Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel's Creative Force, Dies -- 6th Update

Date : 19/02/2019 @ 22h47
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Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel's Creative Force, Dies -- 6th Update

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By Matthew Dalton 

PARIS -- Karl Lagerfeld, the German designer who dominated high fashion for decades and reinvigorated French couture house Chanel SA as creative director, has died. He was 85, though he long refused to confirm his age.

His death leaves a void atop two fashion behemoths: Chanel, one of the luxury industry's biggest brands, and Fendi, the Italian fashion house owned by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton SE where he had been a creative director since 1965. Both brands face deep questions about their future direction without Mr. Lagerfeld, whose outsize personality and creativity were integral to their identity.

"We have lost a creative genius who helped to make Paris the fashion capital of the world," Bernard Arnault, the French billionaire who leads LVMH, said Tuesday.

Under Mr. Lagerfeld, Chanel resisted many of the forces reshaping luxury fashion. The family-owned brand, which had sales of nearly $10 billion in 2017, has refused to launch e-commerce operations, unlike rivals Louis Vuitton, Gucci and many other fashion houses. And Mr. Lagerfeld had only recently begun to dabble in streetwear, a trend that has turbocharged the sales of rival designers.

On Tuesday Chanel appeared to opt for continuity, saying Virginie Viard, Mr. Lagerfeld's longtime collaborator, would be "entrusted...with creative work for the collections." A Chanel spokesman declined to say whether that meant Ms. Viard was succeeding Mr. Lagerfeld as creative director.

At Fendi, where revenue surged to more than EUR1 billion ($1.1 billion) in 2018, the challenge is maintaining Mr. Lagerfeld's momentum. "Now is not the time to discuss his succession," Fendi said.

With his dark sunglasses and white hair pulled into a ponytail, Mr. Lagerfeld stood out as one of the fashion world's most indelible -- and indefatigable -- figures. While peers like Yves Saint Laurent burned out under the spotlight of the catwalk, Mr. Lagerfeld managed to straddle the fashion meccas of Paris and Milan for decades.

He was a voracious collector of everything from music to jewelry, a penchant that fueled his uncanny ability to stay ahead of the design curve as trends, from 1970s polyester to 1990s grunge, came and went. He was also a prolific photographer and published a dieting book, which recommended Diet Coke as one of the pillars of a weight-loss regimen.

The sheer scale of Mr. Lagerfeld's reach -- designing for two top fashion houses as well as his own namesake label -- also made him an archetype for a generation of designers that followed in his footsteps.

"Karl is my favorite, my biggest inspiration as a designer," said Olivier Rousteing, the creative director of Balmain who is known for his army of followers on Instagram. "He was one of the first to say we can do luxury and be pop at the same time."

Long before designers came under pressure to broaden their influence using social media, Mr. Lagerfeld pioneered the practice of keeping the world riveted with his knack for bon mots.

"I'm a kind of fashion nymphomaniac who never gets an orgasm," the designer once said when asked how he feels after a fashion show.

Mr. Lagerfeld breathed new life into Chanel when he became creative director in 1983, transforming the brand from an elite, if fusty, fashion house focused on haute couture into a globe-spanning luxury empire. The brand now has hundreds of boutiques around the world and sells everything from leather goods and clothes to its perfume. He expanded Chanel's ready-to-wear offering and designed modern interpretations of the brand's classic items, such as its tweeds and the little black dress.

"When I took over Chanel, she was a sleeping beauty -- not even a beautiful one; she snored," Mr. Lagerfeld said in a 2007 documentary.

"Not only have I lost a friend, but we have all lost an extraordinary creative mind to whom I gave carte blanche in the early 1980s to reinvent the brand," said Chanel's chief executive and co-owner, Alain Wertheimer.

Born Karl Otto Lagerfeld in Hamburg, Germany, he was the son of a businessman and a lingerie saleswoman-turned-housewife. Mr. Lagerfeld once claimed he was born in 1935, but researchers discovered a birth announcement for him dated Sept. 10, 1933.

Mr. Lagerfeld was by his own account a self-obsessed, spoiled child. He claimed to have asked his parents for a valet for his fourth birthday. Though particularly close with his mother, she displayed little sentimentality toward him. Mr. Lagerfeld recalled telling her at the age of 11 or 12 that he had been sexually assaulted by an adult couple.

"Guess what she said: 'It's your own fault. Look at you. Be more discreet and it won't happen!' " Mr. Lagerfeld said in the documentary, "Lagerfeld Confidential".

His mother never attended his fashion shows, Mr. Lagerfeld said, and preferred the clothes of French designer Sonia Rykiel to his own.

Growing up in the countryside outside Hamburg, Mr. Lagerfeld had little interest in playing with other children, preferring instead to sketch.

"My childhood was very simple. I only wanted one thing: to get out of there," he said in 2017.

He came to Paris as a teenager. Walking in the street, he happened upon a billboard announcing a design competition from the International Wool Association. Mr. Lagerfeld submitted a sketch for a coat and won. The French designer Pierre Balmain made the coat and hired Mr. Lagerfeld as an assistant.

In 1965, the five Fendi sisters hired him as a freelancer. He transformed the brand from a staid fur-products maker into a full-fledged fashion label.

Eighteen years later, Mr. Lagerfeld was hired to run one of fashion's elite but fading labels: The couture house founded in 1910 by Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel.

"I would like to match the Chanel image to the modern world," Mr. Lagerfeld said shortly before taking the job.

Mr. Lagerfeld turned Chanel fashion shows into lavish spectacles staged in recent years in the Grand Palais. For one show, he transformed the runway into a forest, complete with trees felled in France that drew protests from environmental groups. In his last ready-to-wear show in October, models strode along a boardwalk next to a beach, with waves lapping at real sand.

Mr. Lagerfeld recently appeared to lose some of the vitality that was his trademark, even as he kept up his demanding schedule of designing multiple collections for three brands. While in past years he would stride the length of the runway after shows, lately he took just a few steps out before returning backstage. When he failed to appear for the final bow after Chanel's haute couture show in January, the brand said he was suffering from exhaustion.

--Ray A. Smith in New York contributed to this article.

Write to Matthew Dalton at Matthew.Dalton@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

February 19, 2019 16:32 ET (21:32 GMT)

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