Karl Lagerfeld: Why the Chanel creative director was so outstanding

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Plenty of words get overused, especially in the hyperbolic world of fashion, filled with hot air and air-kissing in equal measure. “Genius” and “iconic” are my main bugbears – the former should be used sparingly, about folk such as Azzedine Alaïa (a genius craftsman) or maybe Tom Ford (a genius at marketing, let's not beat about the bush). The latter should only be used if you have, say, an unfolding triptych of a medieval saint pasted onto the front of a coat: Jean Paul Gaultier, incidentally, did that in 1997. And it was, indeed, iconic.

“Outstanding” is an odd word though. What does it really mean? I mean it obviously means to stand out, but in the realm of fashion, when so many designers are jostling, constantly, to make themselves heard above the bubbling masses, how does a designer achieve that? I guess it means doing something over and above the ordinary – the ordinary being to cobble together some good clothes and send them down a catwalk a few times a year.

The British Fashion Council awards a fashion individual each year for being outstanding: Anna Wintour, American Vogue's editor in chief, received it in 2014, and a year later it was announced that Karl Lagerfeld was next. Why? Because, if you needed a picture to run alongside that fashion dictionary definition of “outstanding”, I'd suggest Lagerfeld's instantly recognisable visage.

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What has Lagerfeld done that is so extraordinary? How about holding the record for the longest-serving tenure of a designer at a fashion house – 2015 marked his 50th at Fendi. He was also the second longest-serving designer to helm a fashion house, clocking in 36 years at Chanel. The former has been marked by technical innovation – in the realm of fur, where he ripped out interfacings and linings to make soft, unstructured, modern furs. But many hacks' hackles rise when you talk about how Lagerfeld revolutionised a trade they hope will die.

At Chanel, however, what Lagerfeld did was palatable to just about everyone – today, at least. He set the template for a designer reviving a dusty, long-forgotten house, riffing on the classic styles of the founder but giving them a modern edge.

Virginie Viard and Karl Lagerfeld (Getty Images)
Virginie Viard and Karl Lagerfeld (Getty Images)

Fashion critics in the 1980s and 1990s sneered when Lagerfeld sent out irreverent, even disrespectful reiterations of Coco Chanel's signature Fifties tweed suits paired with leather or denim, bringing them bang up to date, injecting them with new desirability. Today, it's exactly what everyone is doing at every other house – finding a contemporary language to speak with the design vocabulary of the past.

That's Karl Lagerfeld's outstanding achievement: he changed the way we think about fashion today. Maybe he belongs in the genius pile too…

This piece was first published in November 2015.

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