Karl Lagerfeld’s Chanel Legacy

In the week since Karl Lagerfeld died following health complications, the fashion industry has mourned, scorned and torn itself apart dismantling the complicated legacy he left behind.  


Born in Hamburg Germany in 1933, Lagerfeld’s career in high fashion began at age 21, when he won a prestigious French design competition for his yellow wool coat with a belted collar.  


Within a year he had befriended the then fellow fashion apprentice Yves Saint Laurent, and was hired as an assistant to Pierre Balmain. Three years later he was appointed the art director for Jean Patou, another high-profile French fashion brand.  


He would go on to hold positions as creative director at Fendi and his own fashion label “Karl Lagerfeld”, but it is his 30 years at the helm of fashion powerhouse Chanel that he will be most remembered for.  


Taking Coco Chanel’s trademark designs of comfortable luxury and updating them for the modern era, he breathed life into a brand that was dying a traditional death, creating a massive uptake in Chanel stock and market value within a year of becoming creative director.  


"What he did was the framework of Chanel,” Sharon Kanter, Deputy Style Director at People Magazine told Reuters, “all these iconic flourishes and motifs, the tweed, the pearls, the chainlink bags. All of those kinds of things. What he did was he made them modern.” 


His work with Chanel emboldened a fashion era of wealth and whimsy: He imported a real 265-ton iceberg from Sweden for his 2010 fall show, built a working 30-foot waterfall complete with ‘caves’ in the Grand Palais for his 2018 spring show, and  


“Effectively, he invented the language of late 20th- and early 21st-century fashion with his creative genius and quickfire, epigrammatic wit,” said Andrew Bolton of the Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 


Lagerfeld’s legacy was also marred by scandals of his own making. In 1994 he was forced to make a public apology after his spring collection included a dress with a verse from the Qur’an written on the front. His 1991 and 1994 spring/summer collections were criticised for being a tone-deaf cultural appropriation of gang culture. 


He called Heidi Klum “too heavy”, advised a model who claimed stylist Karl Templer had pulled down her underwear without consent to “join a nunnery” and created a mock women’s rights protest as the runway for his 2015 spring collection. 


In an article for the Guardian newspaper, journalist Tanya Gold wrote that the “world grew more unequal when Lagerfeld ruled fashion”, stating that it was “impossible” to watch Lagerfeld’s work and say that he “really liked women”. 



“Fashion doesn’t have to be misogynistic and exclusionary; fashion is merely expression, and expression is morally neutral. But it certainly became those things in the era when Lagerfeld was dominant.” 


Lagerfeld will always be remembered for his revolution in Chanel, and it’s likely the world outside the Grand Palais will never forget the controversial legacy he left behind either.