Three weeks ago, the long time personal assistant and bodyguard to Karl Lagerfeld published a book. A memoir dedicated to his time with his employer, entitled Ça Va, cher Karl? (How are you, dear Karl). Sébastien Jondeau documents his life alongside the man he saw as a father figure, as well as the person responsible for skyrocketing his career (the 44-year-old continues to work for the Fendi label). Apt then, that he compared their meeting to crossing paths with an asteroid. Taking flight under Lagerfeld’s wing for more than 20 years, Jondeau also coined him “the Holy Grail.”
It’s been two years since fashion’s most iconic creative director passed away. In 2019, at the age of 85, Karl Lagerfeld left behind a world he spent a lifetime beautifying. His notoriety for reimagining what fashion could be for the modern woman was both pioneering and renegade.
Beginning as a winner within the International Wool Secretariat competition in 1955, Lagerfeld was immediately snapped up by Pierre Balmain as a personal assistant. Just a few years later, his star was seen by French designer Jean Patou where he was set as creative director. What followed was a remarkable tenure at Chloé as well as time at Valentino before being poached by the Fendi sisters in 1967 to reinvent their plateauing label. It was here that the German-born designer began to first make his mark on the global stage (and a label he remained at for more than 52 years).
But it was in 1983, when Lagerfeld was tasked with reviving the Chanel brand, that history started to be written. A decade after the death of its eponymous founder, the label was largely out of favour. And, as time would tell, this blank canvas for which he was given was to become his greatest masterpiece. More than three decades followed at Chanel, with his final shows delivered a month after he succumbed to the pancreatic cancer he had managed to hide from public view.
Posthumously, his fame is anything but faded and his name never far from industry reference. The Kaiser, as he came to be known, built an empire so great that it lives on as a kind of benchmark for fashion at large. These days, Chanel remains in the twilight of Lagerfeld’s legacy. His establishment of new-look womenswear was, in his early days, a shock of the new. While his contemporaries like Cristóbal Baleciaga and Saint Laurent sought to redefine the silhouette (through enlarged sleeves or tulip skirts or extravagant shoulders), Lagerfeld wrestled the zeitgeist, merging modernism with fashion until his collections bore its reflection.
His early collections, particularly at Jean Patou were met with eyebrows almost as raised as his hemlines. But it was this trailblazing, cowboy nature that enabled him to push high fashion from beyond its haute couture traditions and into a ready-to-wear future.
“… I like today and perhaps a little future still, but the past is really something I’m not interested in.” – Karl Lagerfeld.
While controversy was never far – in the months following his passing, a retrospective of verbal misgivings swirled almost as potently as his list of fashion achievements – it was his prophetic ability to swerve fashion in his direction that will be most remembered. Jondeau was with him until his final days, and in recent interviews, explained he is still coming to terms with the loss. However, this “Holy Grail” that he reminisces, will live on forever in fashion’s most spectacular, most important moments.
A SARTORIAL TRIBUTE
His Supermodel Prowess
“Karl was my magic dust” – Claudia Schiffer
In the early days it was Inés de la Fressange and Linda Evangelista. It was also Christy and Claudia. It was Naomi and Helena. Soon after it was Gisele, Vanessa and Penelope. Then it was Gigi, Kendall, Kaia and Cara. Muses, collaborators and some even confidants. Wherever Lagerfeld went, supermodels followed. The result? An archive of some of the most superb snapshots in fashion runway history.
His Super Shows
“It’s the idea of how it should look!” – Karl Lagerfeld
From his Chanel dreamscapes set under the magnificent awnings of the Grand Palais in Paris, to his stupendous in-situ’s for Fendi (in such fanciful locations as The Great Wall of China), to his early tableaus of souped up supermodels, Lagerfeld ignited a theatre into runway shows that made them the ticket of the season. In recent years, his Chanel set Cara Delevigne as the leader of a feminism protest for spring summer 2015 and he cast Vanessa Paradis, Kristen Stewart and Julianne Moore as patrons of a faux, yet wildly chic, casino for haute couture of the same year. He also created an iceberg, an indoor tidal beach, an astronautical rocket launch, a gargantuan Chanel Airlines airport and the tombs of ancient Egypt. To watch a Lagerfeld show was to be transported in time, place and luxury style.
His Pure Talent
“I’m very much down to earth, just not this earth.” – Karl Lagerfeld
Leaving aside the frivolity of big names and big shows, it was the fashion, the collections and the clothes, that were at the core of his mastery. If forging forward and breaking bygones were his hobbies, his pure ability for immense craftsmanship was his bread and butter. The tailoring, whether it was his plethora of 90s-era applique, his nuance for the perfect little black dress, the little black jacket or the little black bag, or the meticulous perfection he directed into his Métier’s d’art and haute couture presentations, Lagerfeld never let fame-and-name bruise the privilege of delivering supreme quality.