Fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld has died at the age of 85. He was Chanel’s creative director for decades, and he was a symbol of fashion itself with his signature fingerless gloves and other bold gestures. Lagerfeld balanced the luxury brand’s tradition with the excitement of the future. NPR’s Andrew Limbong has this appreciation.
ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Karl Lagerfeld always wanted to be a grown-up. He was born in Hamburg, Germany. And he was always very cagey about telling people when, but most reports say 1933. Here’s what he said about being a kid in a 2017 CNBC interview.
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KARL LAGERFELD: I hated to be a child. That’s why I could speak English, German and French when I was 6. I never played with children. I only was sketching and reading.
LIMBONG: He took that drive to Paris, where he began working in the fashion industry as an assistant. And in 1954, he saw something that would stick with him for decades – Coco Chanel’s postwar fashion show, her first in over a decade. Here’s how Lagerfeld described it to NPR in 2005.
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LAGERFELD: I liked it because for me, it was an evocation of something I had missed – life from before World War II and all that.
LIMBONG: It was a moment that inspired him so much that he wrote and directed a short film about it in 2013 called “The Return.” It reveals how Lagerfeld presents Coco Chanel as both ambitious and frustrated, here played by Geraldine Chaplin.
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GERALDINE CHAPLIN: (As Coco Chanel) This collection is not about fun. It’s about giving a new, modern look to fashion.
LIMBONG: Giving fashion new and modern looks is what Karl Lagerfeld was all about, says fashion historian Valerie Steele. She is the director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
VALERIE STEELE: He was like a chameleon. His style changed according to who he was designing for and when.
LIMBONG: Steele says that by the time Karl Lagerfeld became creative director for Chanel in 1983, it was in dire need of its own comeback.
STEELE: He was like an emergency doctor who applied, you know, electric shock to this corpse and suddenly brought it back to life and made it super exciting and fashionable so that instead of, you know, just a handful of leftover – old ladies wearing it, all kinds of young women suddenly thought, whoa. Chanel is cool again.
LIMBONG: Karl Lagerfeld worked relentlessly not just at Chanel, but as the creative director for Fendi, as well as his own label. Benoit Peverelli is a fashion photographer who shot for Lagerfeld for the past 10 years.
BENOIT PEVERELLI: He was very impressive in that sense that he could talk to – and I went to a sitting next to him – and at the same time, with a laser light eye, modify a silhouette by a few inches there or the shoulder or the length of a skirt.
LIMBONG: But Lagerfeld was not without controversy. For example, he recently dismissed models complaining of being groped while at work, telling them to, quote, “join a nunnery.” That said, he’s still remembered fondly by peers and colleagues – competitors, even. It was Bernard Arnault from the luxury conglomerate LVMH, which owns Louis Vuitton, who said, quote, “We loved and admired him deeply. Fashion and culture has lost a great inspiration.” Andrew Limbong, NPR News.