Karl Lagerfeld has passed away and the world has lost one of its greatest designers of all time.
You can quantify this by the number of people who would at least frown at the news not because they knew his work, but because he developed — or made them want — handbags, jewellery and jackets perceived to be status symbols. Because they had at some point in their lives encountered his distinguishable mien — white hair pulled into a ponytail, dark shades, tuxedo, fingerless gloves — be it from the news or collaborations that have spanned H&M to Coca Cola. Because he was such an indelible and visible part of the fashion juggernaut that is Chanel. In a reality where the majority of the masses do not know or care for fashion designers, he was known and held in high regard.
Fame is of course far from the only indicator of his greatness. He was peerless because he outlived most of his peers in age and in output: 10 collections for Chanel (including the brand’s recently launched Coco Neige and Coco Beach lines); five for Fendi, where he’s been creative director since 1965; and two for his 45-year-old eponymous label in a year. All this in addition to multiple projects in his independent roles as photographer, filmmaker and publisher. His stamina and enthusiasm for work were unrivalled — reportedly up till his death, he remained hands-on Fendi’s Fall/Winter 2019 show scheduled to happen in Milan this very Thursday. He was at least 81 years old.
Not one for blatant nostalgia, his collections were always a mesmerising fusion of past, present and future. With his wit, deep knowledge of culture, and intuition for consumers’ tastes and habits, he never failed to surprise with his interpretations of the houses’ heritage and signatures. Chanel’s quilted handbag transformed into a chain-slung, harness-style carrier — a pouch on either sides — known as the Sidepack, the brand’s key bag for Spring/Summer 2019. Fendi’s expertise in leather goods cheekily distilled this season into leather coats adorned with multiple oversized pockets printed discreetly with words like “phone” and “secrets”. Familiar yet fresh, relevant and fun — that was what he believed fashion should be, with his designs best appreciated through a process of touch and discovery.
He was without doubt the industry’s greatest showman. To attend one of his shows at Chanel was to be transported for those 20 minutes or so into an enclosed, make-believe autumnal tree-lined boulevard; a space control centre with a working shuttle; or a tranquil estuary — except, more often than not, this was in fact Paris’ Grand Palais. He created such spectacles long before Instagram existed because he understood that fashion should also be a sensorial and emotional experience.
Karl Lagerfeld was one of the greatest designers of our time because of his wisdom and because he made us dream. For a long while, he was the only one whose work could be described as pure fashion magic and not seem like hyperbole. He will be missed greatly.