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Lagerfeld: The Designer Who Dressed To Survive

Karl Lagerfeld. Two days to the first Monday of May (and the Met Gala), and the name Karl Lagerfeld is all we hear. But, who exactly is Lagerfeld? Designer. Artist. Photographer. Controversial? Timeless. Icon.

Before we get into the article though, I feel I must give a tiny warning. I am not introducing Lagerfeld as a person, but rather as an artist. I understand that you may have contradicting/negative opinions, but I request you to please keep them aside and step into this with an open mind as we explore the professional career of one of the most iconic designers of the century.

As a designer, Karl Lagerfeld was specifically partial to European styles, especially those from the 18th Century. We can see this throughout his collections, where he revived and reinvented multiple yesteryear styles, such as crinolines (1860s), shoulder pads (1940s-50s) and pouf skirts (1950s), often making them rather risque. These creations were usually paired with heavy, chunky pieces of jewellery.

Career-wise, Lagerfeld served as the creative director for Fendi and Chanel, up until his death in 2019. For Fendi, he is perhaps best credited for reinventing the label’s signature ‘Baguette Bag’ per collection. He was also instrumental in introducing the use of mole, rabbit, and squirrel pelts into high fashion. Lagerfeld was often lauded for elevating the classics of traditional fashion houses by bringing them into a more modern-day context. This was perhaps most visible in his work for Chanel, especially in the introduction of mini skirts (Chanel having previously discouraged all skirts above the knee length) and the revival of Chanel staples that had been considered dead since the founder’s demise (interlocking Cs logo as a motif/pattern in the designs, tweed suits, layered pearl necklaces). He also had a label in his name, where he continued to express his love for modernising classics.

Below are some of my personal favourites of Karl Lagerfeld’s designs, join me as I attempt to analyse each one:

1. Fall 2011 Chanel Haute Couture

This vision in ivory walked the runway during Chanel’s 2011 Fall Haute Couture show. With a silhouette reminiscent of the 16th century Tudor style chemise, the gown perfectly exhibits Lagerfeld’s techniques of taking elements of yesteryear styles and modernising them. The outfit puts out a statement of power and submission, with its toga-style dress draping and train being contrasted with the narrow veil covering the eyes. It is also an attempt to modernise a classic wedding look, swapping out the traditional bridal headgear for a groom’s tophat.

2. Fall/Winter 1990 Chanel runway show

This statement in black and gold felt like a play on strength and fragility to me. The outfit is filled with contrasts, the delicate slinky black dress contrasting the gold armour like chain-mail, the sturdiness of the metal chains being used to create fluidity in the drape sleeves, the heavy chain earrings as opposed to the simple hairdo and the lack of other jewellery.

3. Fall/Winter 1991 Chanel Ready to Wear show

Black. White. There’s no pair that's more classic, no colour scheme so well loved. It’s traditional. New. Dystopian. Hopeful. Yin. Yang. Balance. And that’s exactly what this outfit is all about, balance. Lagerfeld took a traditional black catsuit and a backwards cap, then turned it into something gala-worthy. Originally seen as pure accessories, pearls here take the centre stage, the delicate beads forming a structure that's fluid yet sturdy. These are further accentuated through the use of the billowing black fur coat, making this outfit a multi-textural dream.

4. Spring/Summer 1998 Chanel runway

With the simple nude tone chiffon and the long flowing train, this is perhaps one of Lagerfeld’s more modest creations. The draping sleeves add to the elegance of this evening gown, made slightly sensual with the satin ties near the shoulders. A contrast present is the pointy black heels, adding a slight edge to the entire fit. The dull colour and lace hair net do make me question if this was rather a subtler take on a funeral gown, though.

5. Spring/Summer 2016 Chanel Haute Couture

Embellished with chiffon, leather, wood chips, beads and rhinestones, this strapless lace wedding dress had a silhouette that reminded me a lot of Marilyn Monroe’s famous pink dress in ‘Gentlemen prefer blondes’. It was styled with a hooded jacket and a train, with a tiny mobile pouch that seemed to blend into the dress. The heaviness on the shoulders of the hooded jacket is very in line with Lagerfeld's partiality towards padded sleeves.

These are just my top 5 Karl Lagerfeld designs, but nothing can truly encapsulate the creative genius that Lagerfeld was. The Costume Institute Gala (on 1st May 2023)’s theme, Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty, will attempt to trace the journey of the legendary designer, from winning the Woolmark Prize in 1954 to being hired as an assistant to Pierre Balmain, and revisits his prolific career at Chanel, Fendi, Chloé, Balmain, Patou and his eponymous brand, until his death in 2019. The dress code is “in honour of Karl”, and I, for one, am looking forward to seeing Lagerfeld’s designs back on the red carpet, and how designers may reinvent his designs.

Sources: Harper's Bazaar, Vogue France, WikiPedia,,,,

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