Designer Karl Lagerfeld had a special working relationship with Anna Wintour, the legendary editor of Vogue magazine and editorial director of Condé Nast. And she made it clear last month at the latest Met Gala tribute honoring her friend.
Lagerfeld created clothes “I wore for the most important events in my life,” she said at the annual “fashion’s biggest night.” The clothes, she added, “are a uniform, a type of armor, and hold certain emotions and memories close. His fashion does for me what fashion wants. It makes me feel more confident in being myself.”
Wintour is one person whose career as a fashion icon has been affected. With a career spanning more than six decades, Lagerfeld has proven to be one of the most enduring fashion designers. He was also among the best.
“When I first met him, he was designing for Chanel, Chloe and Fendi. Three major houses,” William Middleton, author of the authoritative biography “Paradise Now: The Extraordinary Life of Karl Lagerfeld,” told Investor’s Business Daily. “Chanel had four shows a year, two couture and two ready-to-wear. The other houses had two main shows a year. That’s eight shows a year. No other designer has done that.”
Follow your love first, just like Lagerfeld
Lagerfeld (1933-2019) was more than a designer. He was a highly regarded fashion and portrait photographer, book publisher and even curator of museum exhibitions.
In some ways, Lagerfeld was lucky. For one thing, he knew what he wanted to do at a young age. Most people don’t. As a child, he showed talent as an illustrator and would design dresses for the girls in his class when asked.
Also, his parents were rich enough to support him and even cheer him on. In 1952, at the age of 19, he left school and headed to Paris. Two years later, he won the prestigious International Woolmark Award for what he called a cocktail coat. It earned him a huge cash prize and the right to manufacture his design. And above all, he quickly became a significant figure in Paris couture.
Keep up the creative work
Lagerfeld’s first break came when he was named Jean Patou’s artistic director. In five years, he created 10 shows for the prestigious house. But “there were only two sets of 60 clothes a year, and I got bored,” he said.
So Lagerfeld left the company. He began freelancing for French, Italian and Japanese companies. He designed for many different companies and markets in part because he was changing his tastes.
Lagerfeld once said: “You know what (the famous French biologist) Professor (Jean) Rostand did to insects? He noticed, and I did the same thing.”
Middleton Lagerfeld “was very involved in the culture of his time. He knew everything about everything that was going on: art, music, cinema. All that knowledge fueled his designs.”
It changed as culture changed. “Carl was determined not to take the easy way out,” says French supermodel and fashion designer Innes de la Fresange. He could have achieved more by doing the simplest thing by repeating himself. But Carl never gave up. For that challenge, he seemed to want to work hard just for himself, so that he could look at himself in the mirror.
Take a risk like Lagerfeld
In the year In 1964, Lagerfeld signed with Chloé, an early ready-to-wear brand. Two years later, he added Fendi to his portfolio – a partnership that would last until his death four decades later.
But in 1982, Lagerfeld took the first of many big bets, all of which could damage his reputation and even jeopardize his career. Remember that Lagerfeld’s career at this point is flawless. Chanel was at the height of his career when he was approached to take over as creative director. At the time, Chanel was a design house that went downhill steadily after the death of its founder, Coco.
“He was practically bankrupt,” Middleton said. People thought about how to make a difference. “Chanel is something that my mother, my grandmother would wear. Yet in 2019, it was about $11 billion in revenue,” Middleton said.
Lagerfeld’s changes turned the company around while still respecting its culture. “He approached Chanel with the history of that house in mind,” Middleton said. “He studied the past. It wasn’t like he went from here to there.”
But it went from here to here (just) — and then it went further,” Middleton said.
Create a name for yourself
In the year In 1984, Lagerfeld launched his famous design house. And in 2004, he pushed the disaster into full speed. That’s when he signed on to do a collection for H&M, the Swedish behemoth with stores around the world. No one has successfully combined high fashion and mass merchandise.
But Lagerfeld saw its potential while riding in his office elevator. He would ride with young women wearing H&M coats who carry Chanel bags but can’t afford Chanel coats.
Middleton quoted art director Daniel Schneider, who pitched the idea to Lagerfeld: “Karl understood what it meant, wanted to do it, and wanted to do it first.”
Keep your humility
Lagerfeld didn’t take himself too seriously. A reporter once asked him if he was so stupid. He said, “How can I not be? I’m selling, for now, it’s blowing in the right direction.”
On another occasion, he posed for a photo shoot. Lagerfeld got up to look at his hair and makeup. “He told the photographer that he had time to revive the marionette. He knew he was a puppet and always laughed about it,” Middleton wrote in “Paradise Now”.
Although he didn’t take himself seriously, he really took his job that way. “I think another point about Carl’s success that’s really important is that he wasn’t a designer who felt too high to be concerned with commercial issues. He was someone who really cared about how things would sell,” Middleton told IBD.
Lagerfeld paid great attention to the needs of customers. “Alain Wertheimer, (at that time) the president of Chanel, (Alain) every time he returned from an international trip, Karl would bake. He wanted to know what would work, what wouldn’t work.”
Unlike many designers, Lagerfeld doesn’t see sales as someone else. “Carl was interested in making sure what he designed was selling,” Middleton said. “There are many designers who feel that designing is my job and are addicted to selling. Karl was very interested in his work reaching the public.”
Lagerfeld: Don’t look at details.
Lagerfeld paid attention to detail in his designs. He spends up to six months working with designers to create the right atmosphere. He considered budget constraints. But flashing pays off when it makes sense.
He once reportedly paid a celebrity millions to appear in a two-minute short film and appear on a channel show. When asked about it by a journalist, he replied, “I don’t understand. I don’t work in accounting.”
It’s from the same guy who said, “I hate rich people living below their means. Money should be distributed.”
Despite his name on the door, Lagerfeld knew his success was not a one-man show. After each show, he welcomed the entire crew, starting with the seamstresses. These events last two to three hours. Carl spent time chatting with everyone and taking photos.
Lagerfeld knew great design is one thing, but lasting legacy is another.
Designer Karl Lagerfeld keys
- Rose went on to become one of the most famous fashion designers, working for several houses at the same time.
- Won: An occasional bad review criticizing his work.
- Lesson: “No one learns from success, but you learn a lot from your mistakes.”
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