In 2015, Anna Wintour presented Karl Lagerfeld with an Outstanding Achievement honor at the British Fashion Awards. “I have often thought that in my next life, I would like to come back as Choupette, his extremely beautiful and bourgeois cat,” Wintour said, in her congratulatory speech. She noted that the pet, which Lagerfeld adopted as a kitten, in 2011, has “two maids, a chef, a personal hairdresser, and many diamond necklaces.” She did not mention that Choupette has also boasted a modelling contract with Shu Uemura (the Japanese beauty brand’s Shupette line featured blushes, eyelash curlers, and a faux-fur makeup clutch), a partnership with the German stuffed-animal company Steiff (a limited-edition plush Choupette originally cost four hundred and ninety-nine euros), and an Instagram feed with more than two hundred thousand followers, as well as her own Web site, Choupette’s Diary. In the wake of Lagerfeld’s death, on Tuesday, at the age of eighty-five, the site published a eulogy for the designer written in the cat’s voice: “He was a true icon who touched the lives of everyone he came in contact with, especially moi.”
In recent years, Lagerfeld almost never went anywhere without Choupette. (Much of the cat’s Instagram feed features her sleeping on private planes.) In an interview, he described the two of them as “really like an old couple,” noting that, as he had sprouted a white whiskery beard, they had also started to look alike. Even before he owned a cat, Lagerfeld had a feline temperament. He was preening, mercurial, a creature of luxurious comforts and particular tastes. He hissed at the things he did not like, including selfies, the Internet, short men, the #MeToo movement, the nineties, the telephone, sweatpants, any beverage that is not chilled, any beverage that is not Diet Coke. He had a tendency to bear his claws, telling one interviewer, for instance, that he considered sending a cactus to the funeral of Pierre Bergé, the longtime business (and sometimes romantic) partner of Yves Saint Laurent, one of Lagerfeld’s longtime creative and sartorial foils. However, his close friend André Leon Talley, of Vogue, wrote in a tribute to the designer that Lagerfeld could also be very warm when it came to his inner circle. “Karl was extravagant, generous, and very, very kind to his friends,” he wrote. “His kindness manifested itself in various ways, from loans of his 18th-century furniture to gifts of Fabergé diamonds, which he gave me for Christmas in 1989, the year my grandmother died.”
At least one aspect of Lagerfeld’s life that was decidedly unlike that of a pampered tabby was his work ethic. Lagerfeld, for better or worse, invented the concept of overexerting oneself in fashion. At his death, Lagerfeld was ostensibly the creative director of three separate houses—Chanel, Fendi, and his own eponymous label (he had a lifetime contract at all three)—and was overseeing sometimes more than fifteen fashion collections a year. John Colapinto followed Lagerfeld for a season for this magazine, in 2007, and described the couturier’s workload as “staggering.” These days, if so many designers have followed in Lagerfeld’s workaholic footsteps—Tom Ford, Nicolas Ghesquière, Marc Jacobs, Stella McCartney, and the like are all notoriously busy—they do so in part because Lagerfeld popularized the concept of running more than one brand at once, of stretching one’s vision between couture and ready-to-wear collections, between a massive diffusion line for H&M, say, and the kind of intricate bedazzling that comes out of the Parisian métiers d’art workshops that Chanel owns. This monumental legacy does not come without its complications. When Lagerfeld lost ninety-two pounds (as the legend goes, because he wanted to fit into Hedi Slimane’s Dior suits) and published “The Karl Lagerfeld Diet” (his only best-selling book), he did not promote health so much as self-abnegation in the name of chicness, a culture of thinness as fantasy that still haunts the industry, despite the efforts of many to change it.
Not content to toil in fashion, Lagerfeld wanted to dominate it, to preside over it, and to make grand pronouncements about how it should evolve. Some of his public provocations landed him in trouble, as when he invoked the Holocaust to chastise Angela Merkel for opening Germany’s doors to refugees, or called the singer Adele “a little too fat,” or, after devoting an entire Chanel show to Bollywood glamour, told the press that he had never been to India and did not want to. As a photographer, he once shot a portfolio of Claudia Schiffer for a Dom Pérignon campaign (later reprinted by a German magazine) that featured the model in an Afro wig with darkened skin, which provoked plenty of backlash in its own time and in a way presaged fashion controversies to come. (In recent weeks, Gucci, Burberry, and Katy Perry’s shoe line have all pulled merchandise that suggests blackface or other racist imagery.) Still, Lagerfeld seemed to almost invite the brouhaha. “There’s a price you have to pay for fame,” he said. “I accepted the idea of celebrity because of a French expression: ‘You cannot have the butter and the money for the butter.’ ”
Karl Lagerfeld was born in 1933, in Hamburg, Germany. As Colapinto wrote, “his father made a fortune in condensed milk; his mother, Elisabeth, played the violin.” Before the Second World War, his parents moved to rural northern Germany, where he claimed to have learned “nothing of Nazis or the war.” Instead, he became obsessed with a book about the fashion designer Paul Poiret, and, after his family returned to Hamburg, with the atelier designs of Christian Dior and Jacques Fath. His mother encouraged his move to Paris in his teen-age years, telling the young Karl, “Here, there is nothing for you to do. Germany is a dead country.”
In 1954, when he was twenty-one, Lagerfeld won the coat category of a fashion competition called the International Wool Secretariat, and went to work as an apprentice for Pierre Balmain. Three years later, he became the artistic director for Jean Patou. But it was in ready-to-wear collections that he first made his mark. At Fendi, in 1967, he created the concept of “fun fur,” manipulating pelts into wild colors and configurations. As Joan Juliet Buck, the former editor of French Vogue, recalled of that time, he would throw out “these unbelievable challenges: let’s line fur in fur, let’s knit fur, let’s tear fur up, let’s make holes in fur, let’s paint on fur, let’s paint on shearling.”
In 1982, Lagerfeld took on perhaps his most iconic post, at Chanel, which was then a flagging brand, relying primarily on its perfume sales. In a move that was radical at the time, and which now drives much of the hiring and firing practices of high-end fashion, he kept Coco’s core designs (boucle suiting, strings of pearls, camelias, puffy quilted motifs) and more or less spoofed them, shortening the skirts, supersizing the necklaces, slapping her initials on the clothes in high-wattage gemstones. Under his leadership Chanel did not just become a global brand; it became the global brand. There is no way to understand how luxury goods have permeated culture in the past three decades without looking to the brand’s evolution. Thirty-seven years after Lagerfeld took over, Chanel brings in, according to its latest annual report, more than ten billion dollars annually.
Wherever he ventured, Lagerfeld always seemed to land on his feet. He brought pop stars and young celebrities into the mix at Chanel, more or less engineered the explosion of the “It bag” at Fendi, and turned every runway show into a Broadway-level spectacle. If Lagerfeld’s death marks the end of an era, it may be felt most in the loss of his blockbuster attitude toward showmanship. There will likely never be another luxury space shuttle or cruise ship on a runway, or surprise rodeo in the name of haute couture, complete with a fully operational pop-up saloon and a mechanical bull at the afterparty.
Apart from all of this, the most memorable part of Lagerfeld’s brand was perhaps his own physical image—the trademark starched-collar Hilditch & Key shirts, the black leather driving gloves, the streamlined black suits with baroque embellishments, the ever-present sunglasses, the chalk-white pompadour and low curlicue ponytail, like a peruke worn in the Hapsburg court. “Don’t dress to kill,” he once said. “Dress to survive.”