fendi creative director for menswear, accessories and kidswear, added: “I am profoundly saddened as today we have lost a unique man and an unrivaled designer, who has given so much to Fendi and to myself. I was only a child when I first saw Karl. Our relationship was very special, based on a deep and very genuine affection. We had a lot of mutual appreciation and endless respect. Karl Lagerfeld has been my mentor and my point of reference. A blink of an eye was enough to understand each other. For Fendi and myself, the creative genius of Karl has been and will always be our guiding light, molding the maison's DNA. I will miss him deeply and always carry with me the memories of our days together.” 

Karl Otto Lagerfeldt was born in Hamburg, Germany, on Sept. 10, 1933, to a German businessman and Swedish mother; he later changed his surname to sound more “commercial.” Lagerfeld moved to Paris when he was 14, studied history and drawing and finished school at the Lycee Montaigne. He's said of his privileged upbringing: “My father…he could never say no, so I got everything I wanted. I had a Bentley when I was 20.” 

In 1955, Lagerfeld entered the fashion world as an assistant to Pierre Balmain after he won a prize for a sketch of a coat that was produced by Balmain. He eventually left to design haute couture for Jean Patou as the brand's youngest art director in 1957. "When I was 24, my mother called me and said, 'It's only downhill from now,’” Lagerfeld said. 

He was hired by Chloe founder Gaby Aghion in 1965 and worked up to the position of head designer. At Chloe, he became the first designer to release a fragrance without his own brand, developed the French house's "liberated" spirit and debuted his iconic Angkor dress. "Aghion recruited a then-unknown Karl Lagerfeld to work with her in the '60s, and by the '70s he was heading up the houses two annual collections," W magazine wrote of how Chloe turned Lagerfeld into a "superstar." 

In his more than 30 years at Chanel, Lagerfeld collaborated with several Hollywood stars, designing concert costumes for Madonna, photographing and interviewing Justin Bieber, creating a gender-fluid handbag campaign with Kristen Stewart and Pharrell Williams and featuring Chanel No. 5 L'Eau fragrance ambassador Lily-Rose Depp at a runway show. His longtime Hollywood muse, Keira Knightley, joined the house as the face of Chanel's Coco Mademoiselle in 2006.

In 2018, Lagerfeld debuted a capsule collection Kaia x Karl "from Paris to L.A." with budding model Kaia Gerber, the daughter of Cindy Crawford, for his own line. The KL brand tapped Roitfeld, the editor and stylist, for its H&M collaboration and a collab in 2019 called "The Edit by Carine Roitfeld" with her essential picks. 

His affinity for female muses and stars can be traced to the 1980s and French fashionista Ines de la Fressange, who became the first brand ambassador for Chanel (and returned two decades later for his spring/summer 2011 show). Other Hollywood favorites of his have included Julianne Moore, Miley Cyrus, Willow Smith, Kendall Jenner, Tilda Swinton and Cara Delevingne.

"Karl has always, from the very beginning, made me feel like being myself was the right thing to do. And in [the fashion] world, that is a rarity," Stewart told V magazine in 2017. "He’s a compulsive and obsessive artist, and it’s contagious. And he’s kind. He is who he is for a reason. I feel so lucky to be in his space so often." 

He started the label Lagerfeld Gallery out of his art gallery on the Left Bank of Paris, showing ready-to-wear collections from 2002-05. That year, Tommy Hilfiger bought the Karl Lagerfeld trademark, including Lagerfeld Gallery and the Karl Lagerfeld brand, for $27.5 million, according to The New York Times. Hilfiger kept him on as creative director. 

