Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel’s Iconic Creative Director, Was the Brand’s ‘Modern Era Personified’

The late designer forever changed what it meant to be a legacy fashion house

Lagerfeld played an instrumental role in shaping the fashion industry at large today, proving that new designers can reinvigorate a heritage fashion house.
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Thirty-six years is a long time in any job, let alone at the helm of a major fashion house—particularly one that doesn’t bear your name. But Karl Lagerfeld wasn’t your average designer.

Lagerfeld, who died earlier this week at age 85, served both as Chanel’s creative director (since 1983) and Fendi’s creative director (1965) until his death, leaving both brands with a gaping hole. Chanel and Fendi are both irrevocably different than they were when he began.

But Lagerfeld’s impact extends much further than that. The late designer played an instrumental role in shaping the fashion industry at large today, proving that new designers can reinvigorate a heritage fashion house.

It’s his time at Chanel for which Lagerfeld is best remembered, as he breathed new life into the legendary brand. “He didn’t shape Chanel’s modern era. He was Chanel’s modern era,” Vanessa Friedman, chief fashion critic for The New York Times, told Adweek. “Everything we understand about Chanel really comes from Karl.”

"He didn't shape Chanel's modern era. He was Chanel's modern era. Everything we understand about Chanel really comes from Karl."
Vanessa Friedman, chief fashion critic for The New York Times

Virginie Viard, most recently the director of Chanel’s fashion creation studio, will fill his shoes. It’s a symbolic choice, as Viard worked side by side with Lagerfeld for 30 years. Friedman said that going with her over, say, a bigger name like Hedi Slimane or Marc Jacobs (both of whom had been whispered as possible choices) is a “relatively safe choice” but also showcases an effort on Chanel’s part to keep Lagerfeld’s vision for the brand alive. (Lagerfeld’s replacement at Fendi has not yet been selected.)

But could Lagerfeld’s influence on Chanel ever truly be replaced? It’s hard to tell. Fashion writer Christina Binkley points to another designer—Alexander McQueen, who died in 2010—as possible foreshadowing for a post-Lagerfeld Chanel.

“The shows never had his level of intensity after [McQueen] was gone,” she said. “That that was really all him. But Sarah [Burton] has continued the brand very adequately. And fashion showgoers settled down and realized that they weren’t going to have that level of entertainment anymore, so I don’t think it’s hurt the brand.”

Karl Lagerfeld in 1984, the early years of his tenure at Chanel.
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When Lagerfeld first took the reins at the storied fashion house in 1983, Chanel was in the midst of a major slump. Having experienced its high point in the ’20s and ’30s followed by a post-war resurgence (all at the hands of founder Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, who died in 1971), by the ’80s, the public viewed the brand as tired—something out of a bygone era, primarily supported by perfume sales.

Today, Chanel is a powerhouse, and not just in name: The brand boasts $9.6 billion in annual sales, according to Bloomberg. And Chanel’s transformation from a stale and dowdy label past its prime to the pinnacle of fashion is all thanks to Lagerfeld.

Before Lagerfeld, designers did not become famous for, or synonymous with, brands that weren’t their own. Top-level designers were the faces and names of the labels they had founded themselves: Think Yves Saint Laurent, Ralph Lauren and, yes, Chanel. When those designers left the business, it often lost its luster, the magic that made it captivating to so many. Such was the case with Elsa Schiaparelli, Chanel’s rival between the first and second world wars; her namesake label ended up closing down in 1954 and wasn’t revived until very recently, in 2013.

Karl Lagerfeld as a young designer in 1960.

Lagerfeld’s legacy

Bucking what was then an industry standard, Lagerfeld’s best-known work doesn’t come from the brand that bears his name. (In fact, the Karl Lagerfeld label never really took off in a meaningful way.) Instead, he became famous for the work he did at another label, rising to be nearly as well-known as Chanel itself.

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