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Karl Lagerfeld, designer who defined luxury fashion, dies at 85

Mr. Lagerfeld was a designer, author, and photographer.
Mr. Lagerfeld was a designer, author, and photographer.(AFP/Getty Images/2012)

NEW YORK —

Karl Lagerfeld, the most prolific designer of the 20th and 21st centuries and a man whose career formed the prototype of the modern luxury fashion industry, died Tuesday in Paris. He was 85.

His death was announced Tuesday by Chanel.

“More than anyone I know, he represents the soul of fashion: restless, forward-looking, and voraciously attentive to our changing culture,” Anna Wintour, editor of American Vogue, said of Mr. Lagerfeld when presenting him with the Outstanding Achievement Award at the British Fashion Awards in 2015.

Creative director of Chanel since 1983 and Fendi since 1965, and founder of his own line, Mr. Lagerfeld was the definition of a fashion polyglot, able to speak the language of many different brands at the same time (not to mention many languages themselves: He read in English, French, German, and Italian).

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In his 80s, when most of his peers were retiring to their yachts or country estates, he was designing an average of 14 new collections a year, ranging from couture to the high street — and not counting collaborations and special projects. “Ideas come to you when you work,” he said backstage before a Fendi show at age 83.

His signature combinations of “high fashion and high camp” attracted admirers like Rihanna; Princess Caroline of Monaco; Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund; and Julianne Moore.

Mr. Lagerfeld was also a photographer, whose work was exhibited at the Pinacothèque de Paris; a publisher, having founded his own imprint for Steidl, Edition 7L; and the author of a popular 2002 diet book, “The Karl Lagerfeld Diet,” about how he had lost 92 pounds.

His greatest calling, however, was as the orchestrator of his own myth.

A self-identified “caricature,” with his dark glasses, powdered ponytail, black jeans, fingerless gloves, starched collars, Chrome Hearts jewelry, and obsessive Diet Coke consumption, he achieved such a level of global fame — and controversy — that a $200 Karl Barbie doll, created in collaboration with the toymaker Mattel, sold out in less than an hour in 2014.

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He was variously referred to as a “genius,” the “kaiser,” and “overrated.” His contribution to fashion was not in creating a new silhouette, as designers like Cristobal Balenciaga, Christian Dior, and Coco Chanel herself did.

Rather, he created a new kind of designer: the shape-shifter.

That is to say, the creative force who lands at the top of a heritage brand and reinvents it by identifying its sartorial semiology and then wresting it into the present with a healthy dose of disrespect and a dollop of pop culture.

Not that he put it that way exactly. What he said was: “Chanel is an institution, and you have to treat an institution like a whore — and then you get something out of her.”

This approach has become almost quotidian in the industry, but before Mr. Lagerfeld was hired at Chanel, when the brand was fading into staid irrelevance kept aloft on a raft of perfume and cosmetics, it was a new and startling idea.

That he dared act on it, and then kept doing so with varying degrees of success for decades, transformed not only the fortunes of Chanel (now said to have revenues of over $4 billion a year) but also his own profile.

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And it cleared a new path for designers who came after, from Tom Ford (who likewise transformed Gucci) to John Galliano (Dior), Riccardo Tisci (Givenchy, Burberry), and Tomas Maier (Bottega Veneta).

Mr. Lagerfeld’s accomplished designs as well as trademark white ponytail, high starched collars, and dark enigmatic glasses dominated high fashion for the last 50 years.
Mr. Lagerfeld’s accomplished designs as well as trademark white ponytail, high starched collars, and dark enigmatic glasses dominated high fashion for the last 50 years.(Associated Press/2016)

Those who wanted to dismiss Mr. Lagerfeld referred to him as a “styliste”: a designer who creates his looks by repurposing what already exists, as opposed to inventing anything new. But he rejected the idea of fashion-as-art, and the designer-as-tortured genius. His goal was more opportunistic.

“I would like to be a one-man multinational fashion phenomenon,” he once said.

Indeed, his output as a designer was rivaled only by his outpourings as a master of the telling aphorism — so much so that his quotations were collected in a book, “The World According to Karl,” in 2013.

Some choice excerpts: “Sweatpants are a sign of defeat,” and “I’m very much down to earth. Just not this earth.”

The truth could be a fungible concept to Mr. Lagerfeld, who was fond of taking creative license with the past. His birth year, for example, was a matter of some dispute: was it 1938, as Chanel believed, or 1933, as a book by the writer Alicia Drake asserted? Or was it 1935, as he told the magazine Paris Match in 2013? (The Hamburg Genealogical Society says he was born on Sept. 10, 1935.)

Karl-Otto Lagerfeld was born in Hamburg to Otto Lagerfeld, a well-off managing director of the German branch of the American Milk Products Co., and the former Elisabeth Bahlmann. His mother was Otto’s second wife, and Karl had both an older half sister, Thea, and an older sister, Martha Christiane.

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His mother was, by all accounts, the single most formative influence on her precocious son, who often reported that he had disliked his childhood. His father moved his family to a small town in the north of Germany during World War II, and Karl, who was given to wearing a formal suit and tie to school, did not exactly fit in.

His mother was responsible, he said, for his fast-forward manner of speech and voluminous conversational references. In an onstage interview at Lincoln Center in 2013, he told actress Jessica Chastain that when his mother had asked a question, he “had to answer quickly, and it had to be funny.”

“If I thought of something to say 10 minutes later,” he said, “she would slap me.”

Karl escaped to Paris as a teenager, and though he did not go to art school or receive a classic fashion education, in 1954 at age 18 he entered a fashion competition called the International Wool Secretariat (now reborn as the International Woolmark Prize) and won the coat category; Yves Saint Laurent, also a young designer, won in the dress category that year.

Mr. Lagerfeld was hired at the couture house of Pierre Balmain and remained for three years until he left for Jean Patou. He stayed at that house for five years, until deciding to trade the more rarefied environs of the couture for a freelance career in the emerging world of 1960s ready-to-wear.

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He went on to do freelance design work for Krizia, Ballantyne, Charles Jourdan, and Chloé, where he stayed for over 10 years and became close to the founder, Gaby Aghion, developing his trademark irreverence for style’s sacred cows.

Mr. Lagerfeld (left) and hairstylist Alexandre adjusted a model's outfit during his first Chanel's Spring-Summer collection.
Mr. Lagerfeld (left) and hairstylist Alexandre adjusted a model's outfit during his first Chanel's Spring-Summer collection. (AFP/Getty Images/1983)

The approach could also been seen at Fendi, starting in the mid-1960s when Mr. Lagerfeld was brought in by the family to transform the brand from boring bourgeois furrier into hip fashion name.

He refused to treat luxury pelts such as mink and sable too preciously. Instead, he shaved them, dyed them, tufted them, and otherwise created the concept of “Fun Fur,” which gave the brand its enduring double F logo.

Silvia Fendi, the only member of the third generation still engaged with the brand, said that even as a child, “when Karl came,” she knew “something special was going on and I should pay attention.”

Mr. Lagerfeld left Chloé in 1982 and took on Chanel — returning first to the haute couture, and the next year to ready-to-wear. It proved an alchemic combination of designer and brand, given the house’s rich iconography (ropes of pearls, camellias, bouclé, Cs), which Mr. Lagerfeld treated like toys that were his for the twisting.

Celebrities flocked to Chanel and Mr. Lagerfeld, who seized on the marketing possibilities. He teamed up with director Baz Luhrmann and actress Nicole Kidman to make short promotional films, later directing Kristen Stewart and the singer Pharrell Williams in his own minifeatures about Chanel.

As social media exploded, Mr. Lagerfeld understood early on how widely disseminated images had the power to transform a show for the trade into a show that would resonate in the digital wilderness. He trucked in a 265-ton iceberg from Sweden for one collection, and built an airplane hangar, a brasserie, and a supermarket (stocked with Chanel dishwasher powder and Chanel pasta) for others, all in the confines of the Grand Palais, his Parisian presentation venue of choice.

Mr. Lagerfeld posed next to a painting of his cat "Choupette" during the inauguration of the show "Corsa Karl and Choupette" at the Palazzo Italia in Berlin.
Mr. Lagerfeld posed next to a painting of his cat "Choupette" during the inauguration of the show "Corsa Karl and Choupette" at the Palazzo Italia in Berlin. (AFP/Getty Images/2015)

While his professional life became ever grander, however, his personal life remained a mystery. Mr. Lagerfeld lived alone — with a Birman cat called Choupette, who became as famous as her master, with her own maids, pillow, diamond necklaces, and Instagram account — in a Left Bank apartment crowded with books and clothes. At Lincoln Center, he estimated his library at 300,000 volumes. He told Susannah Frankel of the British newspaper The Independent that he had more than a thousand of his signature white Hilditch & Key shirts.

He traveled with an ever-shifting entourage, though his godson, Hudson Kroenig, was something of a constant in recent years.

Toward the end of his career, fashion was troubled by questions over whether it was demanding too much of its designers, but Mr. Lagerfeld had no truck with any complaints.

“Please don’t say I work hard,” he said to Frankel of The Independent. “Nobody is forced to do this job, and if they don’t like it, they should do another one. People buy dresses to be happy, not to hear about somebody who suffered over a piece of taffeta.”