Love Him Or Not, Karl Lagerfeld Was A Legend In Life & In Death
His magical thinking and imagination changed fashion and won him universal acclaim. But it had its limits.
When fashion people of my generation talk about the moment they first got hooked, it’s not unlike hearing a superhero origin story. Outcasts and othered, we discovered our true calling during a pivotal, private moment. When we slipped into our mom’s stilettos, and first felt our posture change, a stranger staring back in the mirror. Or, it might have been the moment we flipped through a million-dollar fashion photoshoot and the velvet colours of the editorial gave us the ability to see beyond the beige-ness of our suburban bedrooms and basements. Or, it was the first time we wore something that scared us, then exhilarated us, and allowed us to understand how transportive fashion could be. How escapist. How powerful.
Through choosing and wearing the right clothes in the right way, we learned that we could turn any fantasy into reality: To be taller than our natural height, to be richer than our actual means — worldly despite never having left home. Adding fuel to our fire was the knowledge that some people in the industry had actually made this transition. More myth than man, Karl Lagerfeld had willed his fantasy of Parisian-flavoured decadence and eccentricity into existence. Growing up normal and average in Germany, he spent the last few decades of his life living on the border between the real and the surreal. His fabled work ethic, coupled with his mastery of the craft, meant that his contributions to the fashion industry were unanimously revered, and also ubiquitous — Lagerfeld's sensibility affected fashion in its highest and lowest forms. When he died on Tuesday, critics and fans came together in a rare moment of consensus: You may like or dislike Karl Lagerfeld’s legacy, but it’s undeniable that he was a legend.
And as with any legend, Lagerfeld came with his own volume of tall tales. He drank ten Diet Cokes a day as his sole source of hydration. He employed a person whose only job was to manage his 300 iPods. He was a bibliophile with a photographic memory. He slept on the same pillow his childhood nanny had once made for him. As a kid, he liked to catfish pedophiles. As an adult, he had never voted. He had never been in love (except maybe with his cat), and he certainly never had sex with anyone he cared for. He designed clothes for Chanel that he knew Coco Chanel would despise. He had a secret American sister he hadn’t spoken to in decades because she reminds him (and perhaps all of us) of what he could have been if he were not fabulous. Whether these things were true or not didn’t matter — especially for Lagerfeld. Every other year or so, a new interview with him would drop where he’d gleefully perpetuate these myths, and jostle free some new ones peppered with endlessly quotable bon mots. They were earworms without a melody: “If you throw money out of the window, throw it out with joy.” “Vanity is the healthiest thing in life.” “Frustration is the mother of crime.”
I had my own origin story moment in the mid-2000s after I purchased a pair of drop-crotch pants that a boy I liked told me looked like a full diaper. Shortly after, I became obsessed with fashion eccentrics like Rei Kawakubo, Rick Owens, and Martin Margiela. They provided me with a decoder ring to distinguish interesting fashion from merely palatable fashion. But the most entertaining character among them was undoubtedly Lagerfeld. His rules may have been different than the girls who won “best dressed” at my high school, but they were just as exacting: Fashion is a language that only the imaginative can understand, and to be boring is a sin. Suddenly, I was obsessed with understanding the world through this dichotomy.
Hungry for peers, I started following and eventually befriended a spoof Twitter account called @FakeKarl that weighed in on the minutiae of the day under the delightfully haughty tone of a cartoon Lagerfeld. Ironically, Real Karl famously eschewed social media even though he would have been great at it. It was easy to imagine Real Karl dictating to a shirtless man in tweed pants to dismiss and kvetch over anything from bad weather to a family car. The jokes could almost write themselves, but Fake Karl parroted Lagerfeld to perfection. Everything that wasn’t “fashion” was “demode, hmm?” The only drink chicer than Diet Coke was Diet Water. It was intoxicating. People flocked to Fake Karl, who topped every “who to follow in fashion” list during that era.
The best thing about Fake Karl was that the person behind the account would actually respond to you. And so, I’d hop online between classes and before nights out, and chat with Fake Karl on AIM about runway collections and designer interviews in obscure art magazines. We’d talk about the fashion internships I was applying to and whether “the recession” was going to be as bad as the news made it sound. We talked in awful, cringey ways about thinness and richness that only barely masked our own insecurities. If we couldn’t actually be a part of those worlds, then we could at least pretend to inhabit them online. I knew, obviously, that Fake Karl was not Karl Lagerfeld. But every time the avatar of a dark-bespectacled man with neat, snow-white ponytail popped up on my computer, I’d be transported to place where I was clever and sophisticated. Even while parodied as a caricature, Karl Lagerfeld’s worldview was so infectious that just his face alone would inspire a shift in consciousness.
But if you feel badly that Fake Karl may have marred Real Karl’s reputation, don’t. No matter how incendiary and provocative Fake Karl’s tweets were, Real Karl always went further. “Normal people think I’m insane,” Lagerfeld was quoted in his semi-biography, The World According to Karl. As with all geniuses, appearing weird to normies and unpalatable to the unimaginative was the goal. And to offend them was evidence that you were winning.
