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Who was Karl Lagerfeld? From iconic designs to controversial opinions, here's what to know about Chanel's former creative director

The 2023 Met Gala will honor famed Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld. (Photo:Getty Images; Illustration by Barbara Gibson for Yahoo)
The 2023 Met Gala will honor famed Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld. (Photo:Getty Images; Illustration by Barbara Gibson for Yahoo)

Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel will forever be linked with her namesake brand — but you can credit Karl Lagerfeld with its indelible image. In 1983, when Lagerfeld took over the French fashion house, he he set forth a vision that can still be felt — and purchased — in stores everywhere.

"He had so much power and so much of an influence on what people were wearing that anything could be Karl Lagerfeld inspired," fashion historian Doris Domoszlai-Lantner tells Yahoo Life.

However, Lagerfeld was also a controversial figure who made headlines for fat-shaming Adele, supporting the fur industry and exchanging words with Angela Merkel. So what do you need to know about the designer?

Who was Karl Lagerfeld?

Born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1933, Lagerfeld began sketching designs at a young age and won a prestigious fashion design competition in 1954 that put his career on the fasttrack. Shortly thereafter, he was scouted by designer Pierre Balmain who produced Lagerfeld's winning look and brought him on as an assistant in 1955.

Throughout his career, he would go on to work with various luxury brands, including Balmain, Chloé and Fendi, where he served as creative director up until his death. But in the eyes of many, he is most revered for his contributions at Chanel.

Lasting fashion impact

Lagerfeld designed for both ready-to-wear collections and couture at Chanel. Chanel was founded in 1910 by Gabrielle aka Coco Chanel. After popularizing sportswear for women, launching Chanel No. 5 and creating the quilted handbag and iconic two-tone pumps, the brand went through a flat period.

"When I took over Chanel, everybody said to me, 'Don't touch it. It's dead. There's nothing you can do.' And I said to myself, 'I love that people think that. Now let's see," Lagerfeld said in a 2017 interview with Women's Wear Daily.

His tenacity paid off, as he’s now largely credited with modernizing the brand. One of his savviest moves was to include the French brand’s double-C logo on products like three-piece terry-cloth sets to mega-micro bikinis. He also expanded the brand's accessory arsenal, and soon, the famed double-Cs were plastered on everything from skis to surfboards.

Beyond turning the interlocked letters into one of the most recognizable and sought-after luxury logos in the world, he also integrated popular style silhouettes into the brand, previously known for taking a more reserved and classic approach to style. This included drawing inspiration from pop culture and mixing it with Chanel house style classics like their bouclé tweed blazers and interlaced leather and metal chains.

By the 90s, Lagerfeld had fully reconceptualized the standard Chanel tweed suit, opting for shorter skirts, fitted blazers and displayed a particular flare for chunky statement jewelry.

And whether it be Naomi Campbell strutting down the runway with an exposed nipple and crucifix necklace or a hula-hoop-purse hybrid made "for the beach" — he never stopped pushing the needle.

Controversies

Lagerfeld, who died in 2019, was revered for his designs — but was known for stirring the pot with his controversial zingers and often hateful perspectives.

He disregarded the need for plus-sized models and fat-shamed Adele

Throughout his career, Lagerfeld has been accused of bias against larger bodies numerous times. In 2009, he told the German magazine Focus that "no one wants to see curvy women," and critiqued "fat mothers with their bags of chips" for "sitting in front of the television and saying that thin models are ugly."

Then in 2012, Lagerfeld used his time as guest editor for Metro to offer his opinions on Adele's appearance, stating she has a "beautiful face" and "divine voice" but is "a little too fat."

He later clarified to CNN that he "never said" Adele was fat, but rather that she was a "little roundish" for "such a beautiful girl." He also said his comments couldn't have been "that bad" because she subsequently "lost eight kilos."

He spoke out against Angela Merkel opening the border for asylum seekers

In a 2017 appearance on the French talk show Salut les Terriens!, Lagerfeld condemned then-Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel for offering asylum to Syrian refugees. "One cannot — even if there are decades between them — kill millions of Jews so you can bring millions of their worst enemies in their place," he said.

He was "fed-up" with the #MeToo Movement

The designer did not mince words when asked about his thoughts on Harvey Weinstein and the rise of the #MeToo movement in an interview with fashion publication Numéro in 2018. The designer said he was "fed up" and skeptical of accusations from "starlets who have taken 20 years to remember what happened."

He doubled down on his stance, saying that models who "don't want your pants pulled about" should choose another profession. "Join a nunnery, there'll always be a place for you in the convent. They're recruiting even," he said.

He spoke in favor of the fur industry

In 2015, Lagerfeld produced Fendi's first couture show, Haute Fourrure, and shared his stance on the fur for the fashion industry in an interview with the New York Times.

"For me, as long as people eat meat and wear leather, I don't get the message," he said. "It's very easy to say no fur, no fur, no fur, but it's an industry. Who will pay for all the unemployment of the people if you suppress the industry of the fur?"

He spoke out against gay marriage and same-sex adoption

In 2016, Lagerfeld said he was against gay marriage for "one simple reason."

"In the 60's, they all said we had the right to the difference. And now, suddenly, they want a bourgeois life," Lagerfeld told Vice. "For me, it's difficult to imagine — one of the papas at work and the other at home with the baby. How would that be for the baby? I don't know. I see more lesbians married with babies than I see boys married with babies. And I also believe more in the relationship between mother and child than in that between father and child."

The Lagerfeld caricature

Lagerfeld is no longer here to atone — or defend — remarks but he previously said that he is like a "caricature" of himself, comparing his persona to that of a "mask" he always wears. "For me, the Carnival of Venice lasts all year long," said Lagerfeld.

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