The Lagerfeld Looks That Defined a Career and Remade Fashion

Through talent, longevity and sheer productivity, it is possible that Karl Lagerfeld did more than any other designer to shape the look of the latter 20th century and the early 21st century. Across more than six decades, five different brands (three at the same time) and numerous collaborations, he flooded the zone from Paris to Dallas to Shanghai, dressing Hollywood, the haute and the high street.

But why tell when we can show? Here are some of the most notable looks from nearly every stage of an extraordinary career.


Jean Patou

In 1954, Mr. Lagerfeld, a young German with no formal fashion training, won the coat category in the prestigious Woolmark Prize — a serendipitous event that led to a job as an assistant to the couturier Pierre Balmain, who was one of the judges. After only three years in that atelier, while still in his 20s, Mr. Lagerfeld was named artistic director of Jean Patou, a brand founded in 1914, whose founder was known for liberating the female form and for creating the perfume Joy.

There, Mr. Lagerfeld went on to create 10 couture collections over five years, laying the groundwork for his own facility in working with petites mains, and his ability to romp gleefully within the confines of an established aesthetic.

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A Patou dress from 1960 by Karl Lagerfeld. He was criticized that year for showing the shortest skirts of the season in Paris — a first sign that he was happy to thumb his nose at the establishment.



In 1966, Mr. Lagerfeld became designer of Chloé, one of the earliest ready-to-wear brands in Paris, working first with its founder, Gaby Aghion (who initially brought him on as a freelancer in 1964), before becoming sole designer in 1974. He would remain at the brand until 1983, returning again from 1992 to 1997.

Mr. Lagerfeld’s early work at Chloé, a name that became synonymous with a certain wafty femininity, may surprise many, toying as it did with prints and Surrealism. But it also reflected his ability to balance luxe eccentricity and wearability, with an eye to commerce (he never saw “sales” as a dirty word). By his second stint, he had fully embraced the bohemian, and set the tone for what was to come.

via Chloé

The “tertulia” dress from Mr. Lagerfeld’s first season, in 1966, when he was still working with Ms. Aghion.

A sheer black dress from Mr. Lagerfeld’s first solo collection for Chloé, featuring both the flou and Surrealist touches that would mark his tenure.

A spring 1982 “trellis” dress featuring boho geometry and a corset waist was inspired in part by the artist Sonia Delaunay.

For his fall 1983 collection, Mr. Lagerfeld elevated plumbing to the status of high decoration.

A “violin” dress, originally shown on the runway in spring 1983, which looked just as relevant when it was reissued in 2013 and worn by Chloë Sevigny.

Pat Cleveland, dancing down the runway for spring 1984, in the kind of springy dress that became a Chloé staple.

Boho romance took shape in spring 1996, via lace and an exaggerated straw hat.



In 1965, the five Fendi sisters, who had inherited their family fur business from their parents, Adele and Edoardo, brought Mr. Lagerfeld on to design their ready-to-wear and fur collections.

They may have thought they were getting a clever designer, but what they actually got was a lifetime partnership. Silvia Venturini Fendi, the daughter of Anna Fendi, who grew up to design Fendi bags and men’s wear alongside Mr. Lagerfeld, recalled that even as a child, “when Karl came,” it was clear “something special was going on and I should pay attention.”

Mr. Lagerfeld created the “FF” logo, which stood for the concept of “fun fur” (as well as Fendi), and then started shaving, dyeing, sculpting and otherwise transforming the material, as well as introducing such pelts as mole, rabbit and squirrel to high fashion.

His work on the runway was equally experimental, with a wide array of references, including Fendi’s Roman roots and futurism. When LVMH bought the brand in 1999, Mr. Lagerfeld went with it, eventually pioneering a “haute fourrure” line (who had even heard of that before?) to go with the ready-to-wear, remaining defiantly pro-fur even as the public mood shifted and other brands turned against the idea of wearing animal skins.

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Mr. Lagerfeld upended the traditional practice of putting fur on a pedestal, manipulating, tufting and bobbling pelts as if they were any other fabric. This fall 1981 poncho is a case in point.

In 2007, Fendi became the first brand to hold a fashion show on the Great Wall of China, announcing its ambitions for global growth and notching an early victory in a game of venue one-upmanship that continues to this day.

In 2016, Mr. Lagerfeld brought his second haute fourrure show to the Trevi Fountain in Rome for Fendi’s 90th anniversary. Models appeared to walk on water, many in dresses featuring minute fur appliqués, like mosaics, done with eye-popping skill.

In 2014, Mr. Lagerfeld unveiled “Bag Boy Karlito,” a limited-edition bag charm made in his image from mink, fox and goat. A month after the waiting list for the charm opened, there were 600 names signed up — even though the toys cost $1,685 each.



