top of page
  • Writer's pictureSarah

In Memory: Karl Lagerfeld

With the passing of esteemed designer Karl Lagerfeld at the age of 85 this morning, I choose to celebrate his life by revisiting research from a postmodernism course in grad school. Below, find a general overview of Lagerfeld's life through 2013, and then an in-depth look at his fashion photography work.

Karl Lagerfeld was born Karl Lagerfeldt in pre-war Germany in 1933. He dropped the “t” from his name as he thought that without it, his name would be more commercial. His exact date of birth is questionable as Lagerfeld insists on keeping it a secret, adding to a general aura of mystery he has been cultivating over the span of his long career.

Lagerfeld in 1964. Image credit: Vogue UK, 2011.

Lagerfeld began his career in fashion in 1955 working at the House of Balmain. He went on to work at Jean Patou (1958), and did free lance work from 1962-1964 at multiple houses including Krizia, Charles Jourdan and Valentino. In 1964, he began designing at Chloe and in 1967 Lagerfeld became the creative director at Fendi. In 1983, (at which time he ended his freelance contracts) Lagerfeld was appointed creative director at Chanel, and the following year he launched his own eponymous line, which Vogue deemed full of “intellectual sexiness.”[1]

During the 1980s and 1990s, Lagerfeld’s work was characterized by unconventional silhouettes and bold accessories. At Fendi, he experimented with texture and cut; a coat owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art dating to the 1980s made of orange velvet is adorned with sequin embellishment along several rows of scalloped-cut fabric. The coat has no visible closure and looks more so like a cape; only once on the body does the garment translate to serve its intended purpose. A black, strapless cocktail dress from 1988 was constructed entirely from tulle, sewn in to rows that spiral around the body, sticking out in short, vertical lines, and ending in an asymmetrical hemline (See images below. Image credit: The MET).

At Chanel, Lagerfeld initially kept a silhouette comparable to his famous predecessor, but began mixing and matching details, such as button size and number of pockets, on the famous Chanel suit. By the 1990s, Lagerfeld had expanded on the idea of “mixing and matching” in fashion; it was not uncommon for him to pair a white shirt with a formal evening skirt to create a traditional silhouette charged with modern irreverence to the dictates of fashionable dress. The New York Times in 1993 described the Lagerfeld aesthetic as Chanel as a “new formality.”[2] He continued his rebranding of the House of Chanel by incorporating a double-C logo on to handbags, jeans, shoes, jewelry and t-shirts. The double-C logo has become one of the most widely recognized symbols of a luxury brand around the world (See images below. Image credit: The MET).

In 2004 Lagerfeld designed a collaborative line for mid-point brand H&M and in 2011 for Macy’s. Each line was evocative of Lagerfeld himself and more closely related in aesthetic to his eponymous line as opposed to Chanel or Fendi. Lagerfeld’s name and image were used as branding points for the clothing and made mostly of affordable fabrics, such as cotton and synthetics. The important component to both lines was the image and the association with Lagerfeld’s name as opposed to fine workmanship or luxury fabrics. T-shirts fetishized Lagerfeld’s silhouette and first name, adding a sense of superficial irreverence to the collections.

Lagerfeld’s personal life consists of constant reinventions of himself and his physical surroundings. At first glance, he can seem a contradictory sort of man, but he describes himself in this way,

“The last thing I’d do is define myself. Tomorrow I could be the opposite of what I am today” and “The essential thing in life is to reinvent oneself.”[3]

The New York Times profiled Lagerfeld in 2008, tracing the history of the 20 homes he had owned and decorated from 1950 to 2008. Each home contained furniture from different periods of time, both in decorative arts history and from Lagerfeld’s personal life. Using the past to adorn the present is something Lagerfeld excels at. His friend Helmut Newton described him as “Little Karl, the clairvoyant, who brings the future to us.”[4]

Lagerfeld admittedly loves books and history, but doesn’t want to appear intellectual. His aim of reading is to learn, not to discuss his thoughts. For his fashion collections, specifically for Chanel, he aims to remain firmly in the present, to the extreme that he can seem dismissive of the past when discussing the present. In his book The World According to Karl, Lagerfeld explains, “Chanel was a woman of her times. She wasn’t a backward-looking-has-been. The opposite—she hated the past, including her own past, and her whole thing comes from that. That’s why the Chanel brand has to be the image of the moment.”[5]

After becoming the creative director at the House of Chanel in 1983, Lagerfeld began developing a cohesive self-style: suit jackets, button-up shirts, high collars, ties secured with a pin, dark sunglasses, and fingerless gloves. Image credit: Vogue UK, January 2011.

Contrary to this, when he is discussing his love of reading, research and intellect, he tends to dismiss the present. It appears in his personal life he embraces traditional means of relaxation and communication; he does not watch TV or use electronic devices when at home. But in the context of his work, he is rarely seen without his iPhone and has created a Twitter account for his cat, Choupette.[6] In this way Lagerfeld is a contradiction of himself, and one explained by himself in this way, “The personality I project to the media is a puppet. It’s me pulling the strings. The most important thing is for the strings to be well tied.”[7]

Lagerfeld’s use of the past in his work has been most beneficial in promoting his present endeavors, specifically, building up the myths surrounding the House of Chanel. In 2009, Lagerfeld released a book of photographs, some his own and some historical, telling a fictitious story about Gabrielle Chanel and her Russian connections. The book ends with photographs of Lagerfeld’s designs for the House of Chanel inspired by this idea. Similarly, in 2014, Lagerfeld created a short film staring Kiera Knightly as Chanel, recreating similar ideas and themes as he had used in his 2009 book. In this way Lagerfeld uses his own history to remain fixed in the present.

Lagerfeld began his career in photography in 1987 shooting ad campaigns and fashion editorials for magazines such as Vogue, Numero and Interview. Lagerfeld then began taking jobs creating advertising images for various companies, including Volkswagen and Adidas. This work enabled him to seamlessly transition to shooting campaigns for the various clothing lines of which he was creative director: his eponymous line, Chanel and Fendi. The clothes are his creation as are the photos, enabling the viewer and consumer an almost perfect representation of the intentions and fashionable fantasies of each collection. The style of photography Lagerfeld adapts is comparable to each fashion house. Photos for Chanel are indicative of Lagerfeld’s inspiration and interests during the making of each collection. This often involves a mythical representation of Gabrielle Chanel (often depicted as a story) and her house being juxtaposed with Lagerfeld’s present interpretation of what Chanel clothes should be. At Fendi, Lagerfeld is cognizant of the heritage of the house, as known for their glamorous furs, and often plays this up by interjecting youth, attitude, glamour and sexuality in to each shoot. According to Lagerfeld, “I look at the world and the fashion through the prism of the camera. It allows me to see way more than I can possibly imagine.”[8]

Lagerfeld’s photographic career is similar to that of a great model; he is chameleonic in his style, adapting to whatever the shoot or campaign calls for. This is not to say he is not creative in and of himself--his work reflects his personal beliefs, “The last thing I’d do is define myself. Tomorrow I could be the opposite of what I am today” and “The essential thing in life is to reinvent oneself.”[9] Whichever style Lagerfeld shoots in is akin to him creating a new collection-- it's the new, the future, the now. Just as in his collections Lagerfeld demonstrates his knowledge of the past in portraying the present. Photography’s process is “sacred” to Lagerfeld and he has been noted for describing photography as “the art of creating dead reality.”[10]

Lagerfeld has been criticized by professional photographer Alexander Lyapin for being “self-controlled, strict, even boring.” Lyapin believes that Lagerfeld’s work “will only last as long as the fashion magazine editions where they have been published.” At first glance Lagerfeld’s work can seem superficial and devoid of originality, but after I began comparing Lagerfeld’s work across decades, fashion houses and magazine editorials I have come to believe that he grasps photography much the same way he grasps fashion; as a means to intentionally determine the future as well as to sell that image. Yet Lagerfeld’s choice to use historical methods of photography (such as daguerreotypes), with great skill, shows his understanding and appreciation for the history of photography. His wielding of a multitude of styles and genres is impressive in and of it self, something not all professional photographers can claim.

Image credit: Melissa Magazine, Winter 2013.

In studying Lagerfeld’s photographic work from a postmodern angle, he is apt in depicting the body as a plastic, mechanical or corpse-like being. For the Winter 2013 issue of Melissa Magazine Lagerfeld shot model Cara Delevigne. The shoot was entitled “Plastic Dreams” and depicted Delevigne as a doll-like girl (reminiscent of Barbie) with flawlessly smooth even skin, tight, brightly colored clothing and a slicked back ponytail. She was shot in a series of bright sets along with Lagerfeld-desgned shoes. Her body was often posed quite angularly and her gaze, while direct and confident, seemed slightly glazed over.[11]

For Vogue Germany's March 2010 issue Lagerfeld shot Diane Kruger in black and white in historicized menswear inspired ensembles in an androgynous manner, reminiscent of stylish men of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, but certainly a direct homage to Marlene Dietrich. He also emphasized Kruger’s bone structure, as styled for the shoot in a sallow manner, thus perhaps recalling fashion photography of the 1990s in which women were sometimes presented as androgynous and corpse-like.[12] That same year in February Lagerfeld shot what is perhaps one of his most beautiful and historically influenced shoots. German model Toni Garrn was depicted as a screen siren and the character Maria from the 1920s silent film Metropolis. Lagerfeld seamlessly captured her with his camera in the style of the time. The screen siren is soft and feminine but awakes to find she is a cyborg, dressed in chrome armor and must adapt to her new sense of being. [13]

For Chanel's 1993 boutique catalog, Lagerfeld shot his exaggerated fashions in two settings--architectural and natural. The juxtaposition between the clothing and the settings is obvious and indicative of the time period in which the images were created. The clothes do not seeming to belong in either context; by being photographed and edited to be blurry and slightly distorted, they subvert contemporary photographic practices creating their own standard for representation. In this way Lagerfeld also references antiquity while emphasizing nature and using it to sell luxury. It's this combination of postmodern elements that makes this one of Lagerfeld’s most fascinating and unique shoots, indicative of the postmodern movement, as well as Lagerfeld’s ability to use contemporary practice and influence to his own means in a controlled and intentional way.[14]

Displayed in Lagerfeld’s shoots for Chanel and for his own line are his tendencies to style and encourage models to pose as himself. His Spring/Summer 2014 Karl Lagerfeld watch campaign featured a male and a female model, both topless, sporting collars and fingerless gloves similar to Lagerfeld’s iconic sartorial tastes.[15] In his 2013 eyewear campaign Lagerfeld chose a male model who's bone structure resembled his own and shot him wearing a high collar and thick rimmed glasses, reminiscent of the collars Lagerfeld himself favors and the glasses suggestive of the black frames he is rarely seen without.[16]

Lagerfeld continues to stay up to date with photographic practices and trends. While the "selfie" seems to be a more recent phenomenon, Lagerfeld has long been shooting self portraits in mirrors and more recently has photographed himself with his beloved cat Choupette. Lagerfeld has included Choupette as a model in his fashion and advertising shoots; the cat even has her own modeling profile with His images inspired by Choupette are often girlish and tinged with a French, sexual femininity.[17]

Lagerfeld and Choupette. Image credit: W Magazine, April 2015.

As a constant reinvention, Lagerfeld has been able to remain present and relevant during the height of the postmodern era in fashion. His grasp of the present is dictated by his love for history, and his ability to separate the two when needed. In this way I believe it can be argued that Lagerfeld was a modernist, a postmodernist, and perhaps even a post-postmodernist. In the end, Lagerfeld himself understands that his own time will eventually be over and does not take himself too seriously: “I’m like perishable goods. What I say doesn’t keep.”[18]

[1] "Karl Lagerfeld, Fashion Designer." Vogue UK. January 18, 2011.

[2] Morris, Bernadine. “Lagerfeld's Home Run for Chanel.” New York Times, Mar 19, 1993

[3] Lagerfeld, Karl, and Jean Napias. The World According to Karl: The Wit and Wisdom of Karl Lagerfeld. London: Flammarion, 2013. pp 160, 134

[4] Horyn, Cathy. “Profile in Style: KARL LAGERFELD, the mercurial designer, refashions again.” New York Times; Dec 7, 2008

[5] Lagerfeld pp 77

[6] O'Neill, Kristina. "My List: Karl Lagerfeld in 24 Hours." Harper's BAZAAR. March 16, 2012. Accessed October 20, 2014.

[7] Lagerfeld pp 160

[8] "Expertise: Photographs by Karl Lagerfeld - Bird In Flight." Bird In Flight.

[9] Lagerfeld, Karl, and Jean Napias. The World According to Karl: The Wit and Wisdom of Karl Lagerfeld. London: Flammarion, 2013. pp 160, 134

[10] "Expertise: Photographs by Karl Lagerfeld - Bird In Flight." Bird In Flight.

[11] "Karl Lagerfeld Shoots Cara Delevingne for Melissa Magazine - Karl Lagerfeld." Karl Lagerfeld. Accessed November 25, 2014.

[12] "Vogue Germany March | Diane Kruger by Karl Lagerfeld." Fashion Gone Rogue: The Latest in Editorials and Campaigns. February 10, 2010. Accessed November 24, 2014.

[13] "Vogue Germany February | Toni Garrn by Karl Lagerfeld." Fashion Gone Rogue: The Latest in Editorials and Campaigns. January 11, 2010. Accessed November 25, 2014.;

“Postmodern Practice and Style: A Rubric,” compiled by the Special Topics 2014 Seminar Participants, Fashion Institute of technology M.A. Program in Fashion and Textile Studies

[14] Chanel Boutique F/W 1993-1994. Paris, 1993.

[15] "Karl Lagerfeld SS14 Watches Campaign - Karl Lagerfeld." Karl Lagerfeld. January 1, 2014. Accessed November 25, 2014.

[16] "Karl Lagerfeld Eyewear 2013 Campaign - Karl Lagerfeld." Karl Lagerfeld. January 1, 2013. Accessed November 25, 2014.

[17] Kramer, Jane. "The Chanel Obsession." Vogue, September 1, 1991.;

"W Magazine." W Magazine on Tumblr. August 23, 2012. Accessed November 25, 2014.; "Choupette Et Laetitia a Paris Sous L'objectif De Karl!" Jules Fashion. August 14, 2012. Accessed November 24, 2014.

[18] Lagerfeld pp 173

38 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page