Karl Lagerfeld is one of the fashion industry’s most decorated designers. He currently helms Chanel’s ready to wear and couture lines and designs for his own label, in addition to collaborating with Sylvia Fendi to create Fendi’s ready-to-wear collections. Renowned for his renaissance-like intelligence, Lagerfeld’s voracious intellect informs his dry, sporadically controversial wit, and imbues his aesthetic with cultural and historical reference points. The designer is an impressive linguist as well. “He speaks German, English, French, Spanish," calculated Hilary Alexander of the Daily Telegraph, "and for all I know, Russian and Mandarin."
The son of a wealthy Hamburg businessman, Lagerfeld was born in Germany. His date of birth is shrouded in mystery; the designer has claimed that no one knows his true birth date. Initially educated at St Anne’s school, following his family’s emigration to France Lagerfeld finished his education at Lycée Montaigne, focusing on drawing and history.
Lagerfeld was hired as Pierre Balmain's assistant after winning the coats category in a design competition sponsored by the International Wool Secretariat in 1955. In 1958, after three years at Balmain, he moved to Jean Patou where was involved in the design of ten haute couture collections. Following a brief stint at Tiziano, a couture house based in Rome, Lagerfeld began to freelance for French fashion house Chloé in 1964. At first Lagerfeld designed a few pieces each season, but soon enough, he was designing the entire collection. In 1970, he began a short design collaboration with Curiel, following which he began his collaboration with Fendi.
In 1982, the chairman of Chanel, Alain Wertheimer, asked Lagerfeld to design for the house. Lagerfeld told The New York Times, “Everybody said, ‘Don’t touch it, it’s dead, it will never come back.’ But by then I thought it was a challenge.” The designer would go on to redefine the house’s codes, equally paying homage to the house’s legendary founder and subverting her ideals with his modern takes on her most emblematic designs. Marie Claire reported Lagerfeld as saying, “What I do Coco would have hated. The label has an image and it's up to me to update it. I do what she never did. I had to find my mark. I had to go from what Chanel was to what it should be, could be, what it had been to something else.”
Lagerfeld has made cult items of the house’s bouclé tweed, pearls, dual-toned footwear and interlocking C’s for new generations around the globe. The insouciance and attitude of his ready-to-wear is offset by the ethereal elegance of his couture collections. In recent years, Lagerfeld conceived of Chanel’s métiers d’art, runway shows designed to highlight the craftsmanship of houses such as Desrues, Lessage and Barrie Knitwear, now owned under Chanel’s Parraffection umbrella.
Lagerfeld founded his own line, Karl Lagerfeld, in 1984, telling Vogue, “I’ve not been dreaming all my life to have my name over a shop. Now, we’ll put it there because it’s the right moment to do it; and I made this name, why not use it?” Lagerfeld sold the brand to the Tommy Hilfiger group in 2005. He remains its chief creative and is directly involved in the design process.
The subject of countless documentaries, Lagerfeld is himself a filmmaker and regularly brings Chanel’s heritage to the medium; this is in addition to being a noted photographer. Lagerfeld shoots and creatively directs all of Chanel’s advertising. Lagerfeld’s skill and ability to design clothes women covet has driven Chanel’s astounding resurrection, and supports its ability to maintain its place at the very apex of the luxury industry. He lives in Paris with his cat Choupette.