In 1982, Mr. Lagerfeld got the job that would vault him into the fashion stratosphere: artistic director of Chanel, at that point a brand known primarily for perfume and bourgeois handbags. By adopting an approach he summed up in highly questionable terms (“Chanel is an institution, and you have to treat an institution like a whore — and then you get something out of her”), he revived a moribund brand, providing a template for the industry that is still in place today.

Splicing classic Chanel iconography — the camellia, pearls, the Maltese cross, bouclé suiting — with a heavy dose of irony and irreverence, he managed to make the brand a pop culture phenomenon, a symbol of classicism and a financial juggernaut. He helped create and popularize the traveling fashion show, bringing his runway to Salzburg, Edinburgh, Shanghai and Havana; dreamed up such viral runway sets as an iceberg (sculpted from parts of a Swedish glacier), a supermarket and a rocket ship (that actually lifted off); made mini-movies with Nicole Kidman and Kristen Stewart; and ultimately helped bring the brand annual sales topping $11 billion.


A trompe l’oeil dress with faux necklaces and belts from Mr. Lagerfeld’s first Chanel couture collection, paying homage to Coco’s penchant for draping herself in ropes of pearls and gold chains. Decades later, Anna Wintour would wear the same dress to a Biden state dinner.

Inès de la Fressange and Jerry Hall modeling Mr. Lagerfeld’s Chanel version of power shoulders and Reagan red suiting in a 1986 couture show.

Easter egg alert: Claudia Schiffer in a 1990 ready-to-wear gown featuring costume jewelry versions of the Maltese cross on Verdura cuffs that were Coco’s signature — just as embedding such Chanel references in his collections was one of Mr. Lagerfeld’s signatures.

The 1994 spring collection featured the classic Chanel bouclé suits — with ultra-mini skirts in Jordan almond shades, an example of Mr. Lagerfeld’s willingness to blow raspberries at established brand codes the better to recast them as cool.

Stella Tennant in a micro-mini double-C logo bikini in 1996. Mr. Lagerfeld made a sport (to so speak) out of putting haute branding on leisure gear, from skis to motorcycle helmets and even boxing gloves.

Devon Aoki in the Y2K version of couture in 1999: crop top and hipster taffeta ball skirt.

A look from a 2009 Chanel couture show. Coming out of the Great Recession, Mr. Lagerfeld took paper flowers as his inspiration, and the theme was reflected in the clothes.

In the 2010s, the Chanel ready-to-wear shows and sets became increasingly extravagant. The 2015 spring collection, for example, was set in a faux Parisian boulevard complete with a protest march for a finale.

In 2016, Mr. Lagerfeld dedicated his spring couture show to sustainability, crafting garments from mosaics of wood and, as in this look, mother-of-pearl — another example of his ability to find beauty in pretty much any material.

In 1997, Chanel created its Paraffection subsidiary, a group of ateliers that specialized in embroidery, millinery, buttons and other hand-worked decoration; in 2002, Mr. Lagerfeld created the annual Métiers d’Art show to highlight their work. In 2018, Pharrell Williams walked the runway for one of Mr. Lagerfeld’s last Métiers collections, held in the Temple of Dendur at the Met.

Kaia Gerber in Mr. Lagerfeld’s last couture show, inspired by the 18th century but also thoroughly modern.

Penélope Cruz, a Chanel face and muse for Mr. Lagerfeld, walked in the March 2019 show that paid homage to the designer just after his death.


Karl Lagerfeld

Perhaps tired of working within the style vernaculars established by others, in 1984, Mr. Lagerfeld founded his own namesake line. While it would never reach the size or fame of Chanel or Fendi, and though it went through numerous ownership changes, Lagerfeld the brand reflected his personal style more closely than any of his other brands. Imagine rock ’n’ roll tailoring with a Teutonic edge, filtered through a monochromatic lens, and you’ll get the idea.


Mr. Lagerfeld’s signature uniform after he lost 92 pounds in 2001 was a tight pair of black jeans, a crisp white button-up and a tailored jacket. If it worked for him, why not everyone else?

Bejeweled motorcycle helmets on the Lagerfeld fall 2009 runway came complete with little iPod pockets, a nod to Mr. Lagerfeld’s love of technology. (At one time, he was said to own 300 iPods himself.)



In 2004, Mr. Lagerfeld became the first couture designer to collaborate with a mass-market brand when he signed on to do an H&M collection. First the fashion world was shocked, then it was intrigued, and after the line of Karl-alike black suits, portrait tees and L.B.D.s sold out in seconds, a whole new genre and approach was born.

Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images

Dress like Karl: A sequined black blazer and a T-shirt bearing Mr. Lagerfeld’s image were part of his limited edition collection for H&M.

Anna Grace Lee and Callie Holtermann contributed reporting.

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