The genius marketing of Kaiser Karl

Karl Lagerfeld © Getty Images

Karl Lagerfeld, who has died aged 85, created a caricature that was key to his own success and that of his fashion house, Chanel. He was a perfectionist wit to the last, says Jane Lewis.

When dropping off to sleep at night, Karl Lagerfeld used to read classic European literature, usually in its original language. The Chanel maestro “does not do anything as banal as translated books”, observed Geordie Greig in Tatler in 2007. But then Lagerfeld had an esoteric take on most things. “What’s with the shades?” a fashion journalist once asked of his permanently in situ sunglasses. “I am short-sighted,” he replied, “and often short-sighted people have a look in their eyes like dogs who want to be adopted. This is not a look that matches my personality.”

A natural entrepreneur

Lagerfeld, who died last week aged 85 after more than 30 years at the fashion house, “was not so much a designer of great clothes” as “a genius marketer” who “used the logo of the interlocking ‘Cs’ to establish the brand across the world”, says the Financial Times. A natural entrepreneur, he “personified an era of extraordinary change” in both the multibillion-dollar luxury industry and its European heartland. After championing the ready-to-wear revolution while at Fendi (for whom he continued to design all his life) in the 1960s, he later “watched behind his trademark dark glasses” as “the cash rolled in” to Chanel. The fashion house is still privately held by the Wertheimer family, which originally partnered with Coco Chanel in the 1920s. But a recent rare snapshot of finances put worldwide revenue in 2017 at $10bn.

Although famously autocratic – he was known as “Kaiser Karl” and rarely ventured out without a full retinue of courtiers – the German-born designer could be “brilliantly seductive when he chose”, says The Times. “He was charming, droll,

hyper-intelligent company” with his own “uniform”, featuring an ear-grazing stiff white collar, fingerless biker gloves and carefully powdered ponytail. “Everything I say is a joke,” he once said. “I am a joke myself.”

But having rescued Chanel from its dreary “post-Coco” slide into staidness in 1983, he understood the value of his “caricature”. The new Chanel would be vibrant and youthful “with a playful hint of the kitsch” – just like him. And Lagerfeld’s “finely tuned awareness of design and trends” kept it that way. It was widely noted (not least by jilted former friends) that Lagerfeld “doesn’t like the past”. He saw that the key to success for Chanel was taking its core elements – the tweed jackets, pearls and quilted bags – and constantly manipulating them into “fresh” products.

A famous way with insults

Business was in his blood. Born in 1933 into a cultured Hamburg family, his father, Otto, had made a packet exporting condensed milk. But the guiding force of Lagerfeld’s early life was his mother Elisabeth – a former lingerie saleswoman of unusual severity, whose idea of small talk was debating religious philosophy. Their relationship was strangely intense, says The Observer. “It was Mutti dearest who told Karl his hands were ugly, hence the gloves.” But he later claimed to have “relished her sternness, her impatience, her plain speaking – and, to a degree, he aped them”. He owed her “his workaholism” – he designed some 14 collections a year – and his famous “way with insults”. But she also put him on the path to early success: allowing him to leave home to finish his secondary education in Paris where, after winning a design competition in 1954, he caught the eye of the couturier Pierre Balmain, who gave him his first break.

“In the days after Lagerfeld’s death, there were all the usual breathless tributes from the fashion world – and then, just as predictably, the accusations,” says The Observer. Lagerfeld came under the cosh for everything from misogyny (he was notoriously rude about “fat” women) to being almost obscenely cat crazy – his feline “muse” Choupette, now a considerable heiress, was photographed in a mourning veil. A perfectionist wit to the last, Lagerfeld made no bones of his final wishes. “There will be no funeral. I would rather die.”