His quips also included some of the most awful things public figures (who still need to maintain their public figuredom!) have said about women’s bodies — reducing smart, talented women to their haircuts and BMI. He once told Vice he opposed gay marriage for the sheer fact that it was too boring a thing to do for people who are as inherently interesting as men who want to have sex with each other (“Yes, I’m against it for a very simple reason: In the '60s they all said we had the right to the difference. And now, suddenly, they want a bourgeois life.”). During the apex of the #MeToo movement, Lagerfeld famously told Numero that sexual misconduct was part of the job: “If you don’t want your pants pulled about, don’t become a model! Join a nunnery, there’ll always be a place for you in the convent.” In his fantasy world, women’s sex appeal was a uniquely valuable currency that, he believed, could be controlled and deployed — those who didn’t were self-sabotaging. In his fantasy, being interesting afforded you more opportunities and protections than actual legal rights. He spent his whole life willing his fantasies into existence. He had the audacity to believe he could here, too.
It might seem contradictory that Karl Lagerfeld would both choose to surround himself with interesting ideas and people, but also have odiously reductive opinions about the women and men who he clothed. But if Lagerfeld had no shame, he also had no presumptions. To him, an ideal life was something you made yourself that sheltered you against pain and ugliness. True power was a life where unpleasant things could be reduced to merely an intellectual exercise. It was just sad when those things turned emotional or physical. “I never met anything like [homophobic violence] in my life,” Lagerfeld told writer Bruce LaBruce in 2010. “I had an overprotected life. What can I fight about? I don’t know what to do. It never happened to me, and it never happened to people I know.” To him, those who fight for others’ rights were going about it the hard way. In his world, it’s more useful to present the formula for untouchability and the tools to get it, no matter how unfair it might be. To that end, Lagerfeld constantly pointed at the many ways to get power: money, connections, eccentricity, appearance.
So during the height of the recession when other designers pared down their runway shows to appear more austere and practical, Lagerfeld assembled carousels and a gigantic barn (in the tradition of the original icon of luxury who created a sanitized version of a working farm within the Versailles grounds so she could “play poor”). When brands and businesses were getting skewered for its environmentally unfriendly standards, Lagerfeld shipped a Swedish iceberg to Paris and installed a working waterfall within the Grand Palais as twisted, backwards commentaries on what will likely be the most exclusive luxury good in the future: nature. Even his renditions of “bourgeois” moments — a supermarket, an airport terminal, a literal march for women’s rights — became part of the fantasy. There’s a reason that a Chanel football sells for more on eBay than a Chanel handbag. It’s tangible proof that even the most basic, uninspired things can be powerful if they’re dressed in just the right way.
You can understand how that idea can feel like a trade secret, especially when you don’t see where the source of that borrowed power actually comes from. But to be able to understand reality in its abject ugliness and pain is a different type of superpower to fight a different kind of battle. Today, the most relevant designers are celebrated for reckoning with the repulsive. They’re Pyer Moss and Telfar Clemens, Raf Simons and Alessandro Michele. Like Lagerfeld, they provoke and challenge using fashion. But unlike Lagerfeld, their clothing tries to push back against the old rules about who has power, and who can’t access it. Lagerfeld has always excelled at nourishing our imagination and our souls. But when it feels like the floor is crumbling beneath you, you look for something to grab onto, not a pair of costume wings.
When I saw that Lagerfeld had died, I emailed FakeKarl for the first time in ten years. It turns out that the person who so perfectly embodied a 75-year-old European was a 15-year-old boy from New Zealand named Eden Bradfield. He started the account for the same reason I started reading the account: “To amuse myself while growing up in a small fashion-challenged town.”
Today, Eden is in his mid-20s and a writer and a musician. I asked him to describe Lagerfeld’s appeal: “I think our generation was the last 'maximalist' fashion generation. We still treated fashion as a spectacle. Blogs from that whole generation of fashion kids were often colourful and cluttered and unconcerned with a sleek aesthetic. Maybe this was because the internet was still pretty young and you could stage a show or write a blog and whether there'd be much evidence of it next year was debatable. This is the ethos of Lagerfeldian fashion — the need to change season to season, to play with a motif and then toss it. He got the fact that this was all an absurdist game. He understood the clothes weren't the point. The spectacle was.”
Between 2009 and 2019, Karl Lagerfeld remained as resolutely consistent as he had his entire life. But the world has changed. Lagerfeld was no longer alone in churning out provocative quotes; our country’s President does it every hour. Surely, life is a spectacle for many people. But rather than delight, this spectacle can feel chaotic and deranged. Not being normal can shorten your life. For many, predictability is a privilege.
Lagerfeld succeeded because he willed the most beautiful things into the world. I can admit that there’s something noble about his trying to brush away the ugliest things in life as unimportant — as if feeling unseen, unspecial, and unsafe is a personal choice. But dismissing them is allowing them to exist. Best to approach them like Lagerfeld tackled everything else in life: Creatively, unreservedly, and with the conviction that we are all capable of making impossible things happen.