On Fashion’s Night Out in 2009, when I was studying abroad in Paris and so effusive that I wore five-inch heels to walk across one of the bridges that separated the right and left banks just to get a glimpse at what the hell was happening on the side of town unaffiliated with the American University, I met Karl Lagerfeld.
I mean, I didn’t meet him, but I was walking up Avenue Montaigne, unaware of what it was but sure that it was fancy — too fancy for my 20-euro “leather” jacket from a shop in the 18th arrondissement. And there he was, emerging from a door hidden in the facade of a building, wearing his signature white ponytail and black sunglasses and fingerless motorcycle gloves with a canvas tote on his shoulder. “I love you!” I yelled, a true fan girl with no cause. “Look at my bag!”
I was holding a worn red Chanel pocketbook. My grandmother had given it to me before I left for Paris and I treasured it. It was shaped like a half moon and had a tassel attached to the zipper that climbed over the moon’s arch. I think I yelled at him to look at my bag because I hoped it would tickle him as it did me. A sign that this was fate. Here he was colliding with an American student in Paris, fortuitously walking down the same block that he traversed on a random (fine, not random) night in Paris, holding something that he made! This was more than fate, it was destiny. Or so I told myself even after he deflated the balloon of my narrative with one mere, slightly horrified glance.
He may as well have told me what he was thinking: The bag was older than he was. Looking back, I’m surprised that he didn’t. Lagerfeld was a controversial character who was as famous for generating some of the most breathtaking garments and moments (the fashion show as an experience originated on his early 2000’s resort runways) in fashion as he was for saying some objectively mean things. He called Adele “a little too fat” in 2012. He said Heidi Klum was more “bling bling” than fashion in 2009. He routinely rejected the case against fur (until he, and therefore Chanel, discontinued its use late last year), even though he himself would not wear it. In this way, he was a classic model for the debate on whether you can separate an artist from his output, but it’s hard to imagine Lagerfeld as vitriolic.
A hedonist? Absolutely. Provocateur? Oh yes! (I did not know this, but in 1993, Anna Wintour left a Fendi show because he used an adult-film star called Moana Pozzi and strippers as models on his runway.) He was decadent and extravagant and extreme. You might even say he saw every thing and one around him as disposable, but genuinely hateful? I’m not sure. He believed in a divisive fashion industry, and even though that belief is currently dated, he stood by it; he committed to it, until the very last minute. There was an unapologeticism about him that — combined with the tremendous ripple effect of his impact — enabled a separation between him and his work, right or wrong.
And he wasn’t just an artist, trapped in the ivory tower of his imagination — he was a voraciously curious merchant and an unapologetic mercenary who understood the mechanism of what built fame and wealth. He could think pragmatically about what to create when the sky is truly your limit and then deliver, over and over (and over) again.
Often they liken the best businesses to well-oiled machines. Only recently have I been able to truly know what this means: in order for your machine to be well-oiled, the actual machine has to be unflinching. That by trying to change a core competency of what you do, or who you are, you mess with the mechanics. Karl Lagerfeld was a well-oiled machine-maker. And a prolific one. Joan Didion first said that we tell ourselves stories in order to live and all of us do this in different ways. Some of us paint them, some take photos, some draw, some write, some design. Lagerfeld did it all. But no job earned him the same credibility as did his work, which started in 1983, with Chanel.
With the fanfare that he built around that house, based on a template that souped-up tweed jackets and confectionary gowns season after season, Lagerfeld became a straw through which you could drink the culture. His curiosity was infectious. Maybe you didn’t always know it, maybe the clothes did not always show it, but I challenge you to spend one scroll through Instagram without coming upon at least one reference — a personal anecdote, a maxim, a quote — that represents his reign.
There is a famous quote by Coco Chanel that was burned into my Facebook user profile for years: “In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different.” Only now do I recognize that one can’t always be different, but that Lagerfeld was. And I’m not sure another like him can exist. Yes, because his robotic diligence and discipline are inimitable, but more than that, we — the public — have changed too much. Our relationships to the people who represent the brands we align ourselves with are more intimate and personal than before. We demand more than just talent, we need a moral compass. Social justice. Empathy. It’s a handful and a mouthful and in thinking through who can be next, I’m at a loss. There have been rumors about a potential Phoebe Philo takeover since before her departure from Celine, née Céline. I have fancied the idea of someone like Thom Browne, or Marc Jacobs — master of theatrics — taking over, but to call it taking over is to assume that business-as-usual can resume. There is only one Karl Lagerfeld. There was only one Karl Lagerfeld, and with the end of his life comes the end of an era, of a guard, of fashion as we have known it.
Feature photo by John van Hasselt/Corbis via Getty Images.