Lagerfeld was one of the first luxury designers to bring his fashion to the masses. In addition to his collaboration with H&M (which was followed by Stella McCartney, Versace and Balmain working with the retailer), Lagerfeld collaborated on sneakers for Vans, beauty products for Australian brand ModelCo, a photo exhibition for Audi, watches for Fossil, footwear for Italian brand Hogan in 2010, glassware for Swedish company Orrefors in 2011, a limited-edition Diet Coca-Cola boxed set in collaboration with the now-defunct Parisian boutique Colette in 2010, a capsule fashion for Macy’s in 2011 and a line with Japanese makeup brand Shu Uemura, whose cosmetic products he used to sketch his fashion drawings. in 2012, Lagerfeld released a holiday collection with Shu Uemera titled Mon Shu Uemera that starred a manga character he created named Mon Shu, which he followed up two years later with a beauty line by Lagerfeld's famous feline Choupette, featuring character "Shupette." 

His recent projects demonstrate his versatility with art, including a $2,825 chest of pencils, a Chanel rocket launched in the Grand Palais and an international hospitality brand called Karl Lagerfeld Hotel and Resorts. He served as co-chair of the 2005 Chanel-themed Met Gala with Anna Wintour and Nicole Kidman, a face of the brand at the time. 

He kept his personal life relatively private, though he opened up about his late partner of 20 years, Jacques de Bascher, in the 2017 book Jacques de Bascher: Dandy de l’ombre. “I infinitely loved that boy but I had no physical contact with him. Of course, I was seduced by his physical charm,” Lagerfeld said, according to WWD (which also reports that de Bascher had an affair with Yves Saint Laurent in the 1970s). 

“I was moved because he was talking about that one person that you miss, and I think this man is the person that Karl Lagerfeld misses in his life,” the author Marie Ottavi told WWD of interviewing Lagerfeld for the book.

Although he had one older sister and one half-sister, Lagerfeld said, “I have no family at all.… I have a sister in America who I haven’t seen for 40 years. Her children never even send me a Christmas card,” in a 2015 interview with The New York Times. On forgoing children, he said, "Having adult children makes you look 100 years old. I don’t want that.”

Lagerfeld also was known for his distinctive personality and wit, including quips like, “I don’t do Internet,” “I hate ugly people," “Sweatpants are a sign of defeat," "I have spies all over the place" and "I am like a caricature of myself." When it came to work ethic, Lagerfeld was devoted for life. "I think I'm pretty lucky that I can do what I like best in perfect conditions. I don't have to fight with anybody. You know my contracts with Fendi and Chanel are for life?" he told Vogue. "And I don't feel tired at all.”

On top of his fashion career, Lagerfeld also was a published photographer, the creator of the bookshop 7L in Paris and author of several books, including the weight-loss guide The Karl Lagerfeld Diet (he lost 90 pounds to fit into slimmer clothes), The World According to Karl: The Wit and Wisdom of Karl Lagerfeld and Karl Lagerfeld: Chanel's Russian Connection. In 2010, he shot the 38th edition of the Pirelli calendar, photographing models and such actresses as Moore as Greek and Roman goddesses.

Lagerfeld was involved with several film shorts and television shows, recently starring in Netflix's docuseries 7 Days Out in December 2018, which offered a behind-the-scenes look at Lagerfeld and his couture team in the run-up to the spring 2018 show. He appeared in the romantic comedy Lolo as himself in 2015 and is a credited costume designer on many French films since 1971, along with the 2007 documentary Don't Tell My Booker!!! featuring Beyonce and the 1977 crime film Silver Bears, starring Michael Caine. 

Additionally, Lagerfeld’s image has starred as an avatar — both in the video game Grand Theft Auto IV in 2008 and in Kim Kardashian West’s mobile game Kim Kardashian: Hollywood in 2015 — and appears in the Random House book Where’s Karl? a fashion-forward riff on classic children’s book Where’s Waldo? published in 2015.

“A sense of humor and a little lack of respect: that’s what you need to make a legend survive," Lagerfeld said. 

Survivors include his sister Christiane Johnson, who lives in the U.S.; his beloved, Instagram-famous cat Choupette; and godson Hudson Kroenig, a child model who is the son of model Brad Kroenig and who debuted on the Chanel runway in 2010.