What Makes Karl Lagerfeld So Irreplaceable?


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Words, Benjamin Schmidt

Photography, Courtesy of The House of Chanel


For a man who so vehemently opposed fame and remembrance (“I like the attitude of animals in the forest- they disappear. I hate the idea of being heavily remembered”), Karl Lagerfeld held onto the spotlight so effortlessly. Because of this, fashion may never have an elegant statesmen, a based ambassador, and a graceful advocate all in one like Lagerfeld ever again.

What is it that makes Karl so irreplaceable?

His Expressed Experimentation. 

Karl didn’t seem to move with time. Neither did his collections for Chanel or Fendi. They were steadfast in their taste and expense. When Karl inherited Chanel, his first collections, while embellished and bold, didn’t walk away from Chanel’s signature elements. He inflamed them and empowered them. Karl didn’t design many pieces of clothing, but made endless variations on formulas of style. He presented his ideas as collections in a way that other designers can only wish they could. Under Lagerfeld, Chanel and Fendi’s collections became sweeping, grand expositions of texture, shape and color, contained in a universe that Lagerfeld dreamt up, season after season- airports, grocery stores, cafes- otherwise uninteresting spaces, brought alive by the hand of Karl. The shows - from the Great Wall of China to a simple unadorned hallway in New York City - were windows into the world if run by Karl.

His Honesty. 

The fashion world is barely genuine. Young people see through lies and PR spin better than any generation. Karl never attempted to overplay or over explain design. We fantasize about having houses for our cats; being able to say things like “I only fly on private planes”, to be as self-absorbed as we want to be. Karl managed to find the midpoint of being self-centered, bright caring and attentive to others. While he was self-centered, he was not selfish. He lived life with wit and irony - with flexible outlook but rigid opinion rooted in self-expression. He does not speak in “I think” or “I believe”. His opinion is received as fact. He is telling you the truth. For Karl Lagerfeld, the ordinary was enough. There was nothing off the table in terms of exploration. Part of this stemmed from his understanding of time. It’s why he liked photography so much - “they capture a moment that is gone forever, impossible to reproduce”. Many of Karl’s comments and design language deals in raw honesty and timelessness. Honesty is timeless. 

His Understanding of Branding.

Karl wanted to be a “multinational fashion phenomenon”. He achieved this. But he balanced brand with personality so effortlessly - in a way many brands have failed. He was merely the steward for Chanel, not it’s lifeblood. This critical distance from brand will preserve the brand. Karl’s understanding of applying brand to everyday objects. Look at his collections and items he’s produced: surfboards, boomerangs, suitcases, chairs, cups, and so on. There was nothing Karl wouldn’t consider for design - to consider for the story; to consider for the brand. Karl knew the next it-girl before they were the it-girl. He could spot a trend and end it merely by not participating. We understand elegance today because of Karl’s branding of elegance.  

His Belief in People. 

At the core of every apparently snide remark (“Sweatpants are a sign of defeat- you lost control of your life”), cutting critique (“people who say yesterday was better than today are devaluing their own existence”) or seemingly-reductive consideration (“my thing is to work harder than the others to show them how useless they are”), Karl had an unending belief in people. He felt that people could always be better - both outwardly and inwardly, because with fashion, inward could be expressed with the outward. He is an optimist in the way he understood people are too self-deprecating, and needlessly hard on themselves. He made simple, observational comments into statements of fashion and philosophy. But his remarks weren’t designed to be controversial, they were designed to make you reconsider and re-approach- and ultimately, improve your life.

Rest in Peace Karl Lagerfeld. 

- February 19, 2019.