A love letter to Karl Lagerfeld

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Karl Lagerfeld

Just a few months ago, Nancy Buckland Kirk was making the case for why Karl Lagerfeld is arguably the greatest fashion designer of all time for a His & Hers feature on Chanel. Today she looks back on his life in fashion and the huge impact he’s had on the industry…

My husband is always asking me questions about beauty and style, and wanting to know my opinions, whether it is about the most beautiful woman who has ever lived, or the most stylish man to have ever walked the earth. He also knows I love lists, so I will go into subsections, but I usually have a definitive answer. Last year, he asked me who the greatest fashion designer of all time is. I sat there for an hour, lecturing him on the pros and cons of some of my favourite names in fashion history, from the wild Alexander McQueen, the subtle Hubert de Givenchy to the cool regard of Yves Saint Laurent. But there was only ever going to be one definitive answer, and my summation of my own question felt unanswerable: what will happen when Karl Lagerfeld dies?

Today, I’ve already asked myself this over again, as the world of style mourns the loss of Karl Lagerfeld. I have written about him many times, and certainly for His and Hers, and this week I know that we will all be bombarded with information and articles. All I can really do is talk about what he means to me, just an average fashion fan, with no private jet to climb aboard, and no red carpet to beckon.

I first saw an outfit Karl designed for the house of Chanel in British Vogue, in 1983, gamely modelled by Talisa Soto. It was monochrome, but had the kind of appeal that made it look like something Debbie Harry would wear, rather than a standard lady-who-lunches. At the time, Chanel had no real appeal to me. It was in the doldrums, along with other names such as Burberry and Gucci. It felt dusty and careworn. Kids on the street weren’t interested in what matrons and patrons were wearing at boring old balls in European capitals. We were interested in the word on the street, not a waltz around Paris.

Karl changed all of that. Already an established name, his appointment at Chanel brought around a huge change in fortunes for the label, but it did take time. Accustomed to a certain way of operating, there are strict rules on what governs an official couture house. What Karl did was a stroke of genius: he took all of the pomp and circumstance and preserved it, but changed the design aesthetic completely. He took his inspiration from everywhere and never closeted himself too much, although he liked to travel in luxury as he did so. Rumour has it he once rocked up to Cream nightclub in Liverpool in the 1990’s, as had John Galliano before him. It was an urban myth, much discussed, but what a story.

Karl created a label where everything from the finest couture to a nail polish had to fit his vision. If you’ve watched the recent Netflix documentary about his work at Chanel, you will know he was a tough task master, but his staff were clearly devoted to him, and often worked for him for many, many years. It’s hard to imagine now in a world with so many launches, but the stampede to get a Rouge Noir nail polish after Uma Thurman wore it  in Pulp Fiction was groundbreaking. He was the first designer to really match the beauty side of a label to its fashion, and the beauty industry industry is forever grateful. I can vouch for that.

Lagerfeld took Chanel out of old school ballrooms and restaurants and made it current. Yes, political wives and socialites still wore it, but now schoolgirls, rock stars and hipsters were joining the party. He embraced the supermodel trend in his own way, but has also always favoured French names to promote his work, including Vanessa Paradis and then her daughter, Lily-Rose Depp. His work ethic at Chanel, his own label and at houses like Fendi has been astounding, and yet he has always brought a fresh touch to anything that flourishes from the end of his pen. His work for Chanel, in particular, has payed homage to Coco, but with a huge dash of his own tongue-in-cheek humour. Over the decades, the nature of couture has changed in terms of who the customer is, but Karl has never really danced to that tune, and he has always had an eye for the up-and-coming. To be able to take classic touches and make new silhouettes that every generation of women covets is remarkable. If you say the word Chanel in the presence of any women, watch them melt. If you have dressed Nancy Reagan and Lily Allen in one label, you know how to make fashion universal.

I am lucky enough to own a few pieces of Chanel, and it’s the one thing I rarely part with, because I would never have the opportunity to buy them again. I took my mother to the Sloane Street store once, and instead of just trying on sunglasses, she ended up in an upstairs salon, looking at evening dresses, and being served tea and champagne. She told me later that it was one of the most wonderful days of her life, and she did buy me something, although it wasn’t couture or even off the rails, but there was a stern lecture about not telling my dad. I have that seersucker beach dress to this day.

One of the joys of being grown up is writing a will. And while other people talk about assets and properties, stocks and shares, the first thing that sprung to mind recently was: who will get my Chanel? In the wider picture, I have no idea who would be good enough to even be considered to take over fashion’s finest couture house. I think McQueen would have been perfect, had he still been with us. Karl Lagerfeld was a lesson in creativity and working at what you love. I am sure it was the secret to his long life. And as I sit here writing this in highly questionable leisurewear, I am aware of his musings on that subject: “Sweatpants are a sign of defeat.”

So as I go about my day, I am going to get changed and I may not go Chanel, clearly, but I think a little monochrome might be called for. My husband has just called.

“Who will be at his funeral, and what will they all be wearing?”

I’m going to need coffee, paper, a pen and my own thoughts for that one. It’s going to be a long afternoon.

About the author: Nancy Buckland Kirk is a writer with a keen interest in fashion and beauty and a career which has spanned modelling, teaching and spreading the word about leading beauty brands. Related features: Nancy falls in love with Chanel at Christmas and also Celebrating Naomi Campbell.Image via: msn.com. For more style news, please pay a visit to our regularly updated fashion page.

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