Death in fashion: Karl Lagerfeld

‘For fashion was never anything other than the parody of the motley cadaver’ – Walter Benjamin

Yesterday we heard the news that Karl Lagerfeld, the creative director at Chanel, Fendi and his own eponymous label, has died. Walter Benjamin would, perhaps, argue that Lagerfeld has been dabbling with death for his entire career (see this essay’s epigraph), but yesterday he passed away in Paris at the age of 85.  Fashion design was, undoubtedly, his entire life (apart from his love for his cat, Choupette), and such extraordinary dedication to his craft is what has made him legendary. Although he may not have openly exhibited the emotional naiveté of designers like Alexander McQueen or Raf Simons (two of my all-time favourite designers), by golly he was a figure of creative and commercial genius. Lagerfeld was able to fearlessly embrace both history and modernity, turn fashion shows into aspirational spectacles, and take his understanding of brand power to astronomical levels.[1] Those inter-locking Cs are immediately recognisable worldwide thanks to him. Although he claims that Coco Chanel would have hated his commercial transformation of the fashion house, he has adhered to her philosophy that fashion was dress-making: clothes are meant to be bought, sold and worn.[2] For Lagerfeld, as it was for Coco, fashion most definitely is not an art-form.

Karl has never been my favourite designer, even though his shows, clothes and perfume campaigns have made Chanel products ridiculously desirable (I wear Coco Mademoiselle because it smells divine and just because Keira Knightley). I am, however, not OK with the way in which he described Germany’s open-door refugee policy in 2017, which reeked of hateful Islamophobia.[3] I am not OK with the way that he has spoken about Adele, Michelle Obama or Pippa Middleton: I would find it very difficult to take if someone said that I should only show my back because my face isn’t pretty enough. It was undeniably a fucking mean thing to say.[4] For all of his designing excellence and great taste, he had a mean streak that was completely ungracious, unbecoming and offensive.

Nevertheless, his passing is deeply significant. It feels like the passing of one of modern culture’s greats, like the deaths of Seamus Heaney or Aretha Franklin. He is an icon of popular culture who has achieved the feat of having grown into a ripe old age, where so many creative lives have been cut short by illness or personal tragedy. He has traversed, witnessed and helped to create so much change over the course of the twentieth and twenty first centuries, evidenced in the fluctuations and ideas presented in his extraordinary backlog of visual work. His death leaves a large void in the cultural fabric of the 21st century, and it’s going to be interesting to witness the unfolding transition in the wake of his death both at Chanel and Fendi, and across fashion in general.

Fashion is a funny thing: I subscribe to Walter Benjamin’s conception of it as a dialectical social construct, encapsulating both commodity fetishism and the release of utopian desire and energy in a moment of historical awakening. It is both frivolous and fruitful. Whether you care about it or not, it shapes and literally dresses the world around us (please click on the picture below for the iconic scene from The Devil Wears Prada for further reference and explanation). Lagerfeld’s passing is another one of the great transitions we witness in life: the dying of the old ways, the liminality of not knowing what is going to come next and, ultimately, the emergence of something else, something we don’t yet know or understand. Whatever and whoever comes next, life in fashion and beyond, is going to continue to fascinate.

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[1] Lagerfeld’s adeptness for creating and designing extraordinary fashion shows is particularly significant. Classic runway exhibitions have become increasingly outdated thanks to the industry’s demands for instant, immediate access to fashion, with collection turnarounds that beggar belief. (Again, it is important to emphasise here Lagerfeld’s enormous and unparalleled creative output: he worked tirelessly and wholeheartedly to produce collections for Autumn/Winter, Spring/Summer, Resort, Cruise and couture for three labels, as well as an additional Metiers d’Art for Chanel). By creating fashion shows that turn a collection presentation into a show and a spectacle (Lagerfeld took us to an enchanted forest, a beach, a jungle, a cruise ship, a brasserie, a rocket launch, an iceberg, a data centre, Ancient Greece and a barn amongst others) he not only preserved the sanctity of the runway when it had all but become a stale, outdated method of introducing new collections, but, indeed, breathed new life into it. A ticket to a Karl Lagerfeld Chanel show was perhaps the most covetable of all the fashion month shows, never mind just Paris, and were as Instagrammable as they come. As a side note, I would LOVE to compare the shows and performances of Alexander McQueen and Karl Lagerfeld at some point.

[2] ‘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’. https://www.marieclaire.co.uk/fashion/karl-lagerfeld-quotes-120855 [accessed 14:36, 20/02/2019].

[3] https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/chanels-karl-lagerfeld-claims-muslim-migrants-are-affront-to-holocaust-victims-cm2tr9prt

[4] https://edition.cnn.com/style/article/karl-lagerfeld-controversial-quotes-intl/index.html