Karl Lagerfeld was born on 10 September 1938 to a wealthy family in Hamburg, Germany. He moved to Paris in 1952 and first came to the attention of the fashion world two years later when he won a competition prize for his design of a woolen coat. In 1954 he was hired as a design assistant by Pierre Balmain, one of the premier couture houses of the early postwar period. In 1958 he parted ways with Balmain and became art director at the House of Patou, where he remained until 1962. For most of the next fifteen years he designed for a number of companies and under a variety of contractual and freelance agreements.
He was associated especially with Chloë (1963-1983), where he created styles that simultaneously were elegant and focused on the young. Many of his most striking designs for Chloë had an art deco flavor, being very streamlined and body conscious. He also utilized prints to excellent effect. At the same time, he worked as a freelance designer for Krizia, Valentino, Ballantyne, and other companies. Beginning in 1965 he designed furs for Fendi. His ability to design simultaneously for several different houses has been a defining characteristic of his career; Lagerfeld became known as a man who was never content to do just one thing at a time.
His Own Company
In 1975 Lagerfeld formed his own company and in 1983 became artistic director of the House of Chanel. While continuing his responsibilities at Chanel and at Fendi, he formed Karl Lagerfeld S.A. and KL to market his own ready-to-wear lines. Karl Lagerfeld S.A. was acquired by Dunhill (the parent company of Chloë) in 1992, and Lagerfeld returned to Chloë at that time and held the post of chief designer until 1997, when he was replaced by Stella McCartney. When he left Chloë, he regained control of the company bearing his own name; in the early 2000s Lagerfeld was designing for Karl Lagerfeld/KL, Chanel, and Fendi. He has also designed costumes for many films and theatrical productions.
Lagerfeld probably is most admired for his work at Chanel, where in 1982-1983 he took over responsibility for a company that had become somnolent, if not moribund, and very quickly made it exciting again. Taking the basic vocabulary established by Coco Chanel, he modernized it, introducing new materials, including denim, and exaggerating such details as the "double C" logo. Remarkably, his work for Chanel has remained as vital in the twenty-first century as it was in the mid-1980s.
A Fashion Icon
Karl Lagerfeld has had a wide-ranging career in the arts, achieving considerable success as a writer and photographer. Over the years he has produced many fashion photography spreads for his collections at Chanel and for his own labels and has published several books of his photographs. He also is well known as an aesthete and connoisseur of art and antiques. In 2000 he sold part of his antique furniture and art collection at auction for more than $20 million. With his signature silver-white hair and newly slim figure, he is a familiar and iconic presence on the European fashion scene.
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Karl Lagerfeld. Karl Lagerfeld: Off the Record. Göttingen, Germany: Steidl, 1994.
--. Dreams. New York: Te Neues, 2002.
Milbank, Caroline Rennolds. Couture: The Great Designers. New York: Stewart, Tabori, and Chang, 1985.