Karl Lagerfeld has been dressing for a funeral for 40 years. The German fashion designer headed Chanel, Fendi, and his own eponymous brand. But he is perhaps best known for his sepulchral look: black coats, white gloves, dark glasses, and soaring gothic collars.
On Feb. 19, Lagerfeld passed away at the age of 85. The designer’s death left behind a huge and complicated legacy — one that includes both groundbreaking art and shocking allegations of fatphobia, Islamophobia, racism, and sexism.
Lagerfeld became a fixture of the fashion world when he became the art director of Chanel in 1983. A decade prior, Coco Chanel had died, and Lagerfeld’s brand had fallen into a genteel disrepair. Many considered the aging fashion house close to death. The Wertheimer family, which owns Chanel, gave Lagerfeld a “carte-blanche” to reinvent the brand. Lagerfeld revolutionized Chanel’s ready-to-wear line, turning it into a luxury brand that could be sold in malls and outlets. Lagerfeld also redesigned the fashion house’s branding, adapting Coco Chanel’s personal seal into the brand’s iconic crossed-Cs logo.
But the rebirth of Chanel was not Lagerfeld’s only professional accomplishment. The designer also served as creative director of Fendi, a role in which he controversially expanded the brand’s fur line. He founded and grew his own eponymous brand, which he described as “intellectual sexy.” In his later years, he started a bookstore — 7L — and turned his red point Birman cat — Choupette — into an Instagram celebrity with more than 300,000 followers. Lagerfeld once said that he would marry Choupette, if it was legal; and some suspect the cat may be an heiress to the designer’s multi-million dollar fortune.
Lagerfeld’s international fame seemed to come out of nowhere. One day he was an obscure womenswear designer from Hamburg; the next he was leading Chanel and Fendi. Questions about his past rarely made it past his implacable dark glasses. Lagerfeld often effaced and mythologized his early years. At various times, he stated his birth year as 1933 and 1938; later, he said he was born in neither of those years. He sometimes claimed to be the child of “Elisabeth of Germany” and “Otto Ludwig Lagerfelt of Sweden.” Evidence from a birth announcement in the Hamburger Nachtricthen newspaper indicates he was born in 1933 to a middle-class family of milk importers and small-time politicians.
And Lagerfeld’s misrepresentations of his past pale in comparison to his other controversies. In 1994, Lagerfeld used a verse from the Qur’an in Chanel’s spring collection, prompting a boycott from the Indonesian Muslim Scholars council. In 2009, the designer supported his colleague Wolfgang Joop, who implied that Victoria’s Secret model Heidi Klum was too heavy for high fashion. But perhaps the most insidious of Lagerfeld’s controversies is his use of fur. In 2009, the designer called criticism of fur “childish” and was sharply rebuked by animal rights activists.
Karl Lagerfeld’s career has been many things — groundbreaking, eye-catching, and controversial. But it has been nothing if not impactful. Whatever you think of him, Lagerfeld represented a distinct period in the history of fashion — an era of emaciated models and decadent furs and designers who seem only a title away from becoming medieval Counts. Perhaps this era should die with Lagerfeld. But we should not forget the art it created or the constructive reforms it inspired in the fashion world.