24.01.2016 - Carolin Petersen


Karl, the Great


One name, a thousand associations - he is the saviour of Chanel, head designer at Fendi, outstanding photographer, passionate collector and a pioneer of collaborations in the design and fashion sector. He also runs his own signature label. Karl Lagerfeld is famous for his activities in all areas. Besides his designer job, he has shot the photographs for all Chanel campaigns since 1987 himself. He owns his own bookshop and a private library containing over 300,000 books.


The young boy from Hamburg relocated to Paris with his beloved mother, learnt French and soon worked as a fashion illustrator. 1st place in the prestigious competition sponsored by the International Wool Secretariat delivered the proof of his talent. His coat design convinced the jury and helped him find employment as an assistant in the couture fashion workhouse of Pierre Balmain. After three years, he left the fashion house with the statement: “I was not born to be an assistant” and switched to designer Jean Patou. He could implement his own ideas here. He self-assuredly called the first collection ‘K’. These were years in which he continually refined his own style and at the same time learnt the skills of a couture fashion house. However, he became bored because "there were only two haute couture collections every year!"

A short period of freelance work followed during which his work for Chloé began. Here, Karl Lagerfeld made a name for himself because his subtle, poetic designs inspired by the streets of London established Chloé as one of the leading labels on the fashion market. Reason enough for the house of Fendi, to snap up the talented designer for their luxurious fur collection.

His biggest coup, however, was the appointment as head designer at one of the most famous fashion houses in the world - Chanel. Since the death of Coco in 1971, it dawned on them in general that it was considered outdated and everything other than ‘en vogue'. “Everybody said ‘Don’t touch it, it’s dead, it will never come back.’ But by then I thought it was a challenge.” he recalls. Just like Mademoiselle Chanel, he didn’t care for conventions, but he sought fun and the greatest possible freedom. Thus, he cut back on the Chanel suit naughtily, lavished it with pearl necklaces or allowed it to be worn with leggings or jeans.


For Karl Lagerfeld, variety is the salt in the designer soup. Hence, he designed bottles for Coca Cola, grand pianos for Steinway & Sons, jewellery for Swarovski and shoes for Hogan. Madonna and Kylie Minogue performed their shows on stage in Karl Lagerfeld. He was the first major designer who cooperated with H&M. "What I enjoy most is doing something I've never done before," he substantiates his creative curiosity. He particularly showed himself to be playful with the 2008 mini-me teddy bear for the Steiff company and in 2009 with a bevelled Lagerfeld figure for toy manufacturer Tokidoki. The master comments austerely on his countless collaborations: “My name is Labelfeld, not Lagerfeld.”

Whilst many of his former competitors are already dead, bankrupt or have no influence, Karl Lagerfeld has catapulted himself to the top by means of instinctive adaptation, a healthy lifestyle and a lot of specifically created variety. But what fundamentally drives the octogenarian? ”I am never satisfied with myself and that is what keeps me going – I have no post-satisfaction.“

Short Facts


White powdered hair, sunglasses, extremely high collars, biker gloves and countless silver rings – sometimes up to 26 – are characteristic for the eccentric.


The long list of his muses:Inès de la Fressange, Claudia Schiffer, Stella Tennant, Brad Kroenig, Lily Allen, Keira Knightley, Baptiste Giabiconi...


In 2001, Karl Lagerfeld lost 45 kilos in weight with the radical 3-phase diet of doctor Jean-Claude Houdret. And all that just so that he could wear men’s suits from Dior Homme.

Awards and Recognition

1985 Grand Cross of Merit by the Federal Republic of Germany
1993 Lucky Strike Design Award from the Raymond Loewy foundation
1996 Cultural Prize of the German Society for Photography
2003 World Fashion Award
2007 Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography in New York
2010 named Commander of the French Legion of Honour
2011 Gordon Parks Foundation Award


1933 - Hamburg boy

Karl Otto Lagerfeldt is born in Hamburg on September 10, 1933 as the son of the Glücksklee manufacturer Christian Lagerfeldt and his wife Elisabeth. He himself still claims that he was born in 1938. Following the discovery of his birth announcement, the real date can no longer be denied. Later on, he changes his name to Lagerfeld – for the sake of simplicity. Already at an early age he displays a talent for drawing, collects images from magazines and comments on what his contemporaries are wearing at school.

His parents are wealthy and despite it being wartime, Karl grows up peacefully and comfortably just outside Hamburg. Intellectual discussions and independent thinking are encouraged at home - this is very unusual for that period. A large part of the genius that is Karl Lagerfeld is rooted in this unconventional and culturally sophisticated education.

He is his parent’s favourite child over his two sisters. He has an intimate relationship with his quick-witted mother in particular. Through her, his childhood is accompanied by entertaining anecdotes. She responds to his increasingly worse academic performance quite casually: “I don’t care if you have to repeat a year because it is only embarrassing for you." Later, a psychic predicts a career for Karl as a priest. Elisabeth promptly forbids her son from going to church. The curt reason is that she didn’t carry him inside her for nine months “so that he could learn such a profession."

1953 - Paris

Karl moves to Paris of his own volition and his beloved mother accompanies him. After he initially takes French lessons at a private school and at the Lycée Montaigne, he works as an illustrator in the fashion industry. On the basis of his parents' assets, Karl Lagerfeld is independent at this time and even owns a car. He will therefore be spared unpleasant jobs and he can concentrate wholly on his professional advancement.

1954 - Competition

Karl Lagerfeld takes part in an annual competition of the International Wool Secretariat.He submits a coat design - and wins. He shares 1st place with Yves Saint Laurent. A remarkable career lies before both young men.

1955 - Balmain and Patou

The winning coat design is produced in the haute couture studio of Pierre Balmain. Lagerfeld’s talent wins him round and he is offered a job as assistant. After three years, he switches to designer Jean Patou because he can implement his own ideas here.

1963 - Independence

After five years with Jean Patou, Karl Lagerfeld makes a lunge for freedom and works as an independent designer. He already shows himself as an all-rounder here. He designs leotards and costumes for dancers, clothes for fashion houses Krizia, Chloé and Monoprix as well as for budget brand Gadging. “Fashion designer was a miserable job, poorly paid,” he recalls. Hence, he accepts every order and gets accustomed to a high workload. At peak times he designs 17 different collections a year.

1965 - Fendi

Lagerfeld becomes creative director at Fendi, the traditional fur fashion house from Italy. The family company is run by five sisters. Lagerfeld wants to make the luxury item ‘fur’ conventional, so that it can be worn at any time like denim.  ”Let’s line fur in fur, let’s knit fur, let’s tear fur up, let’s make holes in fur, let’s paint on fur, let’s paint on shearling,“ is his first work announcement. He develops the casual elegance of feather-weight fur fashion. His collaboration with Fendi still continues today. 

966 - Chloé

The position of chief designer developed for Lagerfeld from the freelance job at Chloé. In his hands, the French label becomes one of the leading fashion houses in the world. The otherwise so quickly bored jack-of-all-trades keeps the post for almost two decades and returns again in 1992 for five years.

1970 - Private life

The otherwise eloquent Lagerfeld maintains a silence over his private life. All that is known for certain that he met and fell in love with the hedonist Jacques de Bascher at the beginning of the 70’s. The couple spent the following 20 years together – until the tragic death of de Bascher.

1983 - Chanel

Karl Lagerfeld takes over as chief designer at Chanel and receives assurance that he will get what is the most important thing to him – unlimited creative freedom. Lagerfeld senses his opportunity and throws himself confidently into his work. The instinct leads him to success. Through modern interpretations of the Coco insignia, such as the famous tweed costume, he manages to bestow on the house its old splendour. The famous CC logo soon adorns motorbike jackets, sneakers and bikinis.

1984 - The Karl Lagerfeld brand

It is time for his eponymous label. Under his own name, Lagerfeld can fully implement his own vision of fashion, free from any established design guidelines. Unfortunately, his own ‘company’ is not always profitable and the trademark owner is constantly changing. After several lows, the licences are returned to Lagerfeld in 1997. Sales of Karl Lagerfeld’s fragrances go very well on the other hand. Already on the market at this time are Lagerfeld pour Homme (1978), Photo (1991) Jako (1998) and Kapsule (2008).

1988 - Claudia

Karl Lagerfeld picks the newcomer-model Claudia Schiffer as first designer on the catwalk for Chanel. He makes her his muse and is crucially responsible for Schiffer achieving supermodel status.

1992 - Chloé again

After eight years, Karl Lagerfeld assumes the role of chief designer at Chloé again. In 1997, when Stella McCartney takes over his position, Lagerfeld says unimpressed: “I think they should have taken a big name. They did—but in music, not fashion. Let’s hope she is as gifted as her father.”

1999 - Bibliophily

The passionate ‘paper’ lover opens his own bookshop 7L for photography and art books. A year later, his own publishing company Editions 7L emerges. From time to time, his talents as illustrator and cartoonist are also requested for newspapers and magazines.

2004 - Karl for the masses

Karl Lagerfeld, showing 30 different styles, introduces the first of all H&M designer collaborations. After only two days, the coveted pieces have almost sold out. “I was always quite fascinated by H&M, because people who buy Chanel and other expensive things buy there, too. For me, this is fashion today.” 

2011 - Collab and Karl

Karl Lagerfeld repeats the sensational success of a mass-market cooperation. This time, it is the American department store chain Macy’s turn. The same year he issues a cheap signature line called Karl like the master.

2014 - New partners

The master’s beloved pet becomes a co-operator for mutual benefit. His white Siamese cat Choupette – or perhaps more likely the proud owner – has developed a line entitled Shupette by Karl Lagerfeld with the Japanese cosmetics company Shu Uemura. The Lagerfeld Barbie joins the queue behind the Steiff teddy bear, Tokidoki Lagerfeld and the Bearbrick Lagerfeld as the newest doppelganger. There is just not enough of Karl.


© bfanyc, British Fashion Council



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