From the powdered white hair swept into a flamboyant ponytail, to the towering stiff collars, the fingerless black gloves, the diamond-encrusted belts and the paper fans he carried to waft away unpleasant odours, everything about Karl Lagerfeld was extraordinary.
The monstrous ego and acid asides — as well as a deliberately misleading narrative about his past — were the other ingredients of a useful and subtle subterfuge.
They all served as a shield to deflect the curious away from the truth about the man behind the ever-present dark glasses who, for more than six decades, bestrode the world of haute couture.
His death at 85 from pancreatic cancer robs fashion of that last link with the fabulous designers who emerged on the coat tails of Christian Dior’s new look after World War II.
Karl Lagerfeld’s death marks the end of an era for the fashion world, writes Richard Kay,saying he is one of the last links with the fabulous designers who emerged after World War II
Karl Lagerfeld, creative director for Chanel, died aged 85 from pancreatic cancer
As creative director for Chanel, where he spent an age-defying 36 years, Lagerfeld was, in many ways, the greatest of them all.
Certainly, he was the richest, with a fortune estimated at £100 million. He had multiple homes, including a nine-bedroom apartment on the Left Bank in Paris, a house in Vermont in the U.S., another in Biarritz that contained his collection of three miles of bookshelves, and a vast penthouse in Monaco where he famously had one bathroom for the morning and another for the evening.
At one time, he was said to own 300 iPods, each one programmed with different music, and 2,400 shirts (mostly white). His homes were stuffed with priceless antiques, tapestries and other artworks, including 150 paintings — until, at the turn of the century, he sold them off on a whim for £16 million.
The successful fashion designer has an estimated fortune of £100million and multiple grand homes, including a penthouse in Monaco (pictured), a nine-bedroom apartment in Paris and a house in Vermont in the United States
Yesterday, the fashion world paid lavish tribute to the German-born designer. Spice Girl-turned-fashionista Victoria Beckham wrote: ‘Karl was a genius and always so kind and generous to me both personally and professionally.’
Taking to Instagram, model Claudia Schiffer said: ‘Karl was my magic dust, he transformed me from a shy German girl into a supermodel.’
And Anna Wintour, editor of American Vogue, said the ‘world [had] lost a giant among men . . . Karl was brilliant, he was wicked, he was funny, he was generous beyond measure and he was deeply kind.’
Victoria Beckham paid tribute to the designer yesterday, describing him as a ‘genuis’ who was ‘always so kind and generous to me both personally and professionally’
As instantly recognisable worldwide as the Queen or Sir Mick Jagger — his trademark ponytail was as much a symbol of modern Chanel as the intertwined Cs on its clothes and handbags — he became as famous for his sharp tongue as his reinterpretation of the fashion house’s famous little black dress.
Princess Diana, he once observed, was ‘sweet but stupid’, while of the Duchess of Cambridge’s sister, Pippa Middleton, he said: ‘I don’t like [her] face, she should only show her back.’
His trademark ponytail was as much a symbol of modern Chanel as the intertwined Cs on its clothes and handbags, writes Richard Kay
Karl (pictured) was born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1933, just as Hitler was coming to power
Occasionally he went too far, sparking outrage by evoking the Holocaust when he attacked Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel for opening the country’s borders to migrants.
But however unpleasant and toxic his remarks, he remained impervious because of his brilliance at understanding fashion and giving women what they wanted. As the company’s fortunes grew, Lagerfeld became known for the lavish sets he conceived for the six Chanel collections he designed a year.
One year there was a rocket ship, another a reproduction of the Eiffel Tower, and for the Autumn 2010 show he imported a giant iceberg from Scandinavia.
Karl also caused controversy by making crude remarks about celebrities including Princess Diana and Pippa Middleton
Only last year, a sandy beach complete with lapping tide was the backdrop, with Florence Welch singing on a shell.
Just as important were the women who became his muses. They ranged from the well-born Amanda, Lady Harlech, to French singer and actress Vanessa Paradis and British models Kate Moss and Cara Delevingne.
His most famous collaborator was the beautiful aristocratic French model Ines de La Fressange, who oozed the kind of Parisian chic beloved of Chanel’s well-heeled clients.
She played a major part in reviving the fortunes of the fashion house but five years into their partnership she was fired by Lagerfeld. Her offence? She had accepted what any French woman would consider an honour — chosen by the mayors of France to be the new Marianne, the girl who was the symbol of the French republic for the then bicentennial.
Ines de la Fressange was the most famous model that Karl collaborated with, but was fired by him after a five year partnership for choosing to be the new Marianne, the girl who was the symbol for the French republic
‘It was a great compliment,’ she recalled. ‘I had telegrams from all over the country, but not from Lagerfeld. Then I had a letter from him saying terrible things.
‘What I’d done was bourgeois, common and provincial. He was revolted and said we could not continue working.’
‘Provincial’ was a word that dropped often from the designer’s lips. He even used to describe his great couture rival, Yves St Laurent: ‘He is very middle-of-the-road French . . . very provincial.’
Such uncompromising criticism may have served to disguise not just their rivalry in fashion, but also in love. Both were homosexual and both had both got their start in the business with Pierre Balmain after separately winning design competitions — Lagerfeld for coats, St Laurent for dresses.
But the real competition was over their love for Jacques de Bascher, a decadent dandy who was painted by David Hockney, and who died of Aids in 1989. While famously reluctant to discuss his love life, Lagerfeld opened up in a 2017 book about de Bascher, his partner of 18 years, whose beauty he likened to a young Greta Garbo.
He told author Marie Ottavi that during de Bascher’s final days he slept next to his hospital bed.
De Bascher was well known in Paris high society — in particular for his debauched parties — but even though the couple were together for nearly two decades, Lagerfeld said they never had sex.
In an earlier interview, Lagerfeld said he did not sleep with people he loved, and preferred to pay prostitutes for sex.
Karl walks down the runway with models at the Chanel Pret a Porter show during Paris Womenswear Fashion Week 2010 at the Grand Palais
‘I personally only like high-class escorts. I don’t like sleeping with people I really love. I don’t want to sleep with them because sex cannot last, but affection can last for ever. I think this is healthy.
‘And for the way the rich live, this is possible. But the other world, I think they need porn.’
Even into his 80s, Lagerfeld was provocative and still making headlines. He had revolutionised fashion, injecting style, humour and irreverence into a business that was once famously traditional and straightlaced.
When the critics tut-tutted at his mini-skirts and blingy accessories, saying he had gone too far, the public — and, more importantly, the customers — lapped them up.
Lagerfeld didn’t apply this transformative trick only to clothes.
Fifteen years ago, he mesmerised the fashion world by losing 92lb in weight, becoming so slim he could slip into Dior Homme suits and skinny Diesel jeans meant for teenagers. His book, The Karl Lagerfeld Diet, became an international bestseller.
He was born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1933, just as Hitler was coming to power. Young Karl and his two siblings wanted for nothing — their father was a dairy tycoon who had made a fortune selling condensed milk. At four, he claimed, he had his own valet and was wearing cufflinks aged 11.
In later years, Lagerfeld took five years off his age and bizarrely suggested his father had been Swedish. After art school in Germany, he moved to Paris, thanks to the French tutor his parents had employed.
His rise was irrepressible. Working for Balmain at the age of 21 he designed for films and dressed stars, including Sophia Loren. Bored, he moved to the Tizani fashion house in Rome where fans of the label included Elizabeth Taylor and Gina Lollobrigida.
By 1964, he was back in Paris designing for Chloe, and the following year he began his life-long association with Fendi. But it was the move to Chanel in 1983 that cemented his place as Kaiser Karl of world fashion.
He moved to designing clothes for Chanel in 1983 which cemented his place as Kaiser Karl of world fashion
A decade after the death of the legendary Coco Chanel, the label was in desperate need of inspiration. He supplied it.
It wasn’t just the clothes which came under his forensic eye. He liked his models to glide, not walk on the runway. There were the gimmicks, too: he dressed women in Y-fronts only to later remark that sweatpants were ‘a sign of defeat’.
An early collection entitled ‘shaped to be raped’ caused outrage. Lagerfeld was unmoved; ‘Fashion without wit is disastrous,’ he loftily declared.
When he embroidered a passage from the Koran across the poitrine of a ballgown to be worn on the catwalk by Claudia Schiffer, there was another storm.
This time the German did apologise, and the fashion house burned every copy of the dress.
All the time, he was ever ready to deal a crushing blow to rivals. When Pierre Cardin announced he was banning photographers from his presentation at the Paris Couture Collection to protect his gowns from being copied, Lagerfeld icily observed: ‘It’s like a woman with no lovers asking for the Pill.’
In 1993 Anna Wintour walked out of his Milan Fashion Week show after he used strippers as models. When he was targeted by the anti fur lobby PETA for using fur in a collection, demonstrators attacked his show with tofu-stuffed pies.
He also had a dispute with Vogue editor Anna Wintour. She walked out of his Milan FashionWeek show in 1993 after he used strippers as models
Unfortunately, their aim was off as the only person to be struck was Calvin Klein, who famously doesn’t use fur. PETA called it a case of ‘friendly fire’.
Lagerfeld criticised his fellow German-born model Heidi Klum, saying she was ‘no runway model — she is simply too heavy and has too big a bust’.
In 2012, he called singer Adele ‘a little too fat, but she has a beautiful face and a divine voice.’
In 2012, he called singer Adele ‘a little too fat, but she has a beautiful face and a divine voice’
Another outburst saw him lambast reality TV star Kim Kardashian after she was robbed at gunpoint in Paris, claiming she had brought the ordeal on herself by flaunting her wealth.
Some of his most brutish comments were immortalised in a 2013 book, The World According To Karl.
He asked whether any part of singer Lana del Rey was real, before offending the whole of Russia by observing: ‘If I was a woman in Russia I would be a lesbian, as the men are very ugly.’ His remarks about Germany’s decision to admit a million Syrian refugees drew some of his most unforgiving remarks.
Mourners came to lay bunches of flowers at Chanel’s headquarters in Paris yesterday
He said his country ‘cannot — even if there are decades between them — kill millions of Jews so you can bring millions of their worst enemies in their place’.
However, while he could certainly dish it out, Lagerfeld did not react well to criticism. He took out an injunction to stop the Hollywood film Pret a Porter, which mocked the fashion world, being screened in Germany. He claimed it portrayed him as a thief.
Its director, Robert Altman, labelled Lagerfeld a ‘grande dame’ and his supporters ‘stupid, self-important people.’
Of his own look, Lagerfeld explained that he wore a ponytail because his hair was curly and he wanted it straighter. He powdered it white to hide the grey.
As for the omnipresent dark glasses, he said: ‘People look better through tinted glass.’
Last night, two issues remained. One, who would replace him at Chanel. The other, what would happen to his only companion, a fluffy white Burmese cat called Choupette. Some years ago Lagerfeld said the pet had been written into his will. It could make her the richest feline on the planet